There are two basic facets to Buteyko Breathing:
Learning to breathe exclusively through your nose
It’s what’s the nose is designed for! Nose breathing has the following advantages:
- Filters dust, dirt, pollen and other irritants. Clearly it is a good idea to prevent these items going directly into your lungs which is what can happen with mouth breathing
- Warms and moistens the incoming air. By contrast, breathing through the mouth can mean that the airways and lungs become cold and dry and more susceptible to inflammation
- Promotes diaphragmatic breathing. Breathing into the lower part of the lungs promotes more efficient gas exchange because, due to gravity there is more blood in the lower part of the lungs.
- Promotes the production of another gas called Nitric Oxide. This gas helps to relax the muscles in the throat and lungs making it easier for us to breathe. It also enhances the process of gas exchange in the lungs and has been shown to fight infections and kill certain bacteria and viruses
Learning to slow down and lengthen the breath
“Take a big breath in and breathe out through the mouth”! How many times have you been told this by a therapist, yoga instructor or just a helpful friend? There is a common belief that we breathe in this life giving gas called oxygen (02) and breathe out this terrible poison called carbon dioxide (C02). The truth is a little more nuanced, here is a more accurate (but still simplified) description of what actually happens:
When we breathe in, the air in our lungs is exposed to the blood that is also flowing through small capillaries in our lungs and oxygen is transferred from the air into the blood where it bonds with the red blood cells (haemoglobin) . This oxygenated blood is then pumped around the body by our heart. However, along with that oxygen the blood is also carrying a level of carbon dioxide. When the blood reaches a destination (say for example a leg muscle) the oxygen needs to be able to break the bond with the haemoglobin so that it is available to provide the energy that the muscle needs. And here is the crucial point, it is the presence of carbon dioxide that allows that bond to be broken. This is known as the Bhor Effect. It means that you can have lots of oxygen in your blood but if you don’t have enough carbon dioxide your muscles (or organs or brain) can’t actually use that oxygen. In actual fact the % of oxygen in our blood is pretty stable and there is plenty of it, the limiting factor is its availability and that’s determined by the level of carbon dioxide.
Now let’s say this leg muscle gets the oxygen that it needs to do its job. A bi-product of its activation is the production of C02. This is pumped back to the heart where it is transferred to the air in our lungs so that we can breathe it out ready to take in the next breath with more oxygen.
Take home message number 1: We need a certain level of carbon dioxide in order to use the available oxygen
Here’s a little experiment that you can do. Take a normal breath in then exhale naturally. Now pinch your nose and see how long it takes until you experience a strong need to breathe in. This measurement is known as your Control Pause. What happens when you do this is that the concentration of C02 in your lungs is rising (because it’s returning to the lungs but you have not breathed it out). As this C02 level rises, stronger and stronger signals get sent to your brain telling it that it really needs to activate your diaphragm and rib muscles to make you breathe. You breathe in, you breathe out, your C02 level falls and you don’t need to breath in again until the C02 levels reach your personal signal-to-breathe level. This why you need to breathe faster when you exercise; more exercise = more C02 returning to the lungs = triggered to breathe more often.
Take home message number 2: It is carbon dioxide that triggers the breathing response
Take home message number 3: You have a personal trigger level and the Control Pause can be used as a marker for this level
Here is another important fact about carbon dioxide, it acts as a vasodilator. This means that it causes veins to dilate meaning that more blood can flow through them which, for example means that muscles in the throat can relax and stretch more allowing greater passage of air.
Take home message number 4: The presence of carbon dioxide dilates blood vessels and therefore airways
Now let’s have a look at 2 examples of how this can go wrong:
People with asthma often feel that they can’t get enough air because their airways are blocked. This gets worse when they exercise whereupon they feel as if they are suffocating and they breathe rapidly through their mouths. This lowers their carbon dioxide levels which means they can’t use the available oxygen and this causes their airways to constrict which causes them to panic more and try to breathe more and they are caught in a hyperventilation loop – a state where too much breathing means not enough C02 leading to more breathing. The standard prescribed solution is an inhaler that dilates the airways to make breathing easier which allows the person to calm down and slow their breathing. An old remedy was to breathe into a paper bag. This raises C02 levels which dilates airways and stimulates recovery similar to inhaler usage.
The Buteyko solution involves breathing slowly through the nose into the bottom of the lungs which restores C02 levels and breaks the hyperventilation loop.
In the case of someone experiencing an anxiety or a panic attack, their body goes into ‘flight or fight’ mode. They start to take shallow, rapid breaths through the mouth and this triggers the hyperventilation loop described above.
In both of the above cases, if a person is constantly breathing through their mouth and in a state of background anxiety, their body learns to adapt to a very low C02 trigger point. This is where the Buteyko Method comes in. The simple exercises teach you how to breathe slowly and deeply and in doing so to re-train your body to tolerate higher levels of C02, i.e. raising the C02 trigger point which means more available oxygen for a fitter body and more relaxed brain. This is reflected in a longer Control Pause which is therefore used by Buteyko Practitioners as a measure of progress.
If you are confused or unsure about this summary that’s not surprising! A face to face consultation is probably the best way to get your questions answered and more importantly, start doing some exercises and noticing the changes.
You can find much more information about Buteyko Breathing on Patrick McEown’s YouTube site. I trained with Patrick and there’s no better person to hear it from.
The YouTube video below is a conversation between myself and Patrick in which we talk about psychotherapy in general and how working with the breath could really enhance the process. We also discuss Buteyko Breathing in relation to physical ailments and improving sports performance.
N.B. In numerous studies, participants have reported that breathing exercises have reduced their symptoms but I would never claim or suggest that Buteyko exercises can cure you or that you should reduce your medication. I would always advise that you consult your G.P regarding your health and health choices.