I have just watched a roomful of people who have suffered terribly from perhaps the most rampant disease of this generation, long thought to be incurable, begin to recover from it. Dramatically. Almost incredibly. Within five days.
I am still reeling from the experience, still finding it hard to take in the possibility that my own son, whom I have been pumping full of asthma medication for five of his eight years, could soon be shot of all of his inhalers for good. Some have gone already. He woke this morning without a wheeze, able to breathe freely through his nose for the first time in ages. As I write he is out playing football without ventolin in his pocket.
I honestly wouldn’t have believed it when he and I sat down last week in London’s Hale Clinic with 20 fellow asthmatics, including two other young boys. We had come, like everyone else, because I had heard that the Buteyko method of reconditioning your breathing had been producing amazing results in asthmatics, and I was willing to try anything. But we were all pretty sceptical. How, we wondered, as we sat nervously in rows waiting for the first class to begin, could five one-hour lessons in breathing achieve what a lifetime of inhalers and pills and special vacuum cleaners had failed to do? There were people in that class who need nebulizers two or three times just to get through a normal day, people who could no longer climb stairs, people with medecine cabinets like a pharmacy, people of all ages and both sexes whose whole lives were dominated and ruined by the perpetual fight for air.
And how ridiculously simple it turned out to be. It wasn’t, we were told, that our bodies were fighting for air at all; they were getting too much of the stuff.
The key to this theory is carbon dioxide. For oxygen to pass efficiently into the blood we need a certain amount of carbon dioxide; this is lost when we over-breathe. In other words – and this is standard textbook stuff – by breathing too much we actually get less oxygen.
The radical claim made by the Russian physiologist, Professor Konstantin Buteyko, is that asthmatics are three or four times more than they should. They’re not doing it in an acute, obvious way; the crux of Buteyko’s theory is that this over-breathing is often not clearly visible in the patient; it is “hidden hyperventilation”. He suggests that diseases such as asthma, hypertension, stenocardia, strokes, haemorrhoids, eczema, and a good many others are the body’s defence mechanisms against the excessive loss of CO2 through over-breathing. So an asthmatic spasm is not a message to the body to breathe more; it’s a plea to breathe less. And the more we force open the airways with bronchodilators like ventolin and take big, deep gulps of air, the more harm we do in the long run. The body simply strengthens its defences and tries to get the message across again, and again, and again.
I’m no scientist; I’m certainly no doctor. I’ll leave it to those who are better qualified to assess whether Christopher Drake, the Buteyko instructor who ran our course, is right to assert that “you can’t have shallow breathing and asthma – the two simply cannot go together”. All I can say, mustering as much journalistic detachment as I can, is that it seems to work. And, if he’s right, any asthmatic with the not inconsiderable willpower required to sustain the breathing exercises could be off medications in a matter of weeks.
A Multi-million pound pharmaceutical industry would feel the pinch, of course, but I dare say the country’s three million asthmatics could live with that.
Sharon Cutler, a 39-year-old teacher from Kent, certainly could. Even I, who had watched her struggle with the Buteyko exercises each evening and gradually begin tomaster them, was taken aback by the changes she reported at the end of the week. My shorthand could hardly keep up with the outpouring of emotion when I asked her what she thought.
“I feel fantastic,” she said, “and extraordinarily happy. I’ve had no asthma since the second day. I feel so much more energetic. My appetite’s fallen and my weight has just dropped off. I can walk distances. I can manage stairs.
“My life until this week has consisted of going to work, coming home collapsing in a chair, and wheezing. Now I feel as if I’ve got my life back. The only time I felt this good before was in the two or three minutes after I came off the nebulizer. I feel as if I’ve had a body transplant. What have I been doing this past forty years?”
Angela McAnally, from Glasgow, said she felt wonderful. “I can’t say how tremendouse I feel already.” Gary Phillips, from Wales, said he could breathe through his nose for the first time in years. Similar responses were coming from all sides, with the most dramatic results being reported by the most seriously affected asthmatics. One lady told Drake: “Thank you for giving me my life back.”
Of course only time will tell wether the improvrement continues, especially once the long-term steroid inhalers, which we were urged not to discard too hastily, are reduced. But Christopher Drake claims a 97% long-trm success rate, and the tributed of his former pupils certainly back him up. He showed me a letter from Nick Jacobs (34) of London, a chronic asthmatic since the age of six who was on steroids, repeated antibiotics, Serevent twice a day – and felt in a state of permanent decline.
“I stopped taking the Ventolin on the third day of your course and have not taken it since”, he wrote, “I am now taking no medication whatsoever and I am in control of my asthma. I am beginning to forget that I have asthma at all.
“I am shocked and delighted by the efficacy of the method. ‘Miraculous’ is an emotive an non-scientific word but comes closest to describing how I view the application of this simple and logically founded method. I am grateful beyond my ability of expression.”
So, what happens to achieve such dramatic results so quickly? Well, remarkably little, actually. On each of the five evenings we learned to forget everything we ever imbibed at our mother’s knee about the efficacy of breathing and practiced instead how to take infinitesimal, almost suffocation breaths through the nose. And we learned to stop asthma attacks – which we’re told will happen less and less as shallow breathing becomes second nature – by holding our breath for an inordinate time to get carbon dioxide levels up.
As many of the class were soon discovering, these exercises at the first hint of a wheeze will diperse it completely. Within a couple of days, the elderly man on the nebulizer had abandoned it for one puff of ventolin, and by the third day he reported that he had got through a 5am asthma attack spasm with the exercise alone. He felt he was on his way.
We were told not to come of steroids too fast. We should wait until we had been clear of symptoms and breathing well for a few weeks and then reduce gradually in consultation with a GP.
Christopher Drake, who has overseen the recovery of so many blighted lives in this way, is an angry man. Despite the conclusion of the chair of childhood diseases at the First Moscow Institute that “Buteyko’s method proved to be very effecient in the complex treatment of bronchial asthma”, despite authoritative trials in Australia and a success rate of over 90%, Drake can’t get a hearing in Britain. The National Asthma Campaign is dismissive. “There is no medical evidence that a person with stable asthma is consistently over-breathing” it says.
Christopher Drake wants to set up British trials to provide the evidence. He wants Buteyko’s reasoning assessed by independent scientists. Above all he wants open minds. Perhaps Scotland’s medical establishment, with it’s proud indendent history, could provide these.
“Everyone believes asthma is a complicated, mysterious, disease”, he says, “So we spend millions os pounds researching the dust mite that has been with us forever, we clean carpets, we sell the dog, we buy special bedding and afterwards – more asthma. These are only triggers. The simple fact is that asthmatics breathe three or four times more than the physiology books say they should and the medications make it worse.”
Next month Drake is holding Scotland’s first Buteyko course in Glasgow, preceded by an explanatory seminar that is free and open to all. Every GP, every asthma nurse, everybody who has ever looked into the asthma abyss, and despaired, ought to be there.