‘Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.’

Nathaniel Emmons


For the vast majority of people, breathing  is an everyday fact of life which occurs on a subconscious  level. It is something that  is  all  too often  taken  for  granted   –  until  there’s  a problem. Yet breathing  is the most  important physiological function you can exercise control over and this is something that can easily be achieved through  increased attention, observation  and will-power. With practice both the rate and volume of breathing  can be changed  for the better  and the only prerequisite  is to  be aware  of the  existing  breathing pattern.


Claude Lum, a noted  physician at Papworth  University hospital, Cambridge, described hyperventilation, or over- breathing,  as  a bad  habit that  has  the  effect  of  lowering carbon dioxide levels. It is only necessary to look at examples such as smoking to realise that bad habits are easy to acquire – and not quite so easy to lose. Changing a habit of a lifetime can  initially cause  disruption  to  a daily routine  and  focus attention on the change that is to be made.

While in extreme cases the fight to combat a bad habit can consume  every waking minute,  acquiring  a good habit can  inspire  a new wave of self-confidence.  Once  the  new habit  has been  acquired,  even one  that  requires  enormous self-discipline and a large helping of patience, it quickly becomes  very easy to  live with  and  can  help  boost  self- esteem  and  self-belief. The  investment of time,  effort and concentration in the short term will ensure a reward of posi- tive long-term results.

Making  the  change  to a reduced  volume  of breathing should be treated as simply acquiring a good habit – one that will reap untold  health benefits.  Ultimately the benefits  can include the complete recovery of an individual with asthma.

Many of Professor Buteyko’s patients  who were taught the Buteyko Method  remained  completely free from symptoms of asthma  thirty years later. It was as a result of pres- sure placed on the Soviet authorities  by those who recovered that  independent  trials  into  Professor  Buteyko’s  method were conducted.  The results of the trials brought  about the full recognition  and acceptance of the Buteyko system in the Soviet Union.

What is overbreathing?

First, let’s take a quick look at what overbreathing is, and why we do it in the first place. Clinically, overbreathing is known as hyperventilation;  put simply, it means  breathing  more air than the body needs. The standard volume of normal breath- ing for a healthy adult is three to six litres of air per minute.

Scientific  research   conducted   by  Professor  Buteyko  over three decades, along with scientific trials at the Mater Hospi- tal in Brisbane in 1995 demonstrated that people with asthma breathe a volume of ten to twenty litres per minute  between attacks, and over twenty litres during an attack.

Overbreathing  causes a loss of carbon dioxide from the lungs. This is not a problem if it occurs only for a short time, because  breathing   will  reduce  afterwards  to  restore   the carbon dioxide levels. However, breathing  more air than we need  over a period  of time  – and  time  can  mean  hours, weeks, months  or even years – will result in the day-to-day levels of carbon dioxide remaining low constantly. Our respiratory centre  becomes  accustomed  to or fixed at these lower levels of carbon  dioxide and  determine them  to be ‘correct’. Our respiratory centre will therefore  instruct us to overbreathe  to maintain  these low levels of carbon dioxide even though  the  rest of our bodily organs  and  tissues are suffering.

Carbon dioxide is very important for normal bodily functioning  (for a more detailed explanation, see Appendix 1), it is logical to assume that the body must have some way to prevent  losing  it.  Narrowing  of  the  airways is  caused  by inflammation, by  constriction   of  smooth   muscle  and  by increased  mucus secretion, and is a natural defence mecha- nism to help maintain  the carbon dioxide level. In a person with  asthma,  this  defence  mechanism activates  when  the carbon dioxide level declines too much. Overbreathing  also causes  cooling  and  drying  of the  airways, two effects that have  been  recognised  to  play a role  in  producing  asthma symptoms.

People with asthma are better off than anyone else who overbreathes   because  they  are  equipped  with  an  instant defence  mechanism to prevent  the  loss of carbon  dioxide. People who do not have this defence mechanism suffer from many  of the  diseases  of civilisation for which  there  is no cure.

It is worth  noting  that  before  1900, people  who  had asthma often lived longer than the rest of the population and that death from asthma was unknown. ‘Having asthma generally meant having a long life free from many diseases, but nobody could explain why asthma prevented other diseases or why asthmatics lived longer than other people,’ Professor Buteyko noted. At the end of 19th century, Professor of Medicine  at Oxford University Sir William Osler, wrote in his Principles and Prac- tice of Medicine textbook: ‘We have no knowledge of the morbid anatomy of true asthma. Death during the attack is unknown.’

Overbreathing   resulting   from   modern   living  is  the cause of breathing-related diseases. Hyperventilation is not just a result  of asthma, hyperventilation is the  main  con- tributor of asthma. Professor  Buteyko believes that  genetic  predisposition determines which illnesses people develop from overbreathing. As a result, each person  who hyperventilates  or over- breathes is affected individually, based on hereditary factors.

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