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Hypothyroidism and Air Hunger

Learn why hypothyroidism can make you feel starved for air, and what you can do to relieve this feeling.
Hypothyroidism and Air Hunger
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Air hunger is a term used to describe the sensation of not getting enough air or feeling breathless even when there is no physical restriction to breathing. It is often associated with various respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD, but did you know it can also be linked to hypothyroidism? Ahead, a look at the connection and why you can feel breathless and starved for air when you’re hypothyroid.

What is air hunger, and what are its symptoms?

Air hunger, also known as dyspnea or shortness of breath, is characterized by the feeling of being unable to catch your breath or take in enough air. It’s most commonly a symptom of various underlying medical conditions, such as respiratory problems, allergies, heart disease, lung diseases, or anxiety. It can also occur at high altitudes.

Symptoms of air hunger include:

  • shortness of breath after exertion
  • labored breathing
  • tightness in the chest
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • feelings of being smothered or suffocated
  • heart palpitations
  • wheezing
  • dizziness
  • coughing
  • frequent yawning to take in air

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Air hunger and hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism is a condition characterized by an underactive thyroid gland, which is responsible for producing hormones that regulate metabolism and energy levels. When the thyroid gland is not functioning properly, it can affect various bodily functions, including respiration and breathing.

One possible explanation for air hunger in individuals with hypothyroidism is reduced respiratory drive. Thyroid hormones play a crucial role in maintaining the proper function of the respiratory center in your brain, which controls your rate and depth of breathing. When thyroid hormone levels are low, your respiratory center may be affected, leading to a decreased drive to breathe and the sensation of air hunger.

Furthermore, hypothyroidism can also contribute to muscle weakness, including the muscles involved in respiration. Weak respiratory muscles can make it harder for you to breathe effectively, resulting in the feeling of breathlessness or air hunger.

In addition, hypothyroidism can cause other symptoms that may indirectly contribute to air hunger. Fatigue, weight gain, and reduced exercise tolerance are common symptoms of hypothyroidism. These factors can lead to a sedentary lifestyle and decreased physical activity, which in turn can affect your respiratory fitness and make you more prone to experiencing air hunger.

Treating hypothyroidism to resolve air hunger

The good news is that if your air hunger is thyroid-related, optimally treating your underlying hypothyroidism with thyroid hormone replacement medication can help alleviate the symptoms of breathlessness. As your thyroid hormone levels normalize, the respiratory center in your brain can function optimally, improving the drive to breathe. Addressing muscle weakness and other symptoms associated with hypothyroidism can also contribute to better respiratory function.

How to relieve air hunger

If you are experiencing thyroid-related air hunger or shortness of breath, there are also several things you can do in the moment to help alleviate the symptoms.

Air hunger is considered a primal feeling, and, according to research, the sensation activates brain areas associated with anxiety and fear, which can make the sensation of breathlessness more acute.

First, make sure that you avoid triggers that may exacerbate your air hunger, such as smoke, allergens, or strenuous physical activity. Then, start by finding a comfortable resting position that allows you to breathe more easily, such as sitting upright with your back supported.

You can use breathing techniques to calm your nervous system, avoid worsening the breathless sensation, and help alleviate the air hunger-related anxiety.

Pursed lip breathing is a breathing technique that involves inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling slowly through pursed lips. It is commonly used as a relaxation technique to help control and regulate breathing during times of stress or anxiety. When a person purses their lips, it increases resistance to the airflow, causing them to exhale more slowly and fully. This technique helps to improve lung function, decrease shortness of breath, and promote a more efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. Pursed lip breathing is often recommended for individuals with respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, as it can help alleviate symptoms and improve overall breathing patterns.

Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing or deep breathing, involves a specific technique to ensure proper inhalation and exhalation. The steps in diaphragmatic breathing are as follows: first, find a comfortable and quiet place to sit or lie down. Next, place one hand on your chest and the other on your abdomen. Take a slow, deep breath in through your nose, ensuring that your stomach expands as you inhale. The hand on your abdomen should rise, while the hand on your chest should remain relatively still. Exhale slowly through your mouth, allowing your stomach to contract as you release the breath. Repeat this process, focusing on breathing deeply from your diaphragm rather than shallowly from your chest. In addition to helping relieve the sensation of air hunger, practicing diaphragmatic breathing regularly can help reduce stress, increase oxygen flow, and promote relaxation in the body and mind.

Resonant or coherent breathing is a technique that involves breathing at a specific rate to create balance and harmony within the body. It is based on the concept that when we breathe at a certain rhythm, it can have a profound effect on our nervous system and overall well-being. This technique typically involves inhaling and exhaling at a specific count, such as inhaling for a count of four and exhaling for a count of four. By practicing resonant or coherent breathing, individuals can regulate their heart rate variability, reduce stress levels, promote relaxation, and improve overall mental and physical health.

One of the most novel and effective ways to immediately relieve air hunger is fan therapy. Directing cool air to the face with a fan can help alleviate shortness of breath and air hunger by distracting or “fooling” the brain. A fan also provides a cooling sensation and improves air circulation. By using a fan to direct air towards your face, your airways are soothed and cooled, making breathing easier. The increased air movement can also help to disperse stagnant air and improve overall airflow, further easing the sensation of breathlessness. Ultimately, using a fan to direct air to the face can be a simple and effective non-pharmacological intervention to alleviate the symptoms of dyspnea.

Other treatments

It is essential to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the cause of your air hunger and the best course of treatment based on your circumstances.

Depending on the underlying cause of your shortness of breath, your doctor may prescribe medication. Bronchodilators such as albuterol may be prescribed to help relax the airway muscles and improve breathing. Corticosteroids, such as prednisone, may be used to reduce inflammation in the airways. Oxygen therapy may also be provided to increase the oxygen levels in the blood. Diuretics may sometimes be prescribed to reduce fluid buildup in the lungs and relieve dyspnea.

A note from Paloma

If your air hunger is related to hypothyroidism, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional for a thorough thyroid evaluation, diagnosis, and optimal treatment. Paloma’s team of thyroid experts can work with you to develop a comprehensive treatment plan, including medication and lifestyle interventions.

While air hunger can be distressing, especially when linked to hypothyroidism, understanding the connection between the two conditions can help you get appropriate treatment and relief. Remember to consult with a medical professional to receive personalized advice and guidance tailored to your specific situation.

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Banzett RB, Lansing RW, Binks AP. Air Hunger: A Primal Sensation and a Primary Element of Dyspnea. Compr Physiol. 2021 Feb 12;11(2):1449-1483. doi: 10.1002/cphy.c200001. PMID: 33577128.

Dresden D. Dyspnea: Causes, diagnosis, and treatment. Published July 23, 2018.

Kako J, Morita T, Yamaguchi T, Kobayashi M, Sekimoto A, Kinoshita H, Ogawa A, Zenda S, Uchitomi Y, Inoguchi H, Matsushima E. Fan Therapy Is Effective in Relieving Dyspnea in Patients With Terminally Ill Cancer: A Parallel-Arm, Randomized Controlled Trial. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2018 Oct;56(4):493-500. doi: 10.1016/j.jpainsymman.2018.07.001. Epub 2018 Aug 6. PMID: 30009968.

Morélot-Panzini C. Fooling the brain to alleviate dyspnoea. Eur Respir J. 2017 Aug 17;50(2):1701383. doi: 10.1183/13993003.013

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Mary Shomon

Patient Advocate

Mary Shomon is an internationally-recognized writer, award-winning patient advocate, health coach, and activist, and the New York Times bestselling author of 15 books on health and wellness, including the Thyroid Diet Revolution and Living Well With Hypothyroidism. On social media, Mary empowers and informs a community of more than a quarter million patients who have thyroid and hormonal health challenges.

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