Asthma Sufferers, Hold Your Breath

Buteyko method

As someone who developed exercise-induced bronchospasm (mild asthma) only after coming up to Cambridge, having never suffered in childhood, I was rather disappointed to find myself on first one inhaler then a second. The discovery of breathing techniques that helped me control my reliance on bronchodilators, such as Salbutamol, has come as something of a breath of fresh air. Although saying that cold, fresh air is one of the triggers for an asthma episode as fellow sufferers will know.

Anyway, asthma sufferers everywhere could benefit from breathing exercises, known as the Buteyko Method, that allow them to regain control of their breath, reduce wheezing and breathlessness, and in time cut down on their reliance on inhaled medication. When I mentioned these techniques to my GP during a general checkup, he confessed that before inhalers were available, breathing exercises were all that he and his fellow practitioners could prescribe for mild attacks. What goes around, comes around it seems.

Of course, when I mentioned Buteyko to my wife, who is a yoga instructor, she pointed out that they are nothing new. In fact, such breathing exercises and methods that help you breathe through your nose rather than your mouth have been known for centuries among students of yoga.

Across the UK more than 5 million people suffer the potentially debilitating effects of asthma, and many millions more around the world. Diagnosis is usually straightforward and most sufferers are prescribed one or both of two kinds of inhaler – an inhaler to reduce symptoms (Salbutamol, for instance) and another to reduce the underlying inflammation in the lungs (something like beclomethasone).

The Buteyko Method, developed during the 1950s in Russia by Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko involves primarily learning to control one’s breathe and to breathe through the nose, something that many asthma sufferers fail to do, especially when sleeping. It also represents a breathing exercise regime that involves breath-holding, relaxation and other techniques akin to the pranayama breathing exercises of yoga and related practices. Of course, the word pranayama has its roots in Sanskrit and means literally “controlling the life force”.

The Buteyko Method is apparently based on some scientific evidence that suggests many asthma sufferers “over breathe” and so trigger their own symptoms by causing constriction of the airways and increased mucus production in the lungs. There are conflicting reports that suggest it’s baloney but others have found evidence that Buteyko’s concept of raising CO2 levels in the blood by reducing the depth of breathing in asthma does have a beneficial physiological effect.

The basics of Buteyko are discussed in a recently launched DVD from GP Dr James Oliver and Buteyko practitioner and yoga instructor Janet Brindley.

Their instructions boil down to five golden rules for asthma sufferers:

  1. Breathe through your nose
  2. Take control of your breathing
  3. Control your symptoms
  4. Look after yourself
  5. Use your medication effectively

    You are best advised to talk to your GP about the potential of Buteyko for you and at the very least to take adhere strictly to Rule 5. Whatever you do, do not abandon your medication. I’ve been using the basic fast-relief tips that are outlined in an information sheet published by Brindley and previously available on Sciencebase, for a couple of years to great effect. I now rarely use my reliever inhaler, although am still on the standard dose of twice-daily beclomethasone. Persistence may eventually free me from that drug too. Your mileage may vary.

    UPDATE I recently switched to Simbicort a combined steroid and bronchodilator, much better, thanks for asking.

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9 thoughts on “Asthma Sufferers, Hold Your Breath

  1. Interesting article. Learn breathing techniques is a fundamental question for all asthmatic. Thanks for the information!

  2. David, For me it is just not scientific for people to engage in so much research on a subject and to bemoan the ghastly situation with the increase in asthma deaths coinciding with modern treatment and then ignore powerful breath techniques (see for example http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KFkEJf853rM and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEMNzTP4o-o&NR=1). As I pointed out, an asthmatic uses a spray to inhale better. For a research worker then to ignore such techniques to boost or even supercharge his respiratory system is hard to understand and seems to me even to be a form of fundamentalism.

    Another aspect of asthma pointing towards more use of breathing techniques is impairment in the bronchial circulation leading to ischemic damage with hypersensitivity to allergens and cold. RF.

  3. Richard, I wasn’t sure whether or not your comment was a criticism of my post or not and am baffled by your statement “To me asthma itself can not be a mystery as long as an obvious scientific approach is ignored”? What are you saying, that you could explain asthma if you ignore science.

    However, on the point of breathing…it’s fairly crucial, right? My own GP told me that until the advent of inhalers (bronchodilators), physicians generally recommended breathing exercises for their patients and Buteyko would (regardless of its claimed underpinnings in blood CO2 levels) seem to be one way to help control the breath and avoid potentially lethal attacks in an emergency where medical assistance or drugs may not be immediately available.

  4. To doubt the accepted etiology of asthma would apparently seem to be a sacrilege, like accusing all medical doctors of being involved in a giant conspiracy or worse and indicating “denialism”. However because of the vast dimensions of the asthma problem, one aspect should also be considered.
    It is established in research (Dr. Gwen Skloot) that an asthmatic has difficulty in inhaling. However eastern breathing techniques for improving the ability to inspire are not considered.
    Consider the mechanism of inhaling in “The Circulation System” by J. Steven Alexander Ph.D (http://www.sh.lsuhsc.edu/intragrad/slides/212/alexander/L15_alex.ppt). When the Power Point file is on screen, depress the right mouse button and load slide 18. It is clear that on inhaling pressure in the abdomen is increased. It would therefore be logical to suppose that increasing such pressure would aid an inhale. This technique is a fundamental part of eastern breathing routines which refer to putting pressure on the Tanden (in Japanese) or the Dantian (Chinese) during an inhale. The fact that the Tanden cannot be anatomically recognized should not cause difficulty in view of the substantial circumstantial evidence of beneficial effects on breathing.
    Slide 18 refers to:
    “Respiratory (Abdominothoracic) Pump
    * Inspiration
    * decreased intrathoracic pressure
    * increased transmural pressure in thoracic cavity
    * distends vessels
    * decreased resistance and effective ‘suction’ of blood
    * enhanced venous return”
    Assuming that the changes in pressure are linked together, the beneficial effect of increasing abdominal pressure (Japanese technique) might well promote suction in the chest and the distension of its blood vessels. and hence improvement in blood supply to the lungs. Asthmatic narrowing of airways might well be due to an attempt to balance air supply to the lungs, which are not getting enough air.
    A further difficulty with accepted asthma etiology is that the extremely thoracic or collar-bone breathing in attacks might well be a failed but intelligent tactic of the body which in principle is correct but flawed by lack of abdominal pressure.
    To me asthma itself can not be a mystery as long as an obvious scientific approach is ignored. Richard Friedel. s3e0101@mailin.lrz-muenchen.de

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