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The Story Behind Buteyko
 
 

‘The theory of life in brief, is such that carbon dioxide is the basic nutrition of every life form on Earth – if it disappears, there will be no life on Earth. It acts as the main regulator of all functions of the organism; it is the main internal environment of the organism; it is the vitamin of vitamins.’

Professor Konstantine Buteyko


For over fifty years now people have benefited from a method that is spreading at a steady pace, but is still relatively unknown to the general population. This method is the Buteyko Breathing Method, created by the medical doctor of the same name, Professor Palovic Constantine Buteyko, who died in a small flat in Moscow, in relative poverty.


During the many years that professor Buteyko pioneered his method in Russia, he came up against stiff resistance from the general medical institutions. His carbon dioxide and oxygen (the blood gases) theory was seen as flawed and deemed to be of no use within allopathic medicine. It was only after many years of painstaking work and several threats to the professor’s life, that the method received its true recognition. At the fall of the communist state when the money began to run out, the powers that be, began to realise that if this method was as effective as the findings were showing then this could be the very thing that could help prevent the collapse of a very fragile health care structure with little money to support it.


Professor Buteyko was the first to use the method on himself experimentally for his high blood pressure, he had been advised by his own doctor that it was unlikely that he would live much beyond 35 years of age, due to his chronic hypertension, but Professor Buteyko felt that if his experiment did not work, he would be the only one to suffer any possible adverse effects. The method, of course, did work effectively and professor Buteyko spent a further 45 years beyond his medically predicted end, dedicated to developing his method and refining it, teaching his system not only to many patients with a multitude of chronic conditions, including conditions that general medicine had given up on as unknown diseases, but also taught the method to many medical professionals and others outside the realms of conventional allopathic treatment, who have come to be known today as Buteyko Practitioners.


Shortly after the fall of the Communist state, and the fall of the Iron curtain, the method found its tentative footing in the West, Professor Buteyko had imagined that despite his struggles in his homeland, his teachings would be received with a much warmer reception in the West. This was however, a somewhat naïve view as his method was met with the same blank wall of fear and scepticism that the medical institutions of Russia had shown him to begin with. A breathing method that could help hypertension and angina, let alone any other condition, was not taken with any seriousness, despite the extensive research and patient based evidence there was to support this ‘theory’.


This gave birth to a new form of health care support and education that has come to be known today as the Buteyko Breathing Method. In the early 1990’s Alexander Stalmatski, a former patient and subsequent pupil of Professor Buteyko’s, who had been dying of an unknown disease in a Russian hospital, and had been totally ‘cured’ of this strange condition, travelled to Australia to teach the method in an endeavour to help the method gain a wider recognition. After the initial disappointment of a virtually total rejection by the Medical profession of Australia, Stalmatski started to teach the method to asthmatics with great success. The reason the Buteyko Method was used mainly with this particular condition in the West was because it worked so swiftly and effectively with asthma, and also because it had fewer medical complications than some of the other more serious and life threatening conditions that the method was being used for in Russia.


This led directly to the method being commonly associated with asthma, and the terms ‘Asthma Education’ and ‘Asthma Management’ have now become synonymous with the Buteyko Breathing Method. The first Buteyko Practitioners to train under Stalmatski were some of his former asthmatic clients that he had worked with on his arrival in Australia. As the number of Buteyko Practitioners grew across Australia a few of them established a governing body called the Buteyko Institute of Breathing and Health (BIBH), which has now become the standardizing body for the method.


In Russia today all medical doctors are taught Professor Buteyko’s theory and method as part of their medical training. The method is taught to patients for the alleviation of a variety of chronic medical conditions listing up to at least 150. The Buteyko Practitioners in Russia work along side the medical doctors to teach the method to the doctor’s patients and monitor their progress as the patient comes to a fuller understanding of the exercises they are taught. Given the time restraints on most doctors, this system works well as the teaching of the method is time consuming and initially labour intensive, as it is imperative that the patient has a full understanding of what they are doing with the exercises before they can progress alone.


Buteyko’s theory is that at least 90% of the world’s population hyperventilates1 to some degree; this causes a deficit in the levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the system, which in turn leads to less oxygen (O2) being released by the haemoglobin to the cells and tissue of the body, the Bohr Effect2. The central organs of the body begin to become starved of oxygen and soon begin to suffer; this in turn can lead to many chronic medical conditions.


Buteyko coined the term ‘Hidden Hyperventilation’ to describe what is going on with most over-breathing patients, it is not that they are more obviously suffering with Hyperventilation Syndrome (HVS), in other words they are not always displaying the observable symptoms such as deep and excessive breathing that are clearly noticeable with HVS, yet their underlying condition is one of a long series of over-breathing habits that are not altogether visible as HVS per se.


These habits begin with the more obvious such as simply mouth breathing when it is unnecessary to do so, or sitting sedately relaxing; during hobbies and pastimes that require little physical movement and other placid activities, leading through a variety of habits, such as coughing, sneezing, yawning, sighing, speaking and laughing. All of which, lead to excessive long-term chronic hyperventilation (or hidden hyperventilation).


The Buteyko Breathing Method is specifically designed to reverse the difficulties associated with hyperventilation and normalise the patients breathing patterns through a series of simple exercises that can be done by people of all ages from 5 years and upwards. In the West the Buteyko method is predominantly used for those suffering with asthma, hayfever, and other breathing related conditions. With asthmatics it has a dramatic and swift effect in reducing the persons need for bronchodilator medication and a dramatic reduction in their asthmatic symptoms.


