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Mon, July 1, 2013
Buteyko and Stress Control: How It Can Help You Live a Better Life
Today it seems that every second person has high blood pressure, asthma, allergies, IBS, headaches, insomnia, sleep apnea, snoring, depression or anxiety.

One thing that all these conditions have in common is that they are aggravated by stress.[i]  Most people think of common causes of stress as psychological, worry or anger for example, but there are also physical reasons, such as over-eating, over-exercise, no exercise, illness, pollution, or not getting enough sleep.

People frequently try to relieve the symptoms of these conditions or their stress with drugs (both legal and illicit), supplements, special diets, exercise and a variety of gadgets. At best, these treatments control the symptoms, but the underlying condition remains, so that you need to continue or change treatments as the years go by.

A Russian doctor (Konstantin Buteyko) made an interesting discovery in the 1950s about his own reaction to stress. He suffered from headaches and extremely high blood pressure. While experiencing a headache, he noticed that his breathing was deep and noisy. Generally we breathe more lightly when our metabolism is low and more heavily when it is high, such as during exercise, so Buteyko realised that the way he was breathing was not appropriate while sitting in a hospital ward. He therefore deliberately began to breathe more gently and slowly. To his surprise, as his breathing was reined back towards the recommended norm, his headache began to subside. On checking his blood pressure, he found that it too was lower.

Being of curious mind, he experimented by repeatedly increasing and decreasing the volume of air he breathed, and found that his headache and blood pressure were worse when he breathed excessively. He also experimented on some of his patients and noticed the same kind of outcomes: people felt better when they reduced their breathing.[ii]

This initial discovery would lead to a lifetime of research by Buteyko during which time, he linked more than 100 health conditions to what he called the ‘disease of deep breathing’ or ‘hidden hyperventilation’. This is also sometimes referred to as the hyperventilation syndrome, the carbon dioxide syndrome, or chronic hyperventilation.

When you have stress that surprises or frightens you, it is obvious that the fight or flight response is activated, increasing your breathing and heart rate. What Buteyko found was that when people have chronic stress, such as illness or when worrying about something, a similar thing happens that is less likely to be noticed. The breathing centre in the brain adapts to the higher breathing pattern of the prolonged period of stress, and it continues to make you breathe in this way even when the stress is removed.[iii] This abnormal breathing pattern causes symptoms of hyperventilation.[iv]

After another period of prolonged stress, the breathing automatically increases a little more, making your symptoms stronger, and new ones to appear.

Common Symptoms of Hyperventilation or Breathing Too Much Air Each Minute

Respiratory System
Erratic, noisy or forceful breathing, unable to take a satisfying breath, breathing with the mouth and upper chest, shortness of breath, chest tightness, over-sensitivity of airways, coughing, excessive sneezing or mucus production, long-term blocked or running sinus, excessive yawning or sighing.

Nervous System
Light-headedness, dizziness, unsteadiness, poor concentration, forgetfulness, numbness, tingling especially in the fingers, hands or face.  In severe cases, loss of memory or loss of consciousness.

Racing, pounding pulse or skipped beats.

Degrees of anxiety, obsession, tension, apprehension, depression, irritability, or feeling ‘spaced out’.

Dry mouth, abdominal bloating, belching, flatulence, poor sleep patterns, vivid dreams, snoring, excessive sweating (especially underarms, palms or feet), repeated throat clearing, itchy skin, chest pain (not heart-related), headache, frequent urination, general weakness and chronic exhaustion, cold hands and feet.   
Chronic hyperventilation is not the panic-type breathing that we generally associate with hyperventilation, but instead it might be a combination of regular sighing or yawning, or breathing through your mouth or upper chest when you are resting.[v]  A classic example of hyperventilation is snoring. If you watch someone snore, it becomes clear that it is unnecessary to breathe this much air in order to meet the low metabolism of sleep. In fact, many of us do not breathe this vigorously while walking around the mall. However, because most of us are not aware of our breathing when we are awake, let alone when we are asleep, this extra and unnecessary breathing pattern continues unnoticed.

When you breathe too much air, oxygen levels stay virtually the same, but there is a decrease in carbon dioxide, which is the body’s regulator.[vi] One of the major roles of carbon dioxide is to facilitate the release of oxygen from blood into the tissues (Bohr effect). If you do not have enough carbon dioxide then it is harder to access the oxygen you have already inhaled.[vii]

Another primary role of carbon dioxide is the regulation of smooth or involuntary muscles that are wrapped around tubes, such as airways, blood vessels and the digestive tract. Lower than normal levels of carbon dioxide make the muscles tighten, narrowing these tubes, and affecting blood pressure, circulation, breathing and digestion.[viii]

The nervous system becomes agitated when carbon dioxide is low, leading to tension, irritability, muscle twitching or feeling ‘spaced out’.

