For the vast majority of people, breathing is an everyday fact of life which occurs on a subconscious level. It is something that is all too often taken for granted until there’s a problem. Yet breathing is the most important physiological function you can exercise control over and this is something that can easily be achieved through increased attention, observation and will-power. With practice both the rate and volume of breathing can be changed for the better and the only prerequisite is to be aware of the existing breathing pattern.
Claude Lum, a noted physician at Papworth University hospital, Cambridge, described hyperventilation, or overbreathing, as a bad habit that has the effect of lowering carbon dioxide levels. It is only necessary to look at examples such as smoking to realise that bad habits are easy to acquire and not quite so easy to lose. Changing a habit of a lifetime can initially cause disruption to a daily routine and focus attention on the change that is to be made.
While in extreme cases the fight to combat a bad habit can consume every waking minute, acquiring a good habit can inspire a new wave of self-confidence. Once the new habit has been acquired, even one that requires enormous self-discipline and a large helping of patience, it quickly becomes very easy to live with and can help boost self-esteem and self-belief. The investment of time, effort and concentration in the short term will ensure a reward of positive long-term results.
Making the change to a reduced volume of breathing should be treated as simply acquiring a good habit one that will reap untold health benefits. Ultimately the benefits can include the complete recovery of an individual with asthma.
Many of Professor Buteyko’s patients who were taught the Buteyko Breathing Method remained completely free from symptoms of asthma thirty years later. It was as a result of pressure placed on the Soviet authorities by those who recovered that independent trials into Professor Buteyko’s method were conducted. The results of the trials brought about the full recognition and acceptance of the Buteyko system in the Soviet Union.
What is overbreathing?
First, let’s take a quick look at what overbreathing is, and why we do it in the first place. Clinically, overbreathing is known as hyperventilation; put simply, it means breathing more air than the body needs. The standard volume of normal breathing for a healthy adult is three to six litres of air per minute. Scientific research conducted by Professor Buteyko over three decades, along with scientific trials at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane in 1995 demonstrated that people with asthma breathe a volume of ten to twenty litres per minute between attacks, and over twenty litres during an attack.
Overbreathing causes a loss of carbon dioxide from the lungs. This is not a problem if it occurs only for a short time, because breathing will reduce afterwards to restore the carbon dioxide levels. However, breathing more air than we need over a period of time and time can mean hours, weeks, months or even years will result in the day-to-day levels of carbon dioxide remaining low constantly. Our respiratory centre becomes accustomed to or fixed at these lower levels of carbon dioxide and determine them to be ‘correct’. Our respiratory centre will therefore instruct us to overbreathe to maintain these low levels of carbon dioxide even though the rest of our bodily organs and tissues are suffering.
Carbon dioxide is very important for normal bodily functioning (for a more detailed explanation, see Appendix 1), it is logical to assume that the body must have some way to prevent losing it. Narrowing of the airways is caused by inflammation, by constriction of smooth muscle and by increased mucus secretion, and is a natural defence mechanism to help maintain the carbon dioxide level. In a person with asthma, this defence mechanism activates when the carbon dioxide level declines too much. Overbreathing also causes cooling and drying of the airways, two effects that have been recognised to play a role in producing asthma symptoms (for a more detailed explanation, see Appendix 2).
People with asthma are better off than anyone else who overbreathes because they are equipped with an instant defence mechanism to prevent the loss of carbon dioxide. People who do not have this defence mechanism suffer from many of the diseases of civilisation for which there is no cure.
It is worth noting that before 1900, people who had asthma often lived longer than the rest of the population and that death from asthma was unknown. “Having asthma generally meant having a long life free from many diseases, but nobody could explain why asthma prevented other diseases or why asthmatics lived longer than other people,” Professor Buteyko noted. At the end of 19th century, Professor of Medicine at Oxford University Sir William Osler, wrote in his Principles and Practice of Medicine textbook: “We have no knowledge of the morbid anatomy of true asthma. Death during the attack is unknown.”
