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Buteyko Breathing Technique: Controlling Asthma Without Medication

Asthma is at record levels in the United States, near epidemic in some ethnic and income groups. And while experts are at a loss to name a cause, two things are agreed upon: asthma kills (3,404 deaths U.S. deaths attributed to asthma in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) and drugs are a far less than perfect solution (just read the precautions on the label for asthma drugs).

According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America, 25.9 million U.S. adults, or eight percent, of the U.S. population have asthma. That’s roughly triple the percentage thought to have it just 20 years ago and the rate is thought to be much higher among children, and accelerating.

Nearly all these asthmatics are taking powerful asthma medication. The warnings on asthma drugs are truly scary – whether the potential side effects and long-term problems associated with the steroids used in asthma preventer drugs, or the heart stress related to asthma inhaler (bronchodilator) use. Their use is not to be taken lightly. Doctors know this, but they also know the potentially life-threatening nature of asthma demands treatment.

That’s where I’d like to see the Buteyko Breathing technique enter the discussion, as a way of treating asthma without medication. Buteyko, as it’s known in an ever-expanding list of countries where its use has spread in recent years, controls the symptoms of asthma through learned breathing techniques. The Buteyko Technique does not advocate discontinuing drug use, but in my own experience with trainees, and from what I’ve heard and read from Buteyko practitioners worldwide, a large percentage of asthmatics who complete the Buteyko class drastically reduce, and in some cases discontinue altogether, the use of asthma drugs.

The Brisbane Clinical Trial, a controlled study of the Buteyko Institute Breathing Method funded by the Australian Association of Asthma Foundations in 1994, showed marked decreases – in some cases total cessation - in asthma drug use by chronic asthmatics almost immediately and six months after the subjects completed the Buteyko classes. Those in the group using the Buteyko method reported a decrease of 49 percent in asthma preventer drug use and 90 percent in bronchodilator (inhaler) use after six months.

The Brisbane Trial results, although dramatic, are well within the range of what I and other Buteyko practitioners routinely see. Buteyko is an established tool for asthma therapy in many countries.

Tucsonan Carmen Macklin, a Master Gardener and one of my first trainees, said the method was of immediate help to her in avoiding the triggers she routinely encountered working outside in the garden. “Even during the dusty winds in Tucson,” Macklin told me, “I didn’t need my inhaler.”

The method has its roots in traditional medicine; founder Konstantin Buteyko was a Russian medical researcher. Although Dr. Buteyko did much of his work in the 1950s and 1960s, the closed nature of the Soviet Union, including its medical practices, kept the method from spreading earlier. It was formally adopted into the Russian health system in the 1980s. We know Russian and American athletes use it. We’ve heard Russian astronauts use it. (By the way, although asthma control is unquestionably its most common use, the Buteyko Technique can also be used to treat anxiety, allergies, sleep apnea, insomnia, panic attacks, fibromyalgia, digestive challenges and eczema.

It spread Down Under in the early 1990s when an Australian, hospitalized while in Russia on a business trip and impressed with the results of the Buteyko method treatment he got, decided to bring the knowledge home with him. He arranged to have two Buteyko experts come to Australia as trainers. Now it is routinely used there, as well as in New Zealand, England, Canada, Europe, Africa and the United States.

The medical profession says you have a trigger (pollen, mold, pet hair, exercise), then you have a symptom (shortness of breath, irritated eyes), then you hyperventilate. Buteyko says you have your trigger, that causes you to hyperventilate, then you have your symptoms (shortness of breath).

In the medical model they have to find a cure so you don’t get your trigger, or you have to suppress the symptoms. That’s when they give you drugs to suppress the symptoms. In Buteyko’s model, if we stop your hyperventilating, we stop your symptoms. So, the exercises are designed to stop your hyperventilating. We’re not saying we have a cure, we’re saying we can make you less responsive to your triggers.

What hyperventilating does is cause your CO2 (carbon dioxide) level to go down and asthma becomes a defense mechanism and prevents you from releasing any more CO2. Buteyko exercises are designed to teach asthmatics to stop hyperventilating. By stopping hyperventilation you stop the excess release of CO2 so your airways don’t close, and by repeating the Buteyko exercise you train the respiratory center for more normal breathing and less hyperventilation, less susceptibility to triggers. The whole thing depends on the fact that asthmatics breath three times more than normal; their airways are always threatening to close.

The method is taught over five days, with a 90-minute class each day. What may be of particular interest in the U.S., considering the skyrocketing childhood asthma rate, is the method’s applicability to asthmatic children. Children as young as four have successfully completed the course. Kids often have a harder time than adults avoiding triggers that lead to asthma attacks. Not only will they benefit if they are able to reduce their use of the potent drugs from an early age, but they may be able to expand their activities and – a practical matter for parent and child – they should be able to avoid the panic and fear so well known to all asthmatics when they lose an inhaler or realize that they have left home without it. Once you’ve learned the method, you can’t leave home without it.

I welcome, in fact I urge, one or both parents to come to class with younger children so they can learn the Buteyko concepts themselves and help teach their children.

Since moving to Vashon in June, 2013 after having a private practice in Tucson for 25 years, I have opened the Vashon Breathing Center and am currently offering in home consultations to see if the Buteyko Technique will work for you. The next step if Buteyko is right for you are private sessions or group classes. I can be reached at 206.567.4029 for more information and to set up appointments.