There is a right and wrong way to breathe for optimal health, and contrary to what many think, it isn’t necessarily about long deep breaths. The Buteyko Breathing Method teaches you how to bring your breathing volume back toward normal or, in other words, reverse what’s called chronic hyperventilation or chronic over-breathing. When your breathing is normal (ideally it is shown you should breathe lightly, in a calm fashion, and only through the nose, not mouth), you have better oxygenation of tissues and organs, including your brain. The method, realized in the 1950’s by Russian medical scientist Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, aims to resolve a great number of bodily dysfunctions by normalizing breathing and results in a very specific accumulated gas mixture that an organism requires to function properly.
Looking at the history of the Buteyko Breathing Method, it all began from a practical assignment which involved monitoring diseased patients breathing patterns. This in resulted in a surprising discovery that these patients exhibited a considerable and uniformed deepening of breathing that increased with the approaching of death. Dr. Buteyko was able to lay down the theoretical foundation for this idea – hyperventilation causes a depletion of carbon dioxide; low levels of carbon dioxide in the organism cause blood vessels to spasm and also cause oxygen starvation of the tissues.
Overbreathing – Oxygen Overhype?
We’ve been taught that deep breathing is optimal because it allows the most oxygen into the lungs. Strange as it may seem, oxygen deficiency is not caused by lack of oxygen, but by lack of carbon dioxide. If we breathe too much, we actually get less oxygen. We know, it sounds counterintuitive, but let’s explore. Normal breathing frequency at rest is about 8-12 breaths per minute. Many of us breathe much more, often up to 25 breaths per minute, and often through the mouth. Reasons for this shallow, yet rapid breathing is often related to anxiety and stress. This breathing habit mostly goes unnoticed, but nevertheless causes a low grade form of hyperventilation, upsetting the oxygen and C02 balance.
Why does this matter? With hyperventilation the body takes in too much oxygen. For the body to actually use this oxygen, it needs a certain amount of carbon dioxide. When we breathe more and bring ourselves to a low grade form of hyperventilation, the body simply does not have enough time to retain carbon dioxide resulting in the inability to utilize the oxygen it has, producing a feeling that there is not enough air in the body. The increased ventilation rate one experiences will remove too much carbon dioxide from their body. The result of less carbon dioxide is less carbonic acid in blood, so the concentration of hydrogen ions decreases and the pH of the blood rises, causing alkalosis.
Carbon Dioxide – The Unsung Hero in Breathing
As we just saw, CO2 plays a vital role in breathing. A large reason for this is the importance of exhalation. Contrary to what is widely believed, exhalation is meant to regulate the amount of carbon dioxide that is left in our bodies, not to get ride of all our CO2. When we breathe too fast and exhale too much CO2, carbon dioxide is not able to keep up with its job of regulating oxygen departure from the blood, leading to a saturation of unavailable oxygen. Every cell in our body needs a certain concentration of carbon dioxide emissions – around 6.5% – in order to maintain healthy function. If we breathe in an air volume that is too large for the body’s needs, we breathe out carbon dioxide too soon, and the lungs are not capable of maintaining the correct level in the alveolis.
Another player in the process of respiration and carbon dioxide levels are respiratory central chemoreceptors that detect the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood by monitoring the concentrations of hydrogen ions in the blood. In the case of increased ventilation (as in chronic over breathing), the body will remove too much carbon dioxide from the body. With carbon dioxide levels reduced, there will be less carbonic acid in blood. This results in a lower level of hydrogen ions and increase in blood pH (alkalosis). The central chemoreceptors detect this change in pH, and send a signal to the medulla, which signals the respiratory system to lower the ventilation rate so carbon dioxide levels and pH can return to normal levels. However, chemoreceptors can be desensitized over time due to chronic low grade form of hyperventilation. This is precisely why the Buyteko Breathing Method is so useful. The technique allows for breathing that aims to regulate this critical balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body. In a recent study on the effect of Buteyko breathing technique on patients with bronchial asthma, results showed a significant decrease in asthma related symptoms and a significant improvement in peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR).
