The Buteyko method: breathing fewer is breathing better

buteyko - breathe less - comic

Improving your health with some breathing exercises: sounds cool, no? This is what promises Dr. Buteyko’s therapy.

A bit of history (but not too much)

Konstantin Buteyko was a Russian doctor. In the 1950s, he put into theory a relationship between the amount of breathing and the state of health: the more you breathe, the worse your health. From this point, he thinks that this phenomenon can be reversed: could we improve (by diminishing) breathing in order to restore health?!

Konstantin Buteyko

After several trials on many patients (including himself, as he was seriously ill), his theory was apparently confirmed and the results were very promising: asthma, hypertension and other disorders would improve through his breathing exercises! Except that… all the great doctors of that time, who used to recommend to breathe deeply, had no intention to look stupid because of this heretical discovery. That’s why his studies were stopped, and he was forbidden to publish anything or even give a single conference.

Despite severe repression, Dr. Buteyko managed to continue (undergoing heavy pressure and threats) to heal thousands of people with his miracle therapy. In 1983, his method was finally recognized by the Russian Health Ministry (that’s 25 years later). Of course, it will not be applied because the conservative medical body took care of it, and hid it under the carpet.

The great pontiffs of conservative medicine possess such a power that this method remains today very controversial and still unexplored: the studies on the subject remain scarce. But I will leave this controversy aside for a moment (yes, I’ll come back to it!) so that we can look more closely at this famous theory on which Buteyko based his breathing exercises.

Because if some breathing exercises can improve health, it would be really stupid to miss out on it!

The theory

The Bohr effect is a physiological phenomenon first described in 1904 by the Danish physiologist Christian Bohr, stating that haemoglobin’s oxygen (02) binding affinity is inversely related both to acidity and to the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2).1

The Bohr effect

This means that the more CO2 in the blood, the better oxygen reaches organs and tissues. This correlation has been established since 1904. What Konstantin Buteyko did is to relate these parameters to the respiratory rate: breathing too much reduces the amount of CO2 in the blood, which prevents oxygenation of the tissues. For more information on this mechanism, you can read my article about hyperventilation.

table of buteyko: pulmonary ventilation criteria
Buteyko Breathing Chart: Pulmonary Ventilation Criteria. Correlation of control pause (CP) and other parameters with alveolar CO2 and patient health.

Based on this theory, breathing exercises intend to transform tense, deep and rapid breaths into conscious, shallow, slow, and relaxed ones. The first step is common to most breathing methods: learn to breathe calmly through the diaphragm. Only then are introduced the reduction of the respiratory volume and the breath holdings.

buteyko breathing manual

Explanations that make sense … (but still to be verified)

It would be a problem of training: the more you hyperventilate, the more your body becomes “resistant” to CO2: the slightest lack of oxygen in the tissues will trigger the need to breathe. If you train your body to breathe less, it will adapt and tolerate higher (and therefore more beneficial) CO2 levels.

Using this theory, one could suppose that asthma is actually a body defense mechanism: you breathe too much, and asthma tries to make you breathe less. Similarly, when sleep apnea is taking place, hyperventilation has lowered too much the level of CO2 in the blood: the apnea refills the CO2 by blocking the breath.

When exercising, the energy produced by the muscles causes the CO2 to increase in the blood (hence the need to breathe more to evacuate it). Thus, exercise is beneficial because it helps us to tolerate a greater quantity of CO2 (among other benefits).

It is also often observed that athletes breathe more calmly and are able to hold their breath for longer than most people. Conversely, when sick people undergo some physical exertion, it is usually the breath that runs out first (before the muscles!).

When breathing too much and too deeply, it is usually the rib cage that regulates the breathing. Why? because the lack of CO2 tries to stiffen the diaphragm in order to make us breathe less. Chest breathing can then you bypass this mechanism.

When you have a bad diet, the body is generally too acidic (lower pH) and must get rid of the excess of H+ ions. Since the quantities of CO2 and H+ ions are directly related, hyperventilating is one of the solutions that can lower the quantity of H+ ions, which mean increasing the pH back to its normal levels. Hyperventilation could be a direct consequence of poor diet.

CO2 and pH relationship in the blood
CO2 and pH relationship in the blood

The above theories are not necessarily true, don’t take them for granted. Instead, it makes us wonder about the mechanisms of the body, which I consider important.

The controversy

We are not taught to eat a balanced diet (or with the wrong balance), nor are we taught to meditate or even to breathe. What we learn is to go to the doctor when we become sick, and then take medicine to get better. So yes, it works, but maybe if we ate properly and if we breathed better, we would not have been sick in the first place…

we know what is good for you - comic

Well, I could keep on for hours on that subject but I do not want to stretch the article too much. On the one hand, it is easy to show that the Buteyko method lacks evidence. On the other hand, it is obvious that no laboratory would like to see such a therapy take place. There are very few studies on the subject, but there is no study either to prove that it does not work. Eventually, this is not an isolated case: most “alternative” solutions face the same problem.

That being said, when you search for Buteyko on the web, you often feel like you’ve been trapped into some business website, and free information is not that easy to find. I really think it’s a shame, even suspicious, and it surely doesn’t help spreading the method.

I will not draw any conclusions, except that this method deserves to give it a try. It would be a shame to miss out on it just because the detractors have done their job too well.

Conclusion

That theory is a very controversial one, and it is pretty hard to know what it is worth. Anyway, starting by learning to breathe calmly through the diaphragm is always a good thing and I think everyone should do it. As for the rest, many monks and / or yogi practice similar exercises (like breath holds) and they may at least bring a meditative aspect. There is no danger or money to spend… (unless you want to) So, what are we waiting for?

I’ve already started practicing the exercises: I will detail them in a next article, and I have much feedback to give you very soon. Stay tuned!

Edit – here are the breathing exercises.

And you, what do you think of this theory? Leave me your feelings in the comments!

  1. Bohr effect – wikipedia

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