What Is Buteyko Breathing?
If you want to observe optimal breathing watch a newborn baby. You will soon notice three things: The first is that their belly is expanding as they inhale, and contracting as they exhale. This is called diaphragmatic breathing. The second thing that you will notice is that their mouth is closed. They are nasal breathers. Thirdly, their breathing is light, not heavy. These characteristics of healthy breathing are what the Buteyko method seeks to achieve.
The Buteyko breathing method is named after Dr Konstantin Buteyko who in the 1950s observed that people who suffer from common ailments have noticeable breathing during rest: Their breathing is often noisy, through their mouth, using the upper chest with a respiratory rate and volume that is greater than normal.
On the other hand, he saw that calmer, often healthier people have regular, effortless and quiet breathing during rest. Their breathing is through their nose, driven by their 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 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 stress and sleep disorders.
Dr Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko And The Bohr Effect
The Bohr Effect which, was discovered in 1904 states that the pressure of carbon dioxide in the blood influences the release of oxygen from the blood to the cells. Based on this, Dr Buteyko began teaching his patients to breathe through their nose and to deliberately slow down their breathing to reduce the level of lost carbon dioxide. With many of his patients experiencing improvements to their health. The ‘voluntary elimination of deep breathing method’ was born. When his work arrived to the West, the name was changed to the Buteyko method. In the early 1980s, the Buteyko breathing method received widespread approval for use in Russia from the state medical System.
The Buteyko Method in the West
With the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Buteyko Method first arrived from Russia to Australia in the early 1990s. There it received attention as a treatment for asthma and despite initial scepticism, the first clinical trial in the Western world investigating the Buteyko technique as a treatment for asthma took place at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane in 1995. Results were published in the Australian Medical Journal (Med J Aust 1998; 169 (11): 575-578). Subjects applying the Buteyko breathing exercises experienced significantly improved quality of life, 90% less need for bronchodilator medication and 49% less need for preventer steroid asthma medication at twelve weeks follow up. The control group which was taught the in-house hospital program at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane experienced no change. More Studies can be found here.
How does Buteyko differ from other breathing techniques in the treatment of stress disorders?
Breathing techniques as taught by some yoga and Pilates teachers encourage the student to take more air into their lungs. The instruction is to ‘take a deep breath’. If you were to consistently take these big breaths, a feeling of light-headedness or dizziness would be experienced. This is not due to an increase of oxygen delivery in the brain. In fact, it is because of the opposite. You have, through exhaling lost the necessary carbon dioxide in your bloodstream that allows it to release oxygen.
When one breathes more air than what is required, blood vessels constrict and less oxygen is delivered. Ironically, to open up your blood vessels which, amount to approximately 100,000 miles in the human body, it is necessary to soften your breath, to slow it down so that you take less air into your lungs for a period of time and build up your carbon dioxide levels. In short, this is the complete opposite advice to the common instruction of taking a deep breath.
With Buteyko breathing, the aim is to restore nasal breathing and normal functional breathing patterns. While practising the Buteyko breathing exercises, the aim is to take less air into the body so that a feeling of air hunger is created. As the gas carbon dioxide is the primary stimulus to breathe, the feeling of air hunger signifies that carbon dioxide has increased in the blood. With the increase of carbon dioxide in the blood, circulation improves and the red blood cells release oxygen more readily to the tissues and organs.
Points to note about the Buteyko breathing method
Buteyko breathing is nasal breathing. Nasal breathing influences the parasympathetic nervous system which controls rest and digestion (1). Mouth breathing, on the other hand, impacts the sympathetic nervous system, which controls the fight or flight response (2).
Buteyko breathing is diaphragmatic or belly breathing. This means that the most efficient muscle that you have for pushing and pulling air into your lungs is used as opposed to chest or thoracic breathing Diaphragmatic breathing helps you relax, lowering the harmful effects of the stress hormone cortisol on your body (3). It also lowers your heart rate and helps to lower your blood pressure (4).
The main aim of Buteyko breathing is to reduce hyperventilation both at rest and in times of stress. Hyperventilation occurs in response to emotional states, such as depression, anxiety, or anger (5). When hyperventilation is a frequent occurrence, it’s known as chronic hyperventilation syndrome. It is indicated by a faster than normal breathing pattern that can cause light-headedness and poor concentration. It has also been to shown to prolong, and increase felt levels of anxiety and perceived autonomic arousal (6).
Nose breathing and Nitric Oxide
A gas called nitric oxide is produced both inside the nasal cavity and the para-nasal sinuses. As each breath is drawn through the nose, nitric oxide is carried into the lungs. There it performs a number of very important roles including the sterilization of incoming air; the opening of the airways; and improved gas exchange from the lungs to the blood known as ‘ventilation-perfusion’ (7).
Stress, anxiety and panic attacks
Hyperventilation is a contributory factor to, anxiety, irritability and depression (8). Irregular breathing through the mouth and breathing too much air causes agitation of the mind as well as reduced oxygen delivery to the brain. Traditionally, persons having a panic attack were instructed to breathe in and out of a brown paper bag. The purpose of this, while not entirely safe was to help normalize carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
It is extremely beneficial for all of us to learn how to reverse hyperventilation, both in a stressful moment and during periods of calm. In doing so we can break the habit of over-breathing and be better prepared during periods of extreme emotions.
The exercises from the Buteyko breathing technique are specifically developed to reverse hyperventilation. Furthermore, the exercises can be tailored to help persons who have difficulty focusing on their breathing or have a strong fear of a feeling of suffocation – symptoms that are readily observed in panic disorders.
(1) Scientific American: Proper Breathing Brings Better Health
(2) Cureus: The Influence of Breathing on the Central Nervous System
(3) Frontiers in psychology: The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults
(4) Frontiers in Public Health:The Impact of Resonance Frequency Breathing on Measures of Heart Rate Variability, Blood Pressure, and Mood
(5) Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences: Hyperventilation and exhaustion syndrome
(7) Inhalation of Nasally Derived Nitric Oxide Modulates Pulmonary Function in Humans
J O Lundberg 1 , G Settergren, S Gelinder, J M Lundberg, K Alving, E Weitzberg
(8) What to Know About Hyperventilation: Causes and Treatments