Stress Reduction and Breathing
It is now more evident that all this time we thought taking a deep breath was producing a relaxing effect, we were incorrect. In reality, breathing lightly and only through the nose is the ideal technique for relaxation and optimal health. The reason for this is to truly initiate a stress reduction response, we must activate our parasympathetic system, in contrast to our sympathetic nervous system which stimulates the body’s fight-or-flight response. When done properly, Buteyko breathing encourages the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, resulting in a reduction of blood pressure, a reduction of stress and the strengthening of the immune system.
The Control Pause Breathing Test
Dr. Buteyko developed a test to measure the depth of breathing and consequent retention of carbon dioxide, resultant oxygenation and health. He named it the “Control Pause” breathing test. This acts as a natural peak flow meter and is far more useful. Sit down, close your mouth and breathe normally through the nose for 30 seconds or so.
1.Take a normal breath in through your nose.
2. Allow a normal breath out through your nose.
3.Gently close your nose with thumb and forefinger and count the seconds.
4.When you feel the first need to breathe, release the nose and take a breath in through the nose. Remember to keep the mouth closed still.
5.The number of seconds that has passed is your control pause. Refer to the chart below to see how your control pause fairs in relation to an optimal score.
Applying Buteyko Breathing
Normal Breath In Through Nose – Sit down in an upright posture, and take a normal, calm breath through your nose. Do not take a deep breath. Focus on using your diaphragm to breathe, allowing the stomach to expand.
Normal Breath Out Through Nose – Exhale as you normally would through your nose. Again, focus on using the diaphragm to push all air out of the lungs (stomach should move, chest should not).
Shorter Breath In Through Nose – Now, take a shorter, more shallow and light (~1-2 seconds) inhalation through the nose and stop.
Long Breath Out Through Nose – Slowly release the breath over 5 seconds, using your diaphragm to empty out your lungs. Hold breath after complete exhale for 5 seconds.
Repeat Steps 1-4 – Take a normal, calm breath again through the nose (step 1), and repeat the entire process for several minutes.
Overtime, the technique teaches you how to bring your breathing volume back toward normal or, in other words, to reverse what’s called chronic hyperventilation or chronic overbreathing. Breathing like this through the nose improves nitric oxide and carbon dioxide levels in the body, and will help improve your control pause time.
Nitric oxide is found in your nose, so when you breathe through your nose, you carry a small portion of the gas into your lungs. As explained by Patrick, nitric oxide plays a significant role in homeostasis, or the maintaining of balance within your body. Nitric oxide is also:
This is one of the amazing aspects of Buteyko therapy that I noticed. As you breathe exclusively through your nose and abandon mouth breathing, your nose starts to water and you frequently have to blow it. But amazingly your nasal passages eventually expand quite dramatically and it becomes much easier to get all your air through your nose rather than your mouth. This is true even for high intensity exercises like Peak Fitness. It may take a few months to work up to it, but once you are there you will rarely if even need to breathe through your mouth again, even under the most extreme circumstances.
Asthmatics typically breathe through the mouth. They also tend to breathe heavier and have a higher respiratory rate than non-asthmatics. According to Patrick, there’s a feedback loop, in that the heavier breathing volume that’s coming into your lungs cause a disturbance of blood gasses, including the loss of carbon dioxide (CO2). Contrary to popular belief, carbon dioxide is not merely a waste gas. Although you breathe to get rid of excess CO2, it’s very important that your breathing volume is normal, in order to maintain a certain amount of CO2 in your lungs.
“If you’re breathing too heavily, you lose carbon dioxide, and smooth muscles surrounding your airways constrict. Another factor from an asthmatic point of view is dehydration of the inner walls of the airways. It’s a combination of these factors that cause the airways to constrict. Heavy breathing is causing the loss of carbon dioxide. And carbon dioxide also helps to relax smooth muscles surrounding your blood vessels. So, it’s not just the airways which constrict when you’re breathing too much, but it’s also the blood vessels.”
