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Cure snoring: don't waste your breath

Most of us are taking in far too much air every day and this can be detrimental to our well-being, David Polkinghorne writes.

'Yes, I'm dead.'' The missus almost jumped out of her skin with fright, but not as much as if I hadn't answered. It was the silence that worried her.

For some reason I'd just woken up as she reached out a tentative hand to me in the middle of the night.

I knew what she was thinking because she'd told me previously - in between snoring up a storm, sometimes I stop breathing altogether.

I didn't really believe her and my wisecrack was the result.

Apparently snoring is a factor in 33 per cent of divorces (wisecracking husbands possibly make up the other 67 per cent).

Hi, my name is David and I'm a snorer and it's been 15 days since I last snored.

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I no longer stop breathing - known as sleep apnoea - and the missus doesn't get woken up by the tiles rattling to the tune of my thunderous opera.

It's been a remarkable turnaround in a few short weeks since Relax editor, Karen Hardy, sent around an email asking for a human guinea pig.

Tess Graham had written a book, called Relief From Snoring and Sleep Apnoea, and it was my nasal passages' job to put both her and her book through their paces.

It's funny how things turn out. Following my ''dead'' wisecrack, the missus convinced me to head to the doctor to get some help.

I've snored since I was 10 and been tired for as long as I can remember. Yawning is my middle name.

Every morning my throat was as dry as a Woody Allen movie and I'd repeatedly wake up dripping in sweat.

But my local doctor said my throat wasn't fat enough to have sleep apnoea and a blood test told him my drowsiness would be fixed by B12 injections.

That was two years ago and nothing had changed.

Then I met Graham.

'Breathing zealot'

It sounds like the beginning of a love story and my partner now calls me a ''breathing zealot'' but the improvement was remarkable after just one night.

No sweat, no dry throat and feeling great.

I headed around to Graham's house for an interview, expecting to have electrodes stuck to my temples and whiz-bang machines beep and gurgle at me until they told me what was wrong.

But all she did was take my pulse and secretly take note of my breathing - how deep and how many breaths every minute. Then Graham dropped a bombshell - I was an oxygen thief.

I was breathing twice as much air as I needed and because I wasn't using my nose it was drying out my mouth at night.

The sweating was caused by all the extra work I was doing - instead of enjoying a nice peaceful night's sleep all my heavy breathing was equivalent to going for a jog.

I returned the favour and watched Graham.

During a 90-minute interview I didn't notice her breathing once - no yawns, no deep breaths and no chest movement at all.

Either she's a vampire or her breathing is so gentle it's completely undetectable.

It's the lofty standard to which I now aim. Ironically, breathing less has been a breath of fresh air.

I was gulping down 16 big breaths every minute when I only needed half that number of smaller ones.

''And you're exactly average of the last 5000 people I've seen,'' Graham told me.

''So you're breathing double the normal rate now, you're breathing double the normal rate when you're asleep.''

It seemed counter-intuitive. Everywhere you go people tell you to take nice deep breaths - sport, doctors, yoga, meditation, they all say the same.

But this crazy idea has definitely improved my sleep - something the doctor couldn't manage.

The book is a self-help guide and it first explains the whys and wherefores of sleep disorders before getting into the nitty gritty of how to get better.

It takes you step-by-step through how to change your breathing - only breathe through your nose, improve your posture, use only your diaphragm and not your chest, and it has exercises to reprogram your brain to a new habit.

But you have to do it gradually. If you just suddenly halve your breathing you feel like you're drowning.

Modern pandemic

About 40 per cent of adults snore. It's a pandemic caused by the modern world - stress, diet, posture and ignorance have most of the planet gulping down air like it's our last breath.

''Anything that's stressful will lift your breathing rate up … diet [does as well],'' Graham says.

''We were not designed to be eating so much sugar in our diet … it's also the high carbohydrate, starch diet.''

But where did she get her crazy ideas of breathing less? How does she know the answers when the family doctor clearly had no idea?

Graham was a qualified physiotherapist and started researching because two of her three kids were chronic asthmatics.

Seven years later and she had the answer - the human race had forgotten how to breathe.

It not only cured their asthma but she's found it can help sleeping disorders as well.

She changes the way you breathe during the day to ensure you're breathing correctly at night.

It's kind of like footballers practising their kicking over and over again so when they're in the heat of battle it happens automatically.

It's a logical approach that's been overlooked by the medical fraternity, which only looks at what happens during the night.

They hook you up to fandangled machines with tubes that force you to breathe correctly when you're asleep, but it does nothing to change the way you breathe when you're awake.

''The brain's got a breathe centre and when you've been chronically over-breathing for a long time you've changed the setting of it … you're not doing it on purpose, that's what you're now programmed to do,'' Graham says.

Once you've learnt how to breathe properly then you need to learn how to do it in everyday life, while talking, walking, running and eating.

When you're not used to solely breathing through your nose, doing it while you're running flat out will also leave you gasping for air.

Then Graham dropped another bombshell - better breathing can lead to better performance in the sporting arena.

As a sports freak, this was when my ears really pricked up. Finally I had an excuse for being a hack - my breathing was holding me back.

The only problem was, most athletes don't know how to breathe either, so they're also performing below their potential.

About 10 years ago, when Matthew Elliott was coach, a couple of Canberra Raiders went to Graham for help.

She spends 90 minutes a day with patients, five days in a row, and the book is trying to reproduce that.

For the Raiders players, the transformation was remarkable.

''Two of the Raiders came to see me … did the work, went back and played so well next weekend that their physiotherapist and coach wondered what drugs they were on because the turnaround was so fast … and that's how I ended up with the whole first-grade team.''

It's amazing how big an effect something as simple as breathing can have. And it's amazing how easy it is to fix.

I haven't progressed as quickly as I'd have liked - mainly because I don't do enough practice - but I still feel like I've come a long way.

The tiles sit safely at night knowing they, too, can have a restful night and the missus is happier as well - although she's started to get sick of the nagging about her terrible breathing.

What a snore

■ Snoring plays a part in 30 per cent of divorces.

■ 40 per cent of adults snore.

■ 60 per cent of over-40s snore.

■ 25 per cent of children snore.

■ We only need eight to 12 breaths a minute.

■ Less than 10 per cent of us breathes correctly.

■ In the 1970s, people breathed five litres of air a minute, now we breathe about 12 litres a minute.

Good breathing

Only use the nose.

Use the diaphragm.

Upright posture.

Don't drink alcohol or eat before bed.

Bad breathing

Using the mouth.

Using the chest.

Slouched posture.

Lots of yawning and sighing.

Relief From Snoring and Sleep Apnoea, by Tess Graham, is available through all good book stores or online at breatheability.com. $29.95. Book plus instructional CD: $74.95.