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