Those of us who have experienced this awful sensation call it "air hunger" because you're starving for a satisfying breath of air, despite getting enough oxygen. It is a form of hyperventilation and/or dyspnea, just not the way doctors think of those. They don't understand that it is a complex issue.
I lived with this for too long. It started almost four years ago and only resolved this past summer, with some occasional reprisals. It hasn't returned to as bad as it was the spring of 2016, however. I don't have asthma. In fact, I did see a pulmonologist, who gave me an inhaler (my mother has asthma and her mother had COPD, but I don't)... which did NOTHING for the air hunger. I got better results from taking Pyridoxine aka B6, but that wasn't the solution to the air hunger.
Causes of Air Hunger:
After trying dozens of diet changes and supplements, even that inhaler, I finally realized that there is something in the body that is dysfunctional to prevent the brain from registering oxygen or maybe that oxygen didn't get into brain or the CNS (central nervous system) cells. All my blood work would be all right or perfect and my heart has been perfectly healthy too. This past spring, I helped on my family's farm and that air hunger sensation finally disappeared, except on occasions when I did something that brought it back. Those returns of the air hunger made me look more closely at what had changed. I've come to realize that the following causes contribute to this awful feeling, and they all tie together:
- The endocrine system is one contributing factor. A variety of hormones (I'm looking at you, thyroid and adrenals) carry substances (enzymes, oxygen, electrolytes, etc.) into and out of our cells so they can function. If something is off there, things go wrong, including air hunger.
- Another is nutrient deficiencies. B vitamins, are necessary components for nerve function. B6-B9-B12 in particular are the nervous system necessities. The others or even activated B's can actually make air hunger worse if you're not ready for them; at least, they did for me. Electrolyte imbalances are another contributing nutrient factor to consider; deficiencies in any or all of the bodies electrolytes can throw everything off--magnesium, zinc, potassium, sodium, chloride.
- A third missing piece to this puzzle is the gut. Yes, the gut. The gut is our second brain, producing most of the body's serotonin. It also affects the endocrine system and the absorption of nutrients (see #1 & 2 above). I've noticed that most probiotics cause me to return to having the air hunger sensation and jittery/speedy feeling. This was the final missing piece for me and probably the start of this journey. When the gut flora are unbalanced, it can upset the whole system. My air hunger problems started after a few months of powerful probiotics. They probably healed my gut but then started leading to other sensitivities. It took years of avoiding probiotics and probiotic foods and returning to a mostly "normal" diet (reduced sugars, grains, dairy but otherwise most foods included) to decrease the air hunger sensation and definitely no fermented foods. I came across this discovery when retesting probiotics--the air hunger and anxiety came right back after having been eliminated and nothing else had changed. I tested with limited probiotics and finally came down to one. The only probiotic I can tolerate is a single strain found in Align, and then only for a few days at a time. I don't tolerate lactobacilli or even other strains of bifido very well. Something in probiotics brings back the air hunger, along with lactate and/or histamine issues.
- Other underlying health issues. Some other health issues, such as cancer, can cause a sense of dyspnea, but that's not the only cause. I'm not sure if this is the same sensation I've experienced, anyway. In my case, I had to finally have my malfunctioning gallbladder removed before I could begin to really heal my adrenals, thyroid, and gut and recover from nutrient deficiencies.
- Pinched nerves. I've noticed that if I sleep "wrong" (for me), the air hunger can be worse. I'm adding this because I've remembered now that I started seeing a new chiropractor who showed me the subluxated atlas I have supporting my skull and the whiplash and arthritis in my neck (probably related to my horse activities, especially a major head injury when I was a teen). From what I could find about the atlas (first cervical vertebrae), this could affect a LOT of nerves.
Overcoming Air Hunger:
There are a few other tips I have for anyone who might be experiencing this horrible sensation. Doctors don't get it, and even the integrative medicine specialists don't understand. They'll suggest a number of treatments, and I think I've tried them all. Here are my tips, from my experience, but I'm not a medical specialist, so take this as advisement to your own medical professional:
1) Avoid restrictive diets as much as possible. That being said, however, eliminating foods that cause inflammation isn't a bad thing; it probably won't affect the air hunger but will affect your gut bacteria and probably lead you to trying probiotics, both of which which can lead to the air hunger. Autoimmune protocol is good for finding those foods, but add foods back as soon as possible or you risk other problems, like oral intolerance. Restrictive diets can also lead to malnutrition, which contributes to air hunger.
- If you do try a restrictive diet, reintroductions can be confusing. Reintroducing foods can cause some issues, because your gut needs to adjust to digesting those things again. Symptoms will pass if you go slow and gentle. I find that a reaction usually happens within 24 hours, but if your gut moves slower than mine, it can take longer. That's why reintroductions need to happen while eating a little of a certain food every day for a few days at a time. Just remember that the first day you notice a reaction is from the reintroduced food moving throughout your gut for the first time. If, after a few days of symptoms starting, they don't decrease, remove that food, let things settle, and try again or move onto the next food. It's better to do this with whole foods only. Always read labels on packaged foods--any reaction you may experience could be from the minor ingredients, which makes reintroductions confusing. (For example, I can tolerate plain oatmeal but not some granolas.)
- Remember that probiotics can have strains that you don't tolerate. If you can't eliminate lactate or have trouble breaking down histamines, be especially careful with fermented foods and probiotics. This is why I recommend avoiding them altogether.
