Too many e-mails, phone calls bad for your health?

Did you know that researchers at Microsoft have observed that when most people begin to answer an e-mail, they hold their breath for just a split second?

That’s not a big deal if you are only answering one e-mail. But what if e-mail comes at you at the rate of dozens of messages per hour? Sound like you?

Did you know that when most people talk on their cell phones, they hyperventilate slightly?

No big deal if it’s a single, brief conversation. But what if it’s several longer conversations per hour? Does it matter?

Maybe. Most folks know they breathe to obtain oxygen and get rid of carbon dioxide. But the carbon dioxide part is actually a little more complicated than that.

Carbon dioxide, a base, is a waste product of cellular metabolism. Your cells also make another waste product called hydrogen ion, and it’s an acid. Hydrogen ion is eliminated from the body by way of the kidneys and carbon dioxide by way of the lungs.

These two compounds react together in the blood stream and form a third compound called carbonic acid. It can be turned into either hydrogen ion or carbon dioxide depending on how much of each compound is available.

This reaction maintains the body at a more or less neutral pH.So carbonic acid acts a little like the fulcrum on a teeter-totter. If you make more acid, it is neutralized by the base, and the other way around. If there is too much hydrogen ion, the body becomes acidic and feelings of nausea or headache may ensue. This can be corrected by slower breathing or breathing into a paper sack.

Both activities build up carbon dioxide in the blood stream, neutralizing the acid. If there is too much carbon dioxide, the body becomes basic and you don’t feel well then either. But by breathing faster or eliminating hydrogen ion through the urine, the body moves back into balance.

So carbon dioxide and hydrogen ion can alter your breathing rate, but your breathing rate can alter your concentration of carbon dioxide and hydrogen ion as well.

A common example of this imbalance might occur when some people go to higher elevations on outings. They breathe a little faster and shallower to get more oxygen in the thinner air, but that eliminates more carbon dioxide.  So throughout the day they become more acidic because they can’t neutralize the hydrogen ion as well. They come home early with a headache and a sick stomach.

These problems could have been avoided by drinking extra fluids and urinating more frequently. Or they could have worn a paper sack over their head all day.

So could holding your breath frequently throughout the day cause your body to produce too much carbon dioxide?

Could hyperventilating on the phone cause an imbalance of carbon dioxide so that you became a little more acidic?

Here’s the clincher.

When blood pH is not balanced, it triggers a stress response in the body that causes the liver to release glucose and cholesterol to the blood stream. The heart rate quickens, and the adrenal gland releases adrenalin and other stress-related hormones.

Even slightly elevated levels of glucose, cholesterol, adrenalin or the corticoid hormones can cause significant health problems such as elevated blood pressure, suppressed immune responses and lower sensitivity to insulin.

Slight variations in breathing patterns throughout the day might contribute to an elevated stress- response in people.

Thus we could find ourselves sitting at our desks, physically inactive, but with our bodies on red alert because of subtle alterations in our breathing, as we respond to phone messages and e-mails.

The really down side of all this is that since I learned about how technology alters breathing, I find it nearly impossible to breathe normally when I log into my e-mails or answer the phone.

Maybe even reading this column is harmful to your health.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College.


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