Imbalanced Breathing During Sleep

Since breathing is an involuntary process (most of the time, we breathe without consciously making a choice to breathe), we can take this intricate process for granted. Have you considered everything that needs to happen in order to take a breath? Have you thought about how breathing 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 enter the trachea, the tongue has to be in place and not blocking the passageway, or the pharynx. If any of this is blocked, or does not occur properly in any way, blood oxygen levels drop, causing the person to wake up or have shallow sleep.

How Kapha can Impact this Process

During normal sleep, the breathing process relies more heavily on the diaphragm and the muscles of the chest wall, and less on the muscles of the upper airway. In other words, the breath is more in the belly, much like a child’s breath. As we age, we rely more on the muscles of the upper airway to facilitate the breath.1 This may be due to a number of things related to  vata and pitta and associated stress imbalances. One of the effects of stress is elevated cortisol, which creates more chest breathing as opposed to abdominal breathing.2 But let us look deeper at how kapha can contribute to imbalanced breathing as well.

  • The passage of the upper airway is narrow, 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. Think of kapha as more tissue.
  • In REM sleep, or deep sleep, the intercostal muscles give less assistance to the breathing process, making the breath rely heavily on the diaphragm for a good, deep breath. If there is excessive fat in the abdomen, particularly around the diaphragm, this process becomes very difficult. The result is an inefficient exchange of gases, which leads to a drop in blood oxygen levels and an increase in carbon dioxide levels, creating more periods of wakefulness.1

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

Why Is This Important?

Sleep is a basic necessity for health and well-being. Without the heaviness and inertia (tamas) that sleep provides, the body is in a perpetually 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-digest) 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, loneliness
  • Poor daytime functioning and cognition
  • Cardiovascular imbalances
  • Blood glucose imbalances
  • Substance abuse
  • A number of neurological and brain disorders

How to Recognize the Imbalance

Look for these signs and symptoms in your clients and customers to home in on this issue. It is exceedingly common in our society for kapha imbalance to be the cause of sleep issues.

  • Are they sleepy during the daytime? This is often the biggest clue.
  • Are they obese or have a large abdomen or neck?
  • Do they have other kapha complaints, such as congestion? 
  • 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. Read more about the kapha approach to sleep imbalances here