Asthma, as we all know, is a disease that prevents people getting enough air into their lungs, because the passageways close up. The trouble is we have got it completely wrong. Actually, asthma is the body’s way of saying: “You are breathing too deeply”. Learn to breathe more shallowly and the asthma will disappear.
This apparently ridiculous idea is at the heart of a revolutionary new cure for this often chronic and crippling disease which affects one in 20 adults in this country and kills more than 2,000 a year. Traditional treatment aims to force the constricted air passages open with steroids and “broncho-dilator” drugs.
However, Australian Christopher Drake, who runs group sessions in the Buteyko Breathing Reconditioning Technique at the Hale clinic in London, believes this is profoundly mistaken. “Within a week we can get 97 per cent of patients off most of their drugs and able to control attacks. “All we use are specific breathing techniques”.
Among his successful cases is Jonathon Aitken MP, who had asthma for 5 years before doing the course. “It’s the only thing that has worked for me,” he says. “I think it is remarkable.” Another supporter is Dr. John Stanley, a medical microbiologist at the Central Public Health Laboratory who, although he wants to wait three months before making a final assessment, says that he has not felt so well in years. “I’d had asthma for nine years, and it was gradually getting worse.”
The technique was developed in Russia by Professor Konstantin Buteyko. Drake first encountered it in Australia about five years ago, and now an estimated 8,000 Australians have been treated with it. One clinical trial written up in the Medical Journal of Australia, describes the results as showing “unprecedented broad-spectrum improvement”.
What makes Buteyko approach so controversial is that it turns our idea of what happens during breathing on its head. In the authorised version, what we all need is oxygen. The job of the lungs is to transfer oxygen into the blood making it bright red and healthy and to breathe out carbon dioxide -the waste product.
In the Buteyko version, it is carbon dioxide that gets the lead role. Drake points out, and physiologists would not disagree, that CO2 is vital for control of the major body systems, such as the immune system, the digestion and the heart. Certainly the transference of oxygen to the blood from the lungs depends on the right amount of CO2 being available.
“Now it is text-book stuff, but not widely known that for the exchange to work most efficiently you need in your lungs about 6 per cent CO2 and 2 per cent oxygen,” says Drake. “This means that the focus of everyone’s breathing is not, as we all think, getting enough oxygen – there’s lots of it around, 20 per cent in every breath – the problem is getting enough CO2, as each breath contains only .035 per cent. The key role of the lungs is to act as a CO2 reservoir”. The storage tanks are the alveoli – millions of tiny sacs in the lungs where CO2 is transferred into the blood.
“When someone constantly takes in too much air,” says Drake, “these reservoirs get diluted with other gases. The asthmatic spasm is a dramatic message from the body that screams ‘Slow down, CO2 reserves running low.’ Literally, the last thing you need at this point is a drug to force your airways open.”
It might have remained yet another eccentric personal theory, were it not for the results. “You have to be pretty well motivated,” says Dr. Stanley. “The exercises aren’t easy. They are the opposite of what you have been doing all those years. But within just a few days you get back a control of something as basic as your breathing. And that’s amazing.”