As your airway constricts, there is a natural reaction to breathe more intensely as a compensatory mechanism. However, this causes even greater loss of carbon dioxide, and cooling of your airway causes it to close even more. In other words, asthma symptoms feed back to the condition.
You can test this out by taking five or six big breaths in and out of your mouth. Most people will begin to experience some light-headedness or dizziness. While you might reason that taking bigger breaths through your mouth allows you to take more oxygen into your body, which should make you feel better, the opposite actually happens. This is because you’re getting rid of too much carbon dioxide from your lungs, which causes your blood vessels to constrict—hence the light-headedness. So, the heavier you breathe, the less oxygen that’s actually delivered throughout your body due to lack of carbon dioxide, which causes your blood vessels to constrict.
“Also, when you breathe too much, your red blood cells hold on to the oxygen and don’t deliver so readily to where it is needed throughout your body. It’s called the Bohr effect; discovered in 1904 by Christian Bohr,” Patrick says. “In order for oxygenation to take place, we need the presence of carbon dioxide. Heavy breathing causing the loss of CO2 is not only causing blood vessels to constrict, but it’s also causing a greater affinity of the red blood cells with oxygen.
… If you were to look at the basic premise of breathing, we should not hear our breathing during rest. We should see very little movement from the chest and tummy. Ideally, most of our breathing is diaphragmatic, but we shouldn’t see it. The mouth should be closed, breathing should be regular, and breathing should be effortless.”
Buteyko Method (Buteyko Breathing Technique): The Buteyko Method first arrived to Australia and the UK from Russia in the early 1990s. Early on the method was popular with adults and children suffering from asthma. Over the past number of years, the Buteyko Method has shown to be efficacious in helping improve a number of breathing related problems including:
Respiratory: asthma, rhinitis, hayfever
Neurological: Anxiety, stress and panic attacks
Childhood development: dental health, craniofacial development and ADHD
Sleep disordered breathing: insomnia, snoring, central sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea
The Buteyko method is named after its founder Doctor Konstantin Buteyko. It is the most effective drug-free approach for the management of asthma and other breathing related problems. It can be practiced by both adults and children, and gives quick and consistent results. The Buteyko method is neither a medical treatment nor procedure. It does not involve any medication, homeopathy or herbs. It is series of lectures related to breathing which enables people to understand a concept of ‘normal breathing’ or breathing according to physiological norms. It contains simple breathing techniques and logical instructions to follow. It also gives the means of controlling breathing parameters without any technical appliances. Buteyko method brings the physiological parameters of the body to the norm. It can be easily incorporated into the daily life of any contemporary person. It does not require you to interrupt your everyday activities to perform any sophisticated procedures similar to yogi’s ‘asana’. You can use the concept of the method at any time in any situation.
The success of the Buteyko method in the treatment of asthma is backed by hard scientific data. Clinical trials funded by the Australian Association of Asthma Foundations in 1994 at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane demonstrated that asthmatics were able to reduce their symptomatic medication intake by 90% and their steroid medication by 30%. This reduction in medication was accompanied by improvements in their general health and quality of life. By practicing breathing exercises from the Buteyko Method you can experience more open airways and improved blood circulation in a matter of minutes. This alone is enough to demonstrate the relationship between your everyday breathing and state of health. The following paragraphs explore the exercises from the Buteyko Method and the reasoning behind them. There is a common belief that the more air we breathe, the healthier we are. Few people realize that in order to increase blood flow and oxygen delivery to the tissues, breathing should be slowed down so that less air enters the body. You know that you are taking less air into the lungs than normal when you experience a tolerable feeling of air hunger. Within a few minutes of continued slowing of the breath to experience air hunger, body temperature increases to indicate an improvement to blood circulation. At the same time, there is an increase to watery saliva in the mouth – traditionally observed in Yoga as activation of the body’s relaxation response.
