Russian scientific advancement may now be viewed by some with mixed feelings, but for years doctors in the former Soviet block have been treating asthma, emphysema and a number of other respiratory and cardiac conditions with a method that has left Australasian doctors doing the gasping. Results of clinical trials conducted in February at Mater Hospital, Brisbane, have roused the excitement of doctors and health professionals by showing a 90% reduction in the use of bronchodilators (drugs such as ventolin) and symptoms within six weeks of patients starting a course. Further results from these trials are soon to be released, and are eagerly awaited on both sides of the Tasman.
These results are entirely consistent with similar trials run in the former USSR some thirty years ago, where the technique was devised and introduced into the health system to cut down on the cost of expensive imported drugs. Professor Konstantin Buteyko, who had researched and perfected the breathing retraining over a period of many years, was decorated by the state for his contribution to the Soviet space programme; cosmonauts were able to stay in space for significantly longer after learning the breathing technique. Soviet athletes also turned to the breathing retraining to enhance their health and performance after the international crack-down on the use of steroids in sport.
This technique goes to the physical root cause of the problem, and the exercises re-programme the brain to control our breathing efficiently. Here is a brief, simplified summary of how this works (these effects of C02 in the body are described in any second-year physiology text book): well
- As a response to stress (which may be emotional, a cold, or an allergen etc … ) the heart rate increases and we breathe more deeply
- Deeper breathing becomes an unrecognised, unconscious and continuous habit
- this “hidden” hyperventilation reduces the body’s level of carbon dioxide, and an imbalance is created in the blood gases
- C02 is an important smooth-muscle regulator – without it the involuntary muscles can go into spasms, creating problems in the sinus passages, lungs, heart, digestive system etc….
- Because it becomes conditioned to lower levels of CO2, the respiratory control mechanism in the brain tells us to breathe more often than we need to, thereby keeping these levels low
- By doing Buteyko exercises, the breathing is retrained and slowed down – CO2 levels are increased to that of a normal healthy person.
- Smooth-muscle tissues now have the CO2 they need and spasms stop, sinus passages open up, tightness around the chest relaxes and asthma attacks decrease and eventually stop.
This revolutionary way of treating asthma and other breathing problems was brought to New Zealand nearly two years ago by Queenslander Russell Stark and his Hawkes Bay-born wife, Jennifer. Both Russell and their teenage son Robert had been chronic asthmatics, but the Buteyko course they attended in Australia made such a difference to their lives that Russell trained to be a tutor himself. He has since passed on his knowledge to more than one thousand New Zealanders.
The side effects of long-term steroid use are documented, but we cannot ignore the fact that they have saved the lives of many distressed asthmatics. Perhaps it is not so well known that it is the over-use of relievers such as ventolin that keep the asthma- hyperventilation cycle going, a fact that sadly many G.P.’s seem unaware of. Artificially opening the lungs’ air sacs increases overbreathing so the asthma attacks may be temporarily relieved, but keep on coming.
Russell stresses that one thing the Buteyko technique does not do is tell people to discard their prescription drugs. Clients are encouraged to take relievers according to the manufacturer’s instructions if they have the need, and any reduction of preventatives must be under the supervision of their doctor.
One of the greatest benefits from this technique must be that it places the control of the condition firmly back in the hands of the sufferer. It teaches a way of monitoring the condition so accurately that an attack can be anticipated and prevented many hours before it actually takes place. The exercises can then be modified to whatever is needed to restore health, and as quickly as possible.
It is the Starks’ ultimate goal that the New Zealand Health Department will incorporate the Buteyko method into its system, as its Russian counterpart has done. Until then they are making it available to as many people as possible, a daunting job when they are the only two fully qualified instructors in the country, with Russell conducting courses from Auckland to Invercargill.