Hyperventilation leads directly to Respiratory Alkalosis, this is where the blood pH has become too alkaline. However, one of the most fascinating aspects of the Buteyko Method is that as breathing is normalised through the exercises taught, the pH balance of the blood is stabilized,3 which has a dramatic effect upon the person’s general wellbeing and quality of life.


People learning the Buteyko Method are primarily taught the vital importance of using the nose for breathing as opposed to the mouth breathing that has become so common in the modern world. This alone can have a dramatic effect upon a person’s asthma and reduce their symptoms by up to 30 to 50% in just a few days. This is due to the fact that there is a large reduction of air passing in to the body, as the nasal passages are that much smaller than the huge opening of the mouth.


This would at first seem unhelpful in the light of the current modern myth that deep breathing is good for your health, yet this is an important area of misconception that needs to be addressed if we are to take the long-term health of all humans seriously. Deep breathing cannot be deemed as good for health due to the fact that the more one actually breathes; the less the oxygen can actually be utilized by the body (The Bohr Effect), what we are looking at with the Buteyko Method is appropriate breathing in any given situation. In other words, the normalization of breathing patterns that leads directly to an increase in human health.


As it is likely that many asthma sufferers at worst, will also have nasal problems, or at best a blocked or stuffy nose with regular bouts of post nasal drip, a simple nose clearing exercise is taught to keep the nose clear for nasal breathing.


The measures of a person’s levels of carbon dioxide are taken with a simple gentle pause in the breathing (something like a breath holding exercise). The higher the levels of carbon dioxide an individual has, the higher that person’s pause will be. Based on this measure, people learning the Buteyko method are taught how to reverse their asthmatic symptoms by practicing exercises that gradually and gently reduce the overall volume of air coming into the body (hypoventilation), which gradually increases the amount of carbon dioxide loading, and in turn, leads directly to an increase in oxygen being release to the cells of the body. Asthma symptoms dramatically drop in frequency, and the person becomes much less reliant upon bronchodilator medication for relief. Yet each person is encouraged to always keep their medication for emergencies.


Any changes in the person’s use of corticosteroid medication are always done in consultation with their own medical doctor. That is not say that a complete reversal of the need for this medication cannot be achieved in many if not most cases, because clearly, once the symptoms of asthma have not be present in the person for more than six weeks and they have not felt any need for bronchodilator medication, the question has to be asked, what is now being prevented, if there are no symptoms present? Asthma is a reversible lung condition, albeit a sometimes chronic condition, but it can be reversed and the Buteyko Breathing Method is at the cutting edge of that process of reversal.


Having said this, based on Buteyko’s original theory, that 90% of the world’s population over breathes; most people from all walks of life would gain much benefit from learning how to breathe normally and effectively. A fact worth remembering is although it is vitally important what we put in our bodies, and how well we absorb our chosen nutrients, we can last several weeks without the food we eat only several times each day (if we still had water available to us), but we can only last a few minuets when we are starved of the air we breathe around us, and we do that approximately 22,000 times a day without giving it a second thought. Now perhaps it is time to allow our breathing to evolve and take charge of our long term health.

The Buteyko Method is most commonly taught during a five consecutive day period, each lecture lasting approximately one and half hours. During the course a person will be taught the breathing exercises described above, and several areas of importance will be explored including tips on diet, gentle exercise, and the many ways in which over breathing can be gradually reduced in one’s day to day activities, including all the over breathing habits that build up over a longer period of time.

1For a more in-depth exploration of the extent and spread of hyperventilation syndrome see L.C. Lum's article: Hyperventilation: The Tip of the Iceberg, Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol 19, pp. 375 to 383. Pergamon Press, 1975, printed in Great Britain.
2Dr Paul Ameisen in his book Every Breath You Take, Tandem Press, New Zealand, 1997, writes, the Verigo-Bohr effect is explained thus: 'lowered levels of CO2 strengthen the bond between haemoglobin and oxygen, thus lowering the oxygenation of the tissues oxygen enters the lungs, goes into the blood and is trapped by the haemoglobin molecule. How easily it is released, to feed the body cells, depends on the level of carbon dioxide. The oxygen is properly released when the carbon dioxide is high in the lungs. If it is low, the tissues suffer oxygen starvation.'
3It is clearly underestimated how dramatic an effect changes in breathing can have upon the pH balance of the blood, the body is constantly endeavouring to buffer the pH balance to keep it within the narrow margins of between 7.35 and 7.45 on the acid/alkaline scale. In Human Anatomy and Physiology, (Fourth Edition) Addison-Wesley, Menlow Park, California, 1998, Elaine N. Marieb explains that: 'Changes in respiratory rate or depth can produce dramatic changes in blood pH by altering the amount of carbonic acid in the blood. Slow shallow breathing allows carbon dioxide to accumulate in the blood. As a result, carbonic acid levels increase and blood pH drops. Conversely, rapid deep breathing quickly flushes carbon dioxide out of the blood, reducing carbonic acid levels and increases blood pH. Thus, respiratory ventilation can provide a fast-acting system to adjust blood pH (and Pco2) when it is disturbed by metabolic factors. [Thus] [r]espiratory adjustments play a major role in the acid-base balance of the blood '