In 1957 Ukrainian Dr. Konstantin Buteyko observed that unhealthy people have noticeable breathing during rest. Their breathing is often through the mouth, using the upper chest with a respiratory rate and volume greater than normal. On the other hand, healthy people have regular, effortless and quiet breathing during rest. Their breathing is through the nose, driven by the diaphragm and with a normal respiratory rate and volume. Over the span of four decades, Dr. Buteyko developed a program designed to normalize breathing volume. Using slow breathing and breath holds following an exhalation, the objective is to take less air into the lungs. With regular practice over a few weeks, breathing is brought towards normal with resultant improvements to a number of common complaints such as asthma, rhinitis, anxiety, panic attacks, and sleep disorders.
Buteyko breathing exercises are not dissimilar to exercises practiced by Yogis. During his research, Dr. Buteyko turned to Eastern breathing techniques and combined these with the science of Western Medicine. Buteyko exercises are more direct and specifically tailored to each child and adult, regardless of condition. From the individual experiencing severe asthma and panic attacks to the healthy adult, a program is available depending on the age and health. Central to the method is a measurement called the Control Pause. This involves timing how long you can comfortably hold your breath following an exhalation. Having a control pause of less than 25 seconds is poor and 25 seconds to 35 seconds means there is room for improvement. The goal is to reach a comfortable breath hold time of 40 seconds. The average control pause of students attending our clinics is around 15 seconds. Students attend to help improve their asthma, anxiety and sleep problems. With each 5 second improvement to their control pause, breathing becomes lighter and the student feels better.
The Buteyko Clinic Method consists of seven exercises with a number of variations. The foundation of the method is to breathe only through the nose both during day and sleep. Nasal breathing with tongue resting in the roof of the mouth helps to ensure that the airway is larger. This reduces the risk of sleep problems including obstructive sleep apnea. At first, when the student switches to nasal breathing, they may experience a feeling that they are not getting enough air. This feeling of air hunger quickly goes away with practice of the Buteyko breathing exercises. The normal physiologically breathing mode of the human being is in and out through the nose. Mouth breathing is just a bad habit often caused by a stuffy nose. The first exercise of the Buteyko Method involves holding of the breath to decongest the nose- allowing the child or adult to make the switch to nasal breathing on a permanent basis.
Breathing through the nose is a great start to improving health. However, it is not enough. It is also important that breathing volume is normal and regular. Exercise 2 to 7 are specifically designed to help the student change their breathing patterns in order to help open their airways, improve their blood circulation and oxygen delivery throughout the body.
In the various books, webinars and online training courses offered by Buteyko Clinic International, breathing exercises are listed as follows:
Exercise 1: Nose unblocking exercise
Exercise 2a: Normalising breathing volume- hands on chest and tummy
Exercise 2b: Normalising breathing volume- finger blocking nostril
Exercise 2c: Normalising breathing volume- hands cupping face
Exercise 3: walking with diaphragm breathing
Exercise 4a: walking with breath holds to create light air hunger
Exercise 4a: walking with breath holds to create medium to strong air hunger
Exercise 5: Steps (light air hunger) for severe asthma, anxiety, panic attacks
Exercise 5: Steps (medium to strong air hunger) for children and teenagers
Exercise 6: Many small breath holds (mini pauses)
Exercise 7: Relaxation to create air hunger
For example, if you are experiencing nasal congestion, constipation or excess mucus in your lungs – then exercise 1 or 5 offers the best relief. On the other hand, if you are having asthma symptoms, Ex 6 when practiced early on during the symptoms can often eliminate the symptoms. The main exercises for children and teenagers to address breathing patterns are exercise 3 and 5. For persons with obstructive sleep apnea, the main exercise is Exercise 2.
Exercise 1– Decongest Your Nose Easily
Exercise 2– Measure The Pulse And Control Pause
First Steps To Better Breathing
Reduced Breathing By:
Exercise 3: Walking With Mouth Closed
Exercise 4a: Physical Exercise With Small Breath Holds
Exercise 4b: Physical Exercise With Medium To Strong Breath Holds
Exercise 5: Steps Exercise For Children And Health Adults
Exercise 6: Many Small Breath Holds To Stop Anxiety, Asthma, Or Panic Attacks