Buteyko breathing technique: a cure for asthma?

Doctors may be sceptical, but supporters of the Buteyko breathing technique say it can even cure asthma. Claire Smith puts it to the test

Thursday 22 September 2011 06:48

There are 22 million people suffering from allergies in the UK; I am one of them. I constantly have a snuffly nose, and house dust and hay fever cause sneezing attacks that leave me fatigued and irritated. But I don't have it as bad as the 5.2 million Britons who suffer from asthma. So when I spotted an advert for Buteyko, a breathing technique that its practitioners claim could cure me of my allergies - and others of their asthma - I decided it was worth a go.

The treatment was invented in Russia by Dr Konstantin Buteyko and only reached the West via Australia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. It is not available on the NHS. Jill McGowan, a Buteyko practitioner and former asthmatic who sold her home to fund a pilot study with Glasgow's Strathclyde University, assured me that within a week most most rhinitis sufferers are breathing more easily. And at the end of her two-year asthma study, 98 per cent of the 384-strong group who completed the trial didn't need reliever inhalers and 92 per cent were free from preventer inhalers.

The treatment begins with five 90-minute group sessions. And it's on the first night that McGowan drops the bombshell: the reason we have asthma and allergic rhinitis is because we habitually breathe through our mouths. What this means is that we are allowing two to three times more air into the body than if we were breathing through the body's natural filter system, the nose.

Since this air is not being cleaned, humidified or warmed, our airways come into direct contact with external irritants. This rapid exchange of air decreases our stores of carbon dioxide, which relaxes the bronchial passageways. This feeling of breathlessness is worsened, says McGowan, when the body fights back: it thickens the airways in an attempt to stop this continuous loss of CO2. According to Buteyko, inflamed airways are the body's defence against faulty breathing. To put it another way, asthma and allergies are symptoms of hyperventilation.

So, what's the solution? First, you need to breathe less, and always through your nose. The course begins with us taking our pulses. Mine is 92 - high for someone who runs 3-5km a day. "It's because you are constantly shallow breathing," McGowan explains. "You are always in a state of anaerobic respiration - as if you have just been running."

Next, you take your control pause - a measure of how long you can last without needing to take a breath. So you breathe in, breathe out and then hold. Ten seconds and under is where you'll find acute asthmatics; around 20 seconds are those with chronic asthma and allergies; around 30 are those who need Ventolin and antihistamines seasonally; and at 40 seconds you will have no symptoms of sinusitis, rhinitis, hay fever or asthma. My control pause is 14, but McGowan is upbeat. "Don't worry, by tomorrow you'll be above 20."

Then we try to reduce our breathing. First, you settle into a normal breathing pattern for one minute, and then for three minutes you cut short each inhalation. At first you feel nothing, then after 30 seconds your body starts to feel warm from the inside, like you're being microwaved. Then you start to feel like yawning, coughing and sighing - which is your body trying all sorts of devious tricks to get more air. "Resist the urge," insists McGowan.

After three minutes you breathe normally for one minute, then take your control pause. Eighteen, I announce excitedly, marking it on my worksheet. By the end of another round my control pause is at 22 and my pulse is down to 80.

Every morning, we have to swallow a teaspoon of sea salt to help reduce mucus production. Tonight, and every night for the next six months, McGowan wants us to sleep with masking tape over our mouths. She shows us a trick to clear our noses: breathe out, hold our noses and nod our heads until we are gasping. Miraculously, the first breath shoots up a clear nose. In one night I have changed from a snorting, grunting foghorn who wakes my boyfriend four times a night into a silent cherub who wakes at 7am with a pulse rate of 76, pink cheeks and a near invisible frown-line.

Today I have to do my reduced breathing exercises three times. Tomorrow it goes up to four, and by the end of the week I will have to do the exercises six times a day. The hardest part of Buteyko is fitting it in, but it seems to work: when my control pause reached 40, I was breathing through both nostrils and I managed to fight off a cold that knocked out everyone else around me.

For Michael Hughes, a 25-year-old PE teacher from Airdrie, who has had asthma since he was two and is a keen footballer, fitting Buteyko into his day was also the toughest part. "I train really hard, so I have to eat a lot, but you're not supposed to eat for two hours before doing the Buteyko exercises."

McGowan recommended that Hughes do the Buteyko exercises called "steps". You breathe in, breathe out, then pace the length of the room for as long as possible without having a breath in your lungs. "It was agony at first," says Hughes, "and you have to be motivated. But I progressed really quickly and my control pause got up to over a minute. Now I feel like a different person. The medication used to make me hyper; now I have no asthma symptoms."

So, if Buteyko is "curing" people, why aren't more respiratory specialists prescribing it? Dr Mike Thomas, a consultant in Aberdeen, says: "I'm a scientist, and the physiological claims the Buteyko practitioners make do not stand up. Buteyko is more of a faith than a science."

Although research in The Medical Journal of Australia showed the participants "demonstrated a trend towards lower inhaled steroid doses", it also showed "no change in lung function" and "carbon dioxide levels remained the same in both the control group and the Buteyko group".

"I am sure that Buteyko has a huge placebo effect," says Dr Wayne Gardner, a former reader in respiratory medicine at King's College, London. "Harley Street is full of quacks who peddle dubious procedures to gullible patients for big profits, and I fear Buteyko fits into this category."

McGowan does not agree. In her opinion, the Australian study measured responses too early: "Twelve weeks is not enough time to give the body to recover," she says. In her Strathclyde study, lung function and CO2 levels measured normal after 24 months. Unfortunately, McGowan only had the budget to measure a random group, so these results come with a question-mark.

Buteyko doesn't involve a five-minute slot in the doctor's chair; it's something you have to commit to every day. McGowan gives you her mobile number to call any time if you are struggling. She tells you that you can be cured. But she also tells you that it's up to you: "No work, no results. Great work, great results."

Asthma facts

Around 5.2 million people get treatment for asthma in the UK. That's roughly one in every 12 people

There is currently no cure for asthma. Treatment is usually by inhaler. A reliever helps to open the airways to make breathing easier. A preventer inhaler helps control swelling and inflammation in the airways and usually contain steroids.

Asthma costs the NHS an average of £889m per year

Asthma can develop at any age.

Asthma is related to eczema, hay fever and allergic rhinitis. Around 80 per cent of asthma sufferers also have allergic rhinitis.

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