Overbreathing resulting from modern living is the cause of breathing-related diseases. Hyperventilation is not just a result of asthma, hyperventilation is the main contributor of asthma.
Professor Buteyko believes that genetic predisposition determines which illnesses people develop from overbreathing. As a result, each person who hyperventilates or overbreathes is affected individually, based on hereditary factors.
Symptoms of hyperventilation
Some of the symptoms of hyperventilation affect:
• The respiratory system in the form of wheezing, breathlessness, coughing, chest tightness, frequent yawning, snoring and sleep apnoea.
• The nervous system in the form of a light-headed feeling, poor concentration, numbness, sweating, dizziness, vertigo, tingling of hands and feet, faintness, trembling and headache,
• The heart, typically a racing heartbeat, pain in the chest region, and a skipping or irregular heartbeat.
• The mind, including some degrees of anxiety, tension, depression, apprehension and stress.
• Other general symptoms include mouth dryness, fatigue, bad dreams, nightmares, dry itchy skin, sweaty palms, increased urination such as bed wetting or regular visits to the bathroom during the night, diarrhoea, constipation, general weakness and chronic exhaustion.
Why do we overbreathe?
Earlier on, I explained that when we overbreathe permanently, the respiratory centre in the brain is trained to accept a lower level of carbon dioxide. There are many reasons why we overbreathe, although not all of them may apply to everyone. These factors are more prevalent in countries experiencing increasing modernisation and affluence, and that prevalence helps explain why there are such high incidences of asthma and other diseases of civilisation in the same countries.
Briefly, these factors include: incorrect eating habits; the belief that it is good to take ‘big breaths’; stress; more home heating; wearing too much clothing; lack of physical exercise, and pollution. Each of these are explored in more detail in appendix 1.
Benefits of reduced breathing
Reduced breathing due to what is called the Bohr effect leads to better oxygenation of all
of the body’s cells and tissues which in turn enables all the organs to function more efficiently. Almost everyone who has attended clinics in Ireland has reported not just a significant improvement in their asthma, but also an improvement in their general health and well-being.
In addition, they reported increased energy levels; less dependence on stimulants such as caffeine; increased calmness; reduced anxiety and normalisation of weight all within a relatively short period of time. Chronic complaints such as headaches, constipation and spasmodic conditions caused by incorrect breathing and dietary factors or as result of side effects from asthma related medication were also gradually eliminated.
Breaking the overbreathing habit
As babies we instinctively know how to breathe using the diaphragm, with the tummy moving up and down with each breath. For the most part, the breathing volume matches the exact needs of the metabolism; this is how the human body was intended to function and results in good health.
Parents strive to protect their children, yet by becoming over-protective they often contribute to problems for their offspring later in life. Parents habitually tend to over-dress young children and live in rooms that are too warm or too stuffy, while the children can also be exposed to an unsuitable diet which includes too much sugar and too many sweets, chocolates and fizzy drinks to which they soon become accustomed. It is then a simple progression along a slippery slope to a diet high in junk food, artificial additives and sweeteners, sometimes before a child even starts school.
Children are often advised by many sources to “take a deep breath”. However, in this situation the word ‘deep’ is used in the wrong context and a deep breath in this case is actually a ‘big’ breath filling the lungs but not using the diaphragm. So what are the necessary steps to break this habit?
• Step One
Acknowledge the bad habit in this case overbreathing and the reason why it is a bad habit. It is at this stage that the correct method of breathing is learned as well as the various ways of redressing the incorrect approach to breathing.
• Step Two
Often it is not until the breathing pattern has been corrected that it comes to light that it was incorrect in the first place. Therefore the solution lies in detecting the problem before it has even occurred. This pattern of detection and correction, caused by slipping back into bad habits, may continue for some time. Eventually, perhaps after much trial and error, becoming aware of the breathing pattern at an earlier stage can prevent overbreathing.
