For many years, people have been conditioned to believe that carbon dioxide is bad for the body. While they tend to prioritize breathing exercises that help increase oxygen intake and strengthen the lungs, there are actually many benefits to gain from increasing CO2 tolerance.
If you’re curious to know how increasing your CO2 tolerance can help you, this article covers all of the following topics:
Let’s start by covering what exactly CO2 tolerance is and why it can actually be good for you.
If you’re also wondering if breathwork is safe, check out this guide to learn everything you need to know.
Carbon dioxide tolerance is the body’s ability to handle a temporary imbalance of CO2 and oxygen. The higher your tolerance is, the longer you’ll be able to hold your breath. Like breathwork, training to increase CO2 tolerance has gained popularity for its ability to improve physical and mental health.
It’s true that having a large amount of CO2 in the body is poisonous. However, having a small amount is both essential and beneficial, as it notifies the brain of the need to breathe. However, by increasing your CO2 tolerance, you can temporarily hold your breath for longer and maintain slow, deep breathing during periods of high stress while avoiding hyperventilation. We’ll discuss examples of benefits of this in the following section.
Besides the obvious, there are many specific benefits of building up your tolerance. Below are some of the things that it can help with.
One of the biggest issues triggered by shallow breathing is anxiety. Since CO2 is able to help maintain a consistent breathing pattern, having a higher tolerance can actually help reduce anxiety. Research conducted by HHP-Foundation found that those with a higher CO2 tolerance had lower in-the-moment anxiety. This suggests that building up your CO2 tolerance for anxiety can help you maintain a sense of calm during everyday life.
CO2 tolerance and running are a winning combination, since the former has been proven to be beneficial for endurance athletes. This is because the more CO2 they can tolerate, the slower their heart rates will remain. Running with a low tolerance causes the heart to beat quickly, which will lead to feeling winded faster. Being able to tolerate more carbon dioxide means that your heart will continue to beat slowly, allowing you to increase your pace for a longer period of time.
Freediving can be an adventurous experience, but the need to breathe can shorten the amount of time someone can stay underwater. Building up your tolerance to carbon dioxide will help you to hold your breath for longer, meaning you can stay underwater for a longer period of time before needing to resurface to breathe. This is why CO2 tolerance training has become a key practice for freedivers.
In addition to reducing anxiety, having a higher tolerance has been proven to help manage symptoms of depression. Carbon dioxide is able to calm the nervous system, allowing one to maintain a relaxed state and experience more positive emotions. This helps those experiencing depression work towards improving their mood.
CO2 is also great at reducing inflammation throughout the body. Building a higher tolerance allows you to hold onto carbon dioxide for longer. This means that there’s more of it available to travel throughout your body and help relieve the inflammation.
Being able to tolerate CO2 can also help you produce more physical and mental energy. As you retain more CO2, it helps the mitochondria in your cells to multiply, which increases the amount of energy you have to burn off. This is great for anyone with an active lifestyle or who regularly needs to focus intensely on their work.
If you’re curious to know how well you currently tolerate CO2, there is a simple test you can take. Follow the steps for the CO2 Tolerance Test below and compare yourself to the results that follow.
>80 seconds: Elite – an advanced pulmonary adaptation with excellent breathing control and stress control.
60-80 seconds: Advanced – a healthy pulmonary system with good breathing control and fairly good stress control.
40-60 seconds: Intermediate – likelihood of improving quickly with additional tolerance training.
20-40 seconds: Average – experiencing moderate to high stress/anxiety state; breathing pattern needs to be improved.
<20 seconds: Poor – very high levels of anxiety and stress sensitivity with poor pulmonary capacity and a possibility of mechanical restriction.
If your current level of tolerance has you wanting to improve, carbon dioxide tolerance training is an option. Here is everything you need to know about how to make use of tolerance training.
Carbon dioxide tolerance training involves the use of different techniques that gradually increase one’s ability to hold their breath for longer periods of time. For beginners, it’s best to focus on static apnea training, which is the simplest method and provides quick results for those who are dedicated to training. This is done through the use of static tables, which we’ll explain below.
As a precaution, please practice your training with others nearby in case you begin to experience hypoxia or blackout.