- Air hunger can both cause and be caused by anxiety. Caffeine can lead to anxiety or directly lead to air hunger, which can then lead to anxiety. Honestly, once you realize what's going on with the air hunger, you may quit having anxiety attacks of this nature because you'll realize what's going on and be ready to cope. I learned to deal with it and my anxiety turned into frustration. (That being said, anxiety can also be caused by other dietary/gut, nutrient, and/or endocrine issues, which all fits into what I said in the first part of this post.)
- As an example from my own experience, I needed B vitamins (we all do, every day, because they are water soluble and flush out of our bodies), but until I got the "good" bugs out of my gut that were causing the jittery speedy feeling with the air hunger, I couldn't tolerate them. And it was at about the time the air hunger started that a naturopath saw my MTHFR homozygous status and and told me to take methylfolate. At first, I felt great, but within a week, I started having problems; however, all the online information I found suggested I just had to push through it to get better, so I continued. Nothing I found explained that my COMT status could be the root of problems with methyl B's rather than just having to let my body adjust--my body wouldn't adjust. It took me a long time to find an explanation that made sense and, through experimentation, to learn that I have to be very careful with activated B vitamins. These can be more detrimental than beneficial to me. (Like the B9 issues, I also do better with Pyrodoxine HCL than with Pyridoxal-5-Phosphate (P-5-P), the active form of B6.) That methylfolate was the straw that broke the camels back after months of trusting the wrong probiotics as the start of the air hunger and sleep issues I've had since.
- I've learned that I also need to pulse my supplements by listening to what my body needs on any given day. This takes practice and experimentation, and you may need to keep a journal of diet, exercise, supplements, and symptoms, including times, until you get a feel for what your body is telling you.
I'm lucky to get more than 3-4 hours a night, but I'm also in my mid-40's and female, so not unexpected. Nevertheless, I can function quite well most of the time as long as I at least stay in bed and try to sleep the rest of the night. The wrong probiotics or diet can reduce my sleep also (e.g. - no meat for me and no high-histamine foods after lunch, at least for now). It's all intertwined, which is what made figuring out the root so darn difficult.
Here are some tips from the pros and from my own experience for improving your sleep:
- Avoid eating two hours before bed. This reduces the chance of acid reflux or bile reflux, either of which can disrupt sleep.
- Avoid heavy evening meals for the same reasons stated above.
- Exercise early in the day, not the evening -- exercise raises cortisol for a time, which will make it more difficult to fall asleep. You want your evening cortisol to be at the lowest. Try exercising first thing in the morning to boost morning cortisol, when cortisol levels should be highest to give you the energy to get through the day. (Cortisol is not a dirty word but is a necessary hormone for your body to function correctly. "Refined sugar" is the dirty word, or phrase for the grammar nazis.)
- Avoid digital devices at least an hour before bed. The blue light of screens can reduce melatonin levels.
- Avoid caffeine after noon, and avoid it completely, if you have trouble falling asleep or adrenal issues.
- Avoid alcohol in the evening. It may make you drowsy, but it can cause middle of the night waking. It also is high in histamines, which act on neurotransmitters and can stimulate your brain and lead to an overactive mind causing wakefulness.
- Drink plenty of water, but not at bedtime. Your body needs water to process toxins, especially during the healing at night, but you also don't want to have to wake up to go to the bathroom and you don't want to dilute electrolytes too much. If you don't have to avoid salt, you can also try a pinch of sea salt at bedtime. I've found that this can be helpful with sleep, at least sometimes. (It's not a sure thing.)
- Avoid sitting up or getting up in the middle of the night. Activity will bring on wakefulness, which will lead to trouble falling back to sleep. (Ties into avoiding bathroom visits in the middle of the night.)
- Be sure to get plenty of B6-B9-B12 early in the day. These three B's help promote restful sleep. Just don't take too much (learn your dose). I find that I have to avoid supplementing the other B's or to minimize them as much as possible, because B1, B2, B5, and B7 tend to overstimulate me. Natural food sources are tolerable for me but no more. They're great for my creativity, but I can't fall asleep at night, much less stay asleep. Then it becomes a Lunesta night, and I try to avoid sleep meds as much as possible.
- If you can tolerate it, try magnesium citrate before bed. I recommend Calm, which is the one that most often works for me. (Magnesium tends to overstimulate me half the time--my body is weird.)
- Integrated medicine specialists will often also recommend L-theanine or GABA. I've had no results from these, but they may work for you.
- Be sure your iron/ferritin levels are optimized. Low iron and/or ferritin can affect sleep, but high iron can be fatal, so follow the advise of a medical professional.
- Get your thyroid and adrenals checked. Anything off in these can make sleep more difficult and can also cause air hunger in themselves, as touched on above.
I've been working to resolve this for four years with a lot of wrong turns trying to get rid of air hunger, some of those mistakes by "medical professionals". At other times I thought that I had resolved it only to have it return. It's only been in the last few months that I finally realized that there wasn't just one piece out of place, but several. It's a puzzle, but one that is unique to every individual. It can be very frustrating until you have time to see the pattern emerge. I think I finally have, which is why I'm sharing it now.
I hope that this can help someone out there. I've done a lot of searching and reading of other people's experiences with air hunger in the quest for a resolution to my own and never found the right answer, because it is a complex issue; hence all my experimentation. There were suggestions of breathing techniques, but that didn't help me. For some, controlled breathing might work, but for me, it only made me feel worse. You'll have to work with a medical professional to get to the root or roots of your own issue.
You have my sincere best wishes to resolve your air hunger, but hang in there and keep believing. You can overcome this, but it may require some lifestyle changes, experimentation, and time. (Remember, low and slow in everything. Run from any medical practitioner who wants you to take large amounts of supplements, and don't take supplements at their full strength--open capsules with powders and cut/break tablets to reduce the potency until you find what's right for you.)