Psychologists claim that, with the correct attention and discipline, a bad habit can be broken and a new and better habit instilled in just 21 days. However, when it comes to learning a new way of breathing a little more time is required as the body becomes accustomed to a fundamental change in something as basic and essential as breathing. In reality, the time it takes is insignificant when compared with the benefits accruing from correct breathing.
• Step Three
With both time and effort good breathing should become routine, after all practice makes perfect. Eventually the good habit becomes like second nature and requires no conscious effort. Sticking to the better breathing routine will then require only intermittent attention to confirm the breathing is correct. The effort and discipline committed to learning this method of breathing will now pay off; this is a time to feel good.
Basic breath retraining
There are three basic steps towards breath retraining.
• Step One
Become very aware of your breathing. Feel, watch and listen to your breathing as much as you can during the day, paying particular attention to what causes you to take big breaths.
Ask yourself some questions. Is your breathing a still, silent activity or does it involve large inhalations and body movements? Are you going about your daily activities with your mouth open? Do you take a big breath as you stand up from your chair or before talking? Do you heave big sighs, yawn or sniff regularly? Do you wake in the night or early morning with a dry mouth? Is your nose blocked when you wake or do you wake feeling that you have not had a good night’s sleep?
Only when you have become aware of your bad breathing can you take steps to correct it. During our clinics, we outline people’s breathing traits. More often than not they are totally unaware of these and while some people find them alarming, more often most find them quite amusing.
Awareness of our own incorrect breathing can also be increased by observing other people who are perhaps breathing with their mouths open, panting when shopping, or at bus stops; it is also possible to notice a person’s breathing characteristics over the telephone. Even though all of these people may seem to enjoy good health, many of those who have bad breathing actions may already have or are likely to develop health problems in the future.
• Step Two
Learn to breathe through your nose. Breathing through your nose at all times is the correct and only way to breathe.
The immortal message that “the pint of plain is your only man” was brought to us by Flann O’Brien. However for those who apply the Buteyko Method, nasal breathing is your only man, accompanied by the correct volume of breathing that will be discussed later on.
Some people seem to spend most their lives with a blocked nose and many have tried, without success, every nasal spray and therapy on the market. In this book those very people will be taught an effective exercise for unblocking the nose in a matter of minutes. This will be the first step on the road to permanent and comfortable nasal breathing.
• Step Three
Application of Buteyko Breathing to reverse chronic hyperventilation. It has already been explained how the respiratory centre can accept a low level of carbon dioxide as the norm, despite the stress it may place on various organs. All the breathing exercises featured in this book involve breathing less air than the body has become accustomed to. Over time this helps reset the respiratory system to accept the higher levels of carbon dioxide that it really should have. Remember, when the volume of air breathed in is reduced the carbon dioxide in the lungs accumulates and this in turn will readjust the carbon dioxide threshold.
When asked for a simple definition of his theory, Professor Buteyko said it is this: the reduction of the depth of breathing by the relaxation of the respiratory muscles to create a little air shortage. Two words he directed at his patients were “breathe less”. This is the very essence of Buteyko breathing.
Throughout this book each exercise and how it should be practised will be examined. However, it is important to always be aware of what is being achieved and why. Remember that overbreathing will trigger asthma and the intention is to learn to breathe a more correct volume by relaxation. Breathing can primarily be reduced by relaxing all the muscles involved in respiration. It is very important to relax the muscles because increased tension leads to overbreathing, reduces blood flow and therefore oxygenation.
A quote from sixth century B.C. philosopher Lao Tzu states: “The perfect man breathes as if he does not breathe.” Through the Buteyko Method the individual learns to breathe in a calm, silent and still manner.
A diagram illustrating breathing patterns will accompany many of the exercises. The following symbols are used for each diagram. Refer to this diagram periodically in order to understand those that follow.