Imbalanced Breathing During Sleep | Banyan Botanicals

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Imbalanced Breathing During Sleep

A Manifestation of Kapha Impacting Sleep

posted in Respiratory System

Since breathing is an involuntary process (meaning we breathe without consciously making a choice to breathe), we take this intricate process for granted. Have you considered everything that needs to go correctly in order to take a breath? Have you thought about how this may impact your or your clients’ and customers’ sleep?

The breath starts with the diaphragm. Once the phrenic nerve stimulates the muscle, the diaphragm lowers, creating negative pressure between the lungs and the outside air. This draws air into the lungs. As the air passes through the nose or mouth, it makes its way through the throat, past the soft palate and the uvula. To go into the trachea, the tongue has to be in place and not blocking the passageway. If any of this is blocked, or does not occur properly in any way, oxygen levels drop in the blood stream, making the person wake up, or have more shallow sleep.

How Kapha can Impact this Process

During normal sleep, the breathing process relies more heavily on the diaphragm and chest wall muscles due to less use of the upper airway muscles. In other words, the breath is more in the belly, much like a child’s breath. As we age, we rely more on the upper airway muscles to facilitate the breath.1 This may be due to a number of things, such as vata and pitta and associated stress imbalances (where cortisol creates more chest breathing as opposed to abdominal breathing2). But let us look deeper at how kapha can contribute to the process.


Think of kapha as more tissue.

  • The upper airways are naturally more lax, and hence the upper airway passage is a bit narrower, even in healthy individuals. Add more soft tissue to the neck area and a larger tongue and soft palate, and you have even greater narrowing, leading to less efficient airflow to the lungs.1
  • In REM sleep, or deep sleep, there is even loss of intercostal muscle assistance to the breathing process, making the breath rely heavily on the diaphragm for a good, deep breath. If there is a lot of fat in the abdomen, particularly around the diaphragm, this process becomes very difficult. The result is a drop in oxygen levels in the blood and an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the blood, creating more periods of wakefulness.1


This second point is very interesting and is rarely looked at. The way most people treat imbalanced breathing during sleep is through machines that create positive pressure (essentially forces the airways open and forces air in). While this certainly does help, the root of the problem in kapha imbalanced individuals (creating sluggish movement of muscles, particularly of the diaphragm) remains. If anything, the muscles of the entire tract become weaker, creating a dependency on the machines.

Why is This Important?

Sleep is a basic necessity in life. Without the heaviness and inertia (tamas) that sleep provides, the body is in a perpetual active (rajas) state. In allopathic medicine, we think of it as constant activation of the sympathetic (fight or flight) nervous system, as opposed to the parasympathetic (rest and relax) nervous system. This is a very depleting process and can lead to a number of problems, including, but not limited to, the following:3

  • Anxiety, depression
  • Poor daytime functioning and cognition
  • Cardiovascular diseases, including strokes, elevated blood pressure, and heart attacks
  • Diabetes
  • Substance abuse
  • A number of neurological and brain disorders

How to Recognize the Imbalance

Look for these signs and symptoms to hone in on this issue in your clients and customers. Be highly cognizant of the potential for a kapha imbalance causing sleep issues, as it is extremely common in our society.

  • Are they sleepy during the daytime? This is often the biggest clue.
  • Are they obese or have a large abdomen or neck?4
  • Do they have other kapha complaints, such as congestion?4
  • Does their spouse or partner complain of snoring, noisy breathing, or gurgling during sleep?4
  • Do they wake up suddenly with a sensation of choking?
  • Are they having more difficulty with concentration?


The approach to a kapha sleep imbalance can be quite different from vata sleep difficulties or other sleep imbalances. The next part of this series will look more at the kapha approach.


1 M Safwan Badr. Pathophysiology of obstructive sleep apnea in adults. UpToDate, accessed September 30, 2015,

2 “Relaxation techniques: Breath control helps quell errant stress response,” Harvard Health Publications Harvard Medical School,” September 30, 2015,

3 Michael Bonnet and Donna Arand, “Overview of insomnia,” UpToDate, accessed September 30, 2015,

4 Vasant Lad, Ayurvedic Perspectives on Selected Pathologies (Albuquerque, NM: The Ayurvedic Press, 2012), pp. 229