Static CO2 tolerance tables are used to guide trainees through a simple breath-holding exercise. The goal of these tables is to decrease the amount of time spent resting between periods of holding one’s breath. This will improve one’s ability to withhold a higher level of carbon dioxide.
When creating your own CO2 table, it’s important that the breath-holding time does not exceed 50% of your personal best amount of time spent holding your breath. Also, one session should not exceed 8 cycles.
For example, here is a static table for someone with a personal best of 3 minutes:
If carbon dioxide tolerance training isn’t for you, you’re probably wondering how to increase CO2 tolerance. These techniques can help you increase CO2 tolerance whether you’re a runner, freediver, or just someone looking to improve their respiratory health.
Box breathing is also known as square breathing, 4-4-4-4 breathing, or sama vritti. It’s a breathwork technique that involves inhaling, pausing, exhaling, and pausing again for equal amounts of time. This breathing exercise is one of the easiest to do and offers a variety of benefits, including stress relief. Those looking to improve their tolerance will benefit from this exercise, since it incorporates holding the breath.
How to do it:
Best suited for: Everyone from athletes to those with high-stress jobs.
Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing or abdominal breathing, is the easiest and most basic form of breathwork. It's a deep breathing exercise that involves breathing in through the nose as you expand your stomach, and then slowly exhaling through the mouth. This makes use of the abdominal muscles and helps establish proper breathing patterns.
How to do it:
Best suited for: All athletes, and anyone who wants to improve their breathing.
Numbered breath is sometimes also known as counting breath. It’s a breathwork exercise that is done by increasing the length of exhales, holds, and inhales by one count with each repetition. This is an exercise that's just as great for mindfulness as it is for breath control. It's also considered another relatively easy exercise that gives the lungs a workout.
How to do it:
Best suited for: Anyone who needs to correct their breathing.
The nose unblocking exercise is a breath-holding technique that is typically done to relieve nasal congestion. Since it involves holding the breath while pinching the nose, it also serves as a great way to build CO2 tolerance. This also means this exercise is ideal for anyone who might need to increase the level of CO2 in their body as a result of hyperventilation or breathing through the mouth.
How to do it:
Best suited for: Endurance athletes, or anyone with asthma or other nasal issues.
Opting to breathe through your nose with your mouth closed throughout the day, while asleep, or during training is another great way to build up your tolerance. Breathing through the mouth can cause a reduction in the CO2 levels in the body, so nasal breathing can help to correct this. In general, nasal breathing is also ideal in order to establish a proper breathing rhythm.
How to do it:
Best suited for: Endurance athletes or anyone with breathing difficulties.
The Buteyko Method is a breathwork technique that consists of various breath-holding exercises. Buteyko Breathing is typically done in order to improve lung function or address general health concerns. The emphasis placed on the ability to hold the breath also allows for building up a tolerance to CO2.
How to do it:
These are examples of beginner’s exercises. However, the Buteyko Method is a breathwork technique that consists of a variety of other exercises that can be learned through workshops and training. If you want to see an example of what another Buteyko Breath exercise might look like, watch this video on guided breathwork for controlled relaxation.
Best suited for: Swimmers and freedivers, or anyone with breathing difficulties.
Alternate nostril breathing, also known as anulom vilom, is a breathwork technique that involves breath control using the nostrils. It works by breathing in through one nostril and breathing out the other on a repeated cycle. This specific technique behind this exercise is used to improve respiratory function and endurance, while also building up a tolerance to CO2.
How to do it:
Best suited for: All athletes, and anyone wanting to relax.
Pursed lip breathing is a breathwork technique that is used to slow one's breathing. It can be easily done by simply inhaling through the nose and exhaling through pursed lips. It's used primarily to improve lung function, but can contribute to a higher tolerance of CO2 as it corrects breathing issues.
How to do it:
Best suited for: Endurance athletes, and anyone with breathing difficulties.
The active breath-hold exercise is another breathing exercise that can help build up tolerance to CO2. This is done by altering inhales and exhales between the nose and mouth. Practicing this technique allows you to train yourself to prefer breathing through the nose. It also helps you maintain more carbon dioxide.
How to do it:
Best suited for: All athletes.
Want to learn more? These resources can provide you with additional information:
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