How to breathe better

Buteyko breathing dates back to the 1950’s when Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian doctor, developed a breathing technique that helped a variety of health conditions. The premise of the technique is that many conditions are the result of ‘over breathing’.

So, how do you know if you are over breathing?
If you regularly experience any of the following symptoms, you are over breathing:

  • Breathing through the mouth
  • Sigh regularly
  • Snoring
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Yawning
  • Sniffing
  • Holding of breath (apnoea) during day, or sleep apnoea
  • Taking large breaths prior to talking
  • Heavy breathing at night
  • Tight shoulders and neck muscles

Completely at odds to the popular view that taking big deep breaths of air is ‘good’ breathing, the Buteyko way is to minimise intake, reducing and calming the breath towards normal. Not so different to ancient yogic pranayama or Hatha yoga breathing whereby man could breathe one breath per minute for the duration of one hour.

Buteyko believed that we need to increase carbon dioxide levels in the body. Carbon dioxide is often thought of as a ‘waste’ gas, but carbon dioxide is vital to life. While it is true that we breathe to get rid of excess carbon dioxide, it is also important that we retain a quotient of this gas. Depending on our genetic predisposition, the habit of breathing too much causes a reduced concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood, resulting in narrowing of the airways and blood vessels. Conversely, a slight rise in carbon dioxide towards normal has several beneficial effects in the body including; relaxing smooth muscle, increasing oxygenation, switching on the relaxing nervous system, and increasing the body’s production of nitric oxide.

Smooth move
Smooth muscle surrounds and lines all hollow structures in the body, including the airways, blood vessels, bowel, bladder and uterus. A slight increase in carbon dioxide serves to relax smooth muscle. In the case of smooth muscle lining the blood vessels, this will dilate or widen the arteries, improving circulation and helping lower blood pressure, and the effect on the blood vessels in the head will reduce the incidence of headaches. For the respiratory system, relaxation of the bronchi and smaller airways, bronchioles, will improve airflow and markedly reduce airway spasms associated with asthma. In the case of the bowel wall, relaxed smooth muscle means relief from symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, constipation and reflux.

A study on people with asthma, reported in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that after three months people practising the Buteyko technique had decreased their requirement for reliever medication by 90 per cent and the use of inhaled corticosteroids by 49 per cent. Buteyko breathing can have remarkable effects on a variety of conditions as well as helping to prevent a host of others.

Oxygen increase
It seems counterintuitive that higher carbon dioxide levels will increase oxygenation in the body. Yet it’s true. In fact, the Danish professor of physiology Christian Bohr sussed out how this works in 1904, and the Bohr effect has been named in his honour.

As air is inhaled into the lungs, oxygen crosses over the alveolar membrane. Oxygen travels around by ‘sticking’ to haemoglobin molecules, themselves attached to red blood cells. An increase in carbon dioxide ‘tells’ haemoglobin to let go of the oxygen molecules, encouraging the precious oxygen cargo to be delivered to the organs and tissues where it is most needed. The Bohr effect proves that a slight increase in carbon dioxide levels increase oxygenation throughout the body, oxygen needed for muscles to work, energy to be produced, and the brain to function at optimum efficiency.

Rest and relax
The Autonomic nervous system is comprised of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) fuelled by adrenaline and known as the ‘fight and flight’ response, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which has the opposite effect and has been coined the ‘rest and digest’ response. Most people today have an overabundance of ‘fight and fight’ hormone due to the many stresses of modern life. Increasing carbon dioxide levels helps to dampen down the SNS response and switches on the PNS. Which makes Buteyko breathing perfect for anyone who feels stressed and anxious. In the ‘old days’ a person experiencing a panic attack was advised to breathe into a paper bag. What did this do? Increase carbon dioxide levels, switch on the PNS, and switch off the SNS.

Breathing boot camp
All breathing exercises taught in Buteyko Breathing have one goal - to decrease breathing volume towards normal, thereby increasing carbon dioxide levels towards normal. As seen previously, reduced breathing volume does not decrease oxygen levels; in fact it’s the reverse. Individuals who breathe heavily, with noticeable breathing during rest, or who mouth breathe or sigh regularly are usually more tired, stressed and are not as healthy as their nasal and quiet breathing peers.

The best results are by enrolling in a course. Find our more here. However, following are two simple suggestions that will help restore better breathing habits and reduce symptoms of over breathing.

1. Always breath through your nose
You were given a nose for a very good reason. To breathe. Mouth breathing is the biggest cause of overbreathing, and is also unattractive.

2. Small breath holds
This simple technique helps re-establish healthy breathing patterns. Learn how by watching this short video. 

For more interesting health advice and how to incorporate it into your routine click here.

Do you tend to breathe mostly through your nose or mouth? Join our conversation below…