Low levels of carbon dioxide also stimulate the production of histamines and this makes people more reactive to things that they are sensitive to, as well as stimulating mucus production, swelling, redness and itching.[ix]

  Practice makes perfect, even for bad things, and so the more air you habitually breathe each minute, the more that you will continue doing this. Unfortunately, the more excessively you breathe, the more carbon dioxide is driven out of your body, making it harder for the body to correctly regulate itself, and creating extra stress. [x]

Breathing is Adaptable

One of the great things about Buteyko’s discovery was his theory that if a normal breathing pattern can become abnormal unconsciously, then by using a little conscious thought, you should be able to reverse this, making the breathing pattern normal again. He called the techniques and strategies that he developed to do this, ‘Volitional Breathing’. Today they are called the Buteyko Method or the Buteyko Breathing Techniques.
In the first western trial of the Buteyko Method, these results were revealed[xi]:
  • An average 31% reduction in the volume of air automatically breathed each minute
  • An average 71% reduction in the symptoms of asthma
  • An average 90% reduction in the need for bronchodilators (drugs that open up the airways)
  • An average 49% reduction in steroids (drugs that reduce airway inflammation)
These types of results have since been replicated in a number studies around the world.[xii]
Case Study
Twenty years ago 40-year old RS was a chronic asthmatic with high blood pressure, insomnia, snoring, day-time fatigue, numerous allergies and skin rashes. He learned the Buteyko Method in April 1993 and within the first week he noticed a dramatic improvement in his asthma control, soundness of sleep, energy levels and his reactions to allergens. Today, asthma is non-existent in his life, he sleeps well, maintains high energy levels, takes no medication, his blood pressure averages 117/80 and he no longer has any dietary restrictions.

"Buteyko is the best thing I have ever done. Like everyone, I still have health challenges from time to time, but now I just revert to doing the Buteyko exercises at these times, and I’ve found that I bounce back faster than I used to in the past when I was a much younger man.”  
Learning Buteyko to Reduce Stress and Improve Health
The Buteyko method is not a magic pill, but instead it requires a commitment of 1 – 2 hours a day for 6 – 12 weeks to master.  Learning the exercises is relatively simple for most people, but what takes the time is practising them in order to change your automatic breathing pattern. Adapting the strategies into every-day life can also be challenging, but the more you do it, the easier it gets.

Posture Makes a Difference
Babies breathe through their nose most of the time and a baby can sit flat on the floor with a straight yet relaxed back. Young children do not suck their tummy in, or hunch their shoulders. Unfortunately, many stressed people tend to have a blocked nose and poor posture, which both encourages an abnormal breathing pattern and also makes it hard to take a satisfying breath.

If you are going to breathe in a normal fashion to reduce stress, then following these ideas is a good place to start. Perhaps try wearing loose clothes or belts, sit in chairs that allow your shoulders to be relaxed and your back straight, or chairs that recline, so that there is no restriction in the mid-drift region of your torso.

The Horse Rider Stance
One of the Buteyko strategies is to help people breathe more easily and you can try this simple exercise to help you achieve this:
  • Sit on a chair without any arms and take a minute or so to observe your breathing. How fast is it? How deep does the air flow into your lungs? How easy is it to move the air in and out of your chest? Is the breathing rhythmical? Are there any pauses in the breathing?
  • Once you have made the observations, try what Konstantin Buteyko called the ‘horse rider’ by moving towards the front of the chair so that your thighs are sloping slightly towards the floor.
  • Sit up straight and tall, so that the space between your navel and the bottom of your breast bone is lengthened slightly.
  • Remain in this very upright position, but now drop your shoulders.
  • Once more observe your breathing for a minute or two to see how it has changed.
Chances are that you will notice subtle differences, such as more air moving into the lower parts of your lungs instead of only into the upper chest, or there is less shoulder movement and less restriction.

Unless sitting like this is uncomfortable, continue to sit in the horse rider stance for two more minutes making sure that your breathing is easy and light, but apart from this do not try to change it. After this length of time, remain in the stance, and also add in a one-second pause after each exhalation. Do this for up to two minutes and then stand up, walk around and forget about your breathing for the time being.

If at any time you felt dizzy or lightheaded while sitting in the horse rider or when you added in the one-second pause after each exhalation, it is likely that you were breathing too forcefully, instead of gently as you should be while sitting in a chair. It may also be that you changed your breathing in some other way, so relax and try again.

Next time you are feeling stressed, try sitting in the horse rider stance for up to two minutes with the one-second pause after each exhalation for two minutes. If there is nowhere to sit, then while standing simply lengthen the torso (especially around the waist area), drop your shoulders and breathe softly before putting in the tiny pause.

It is not possible to learn the whole Buteyko method by reading an article about it, or even by attending one session because there is a lot to learn and the breathing pattern can only be changed a little at a time. This is why the method is taught over five sessions and new information is learned at each session.  However, you can use the above exercise many times a day to start improving your stress levels.

As a de-stressing exercise, remember:
  1. Lengthen the torso
  2. Drop your shoulders
  3. Put a tiny gap in your breathing after each exhalation
Sleep, Breathing and Stress
Having a good night’s sleep helps to reduce stress and the way that you breathe plays a big part in its quality. While it is not possible to control your breathing while you sleep, the way you breathe when you are awake affects the way that you breathe when you sleep, so concentrating on breathing well during the day time, will help you at night.
Try these tips during the day:
  • Eat when you are hungry and stop when you have had enough, rather than emptying your plate.
  • Get out of your chair frequently. You do not need to do formal exercise, but see if you can move for at least four hours a day. This could involve walking to the bus, mowing the lawn, ironing, washing dishes, shopping, playing sport, doing woodwork or other crafts… anything at all that involves moving your arms and/or legs.
  • While exercising remember to breathe like a deer – through your nose! It might be difficult at first, so slow down, lift lighter weights, take more rest breaks, and take one step at a time. As it gets easier, then you can make the level of exercise harder.
  • We have all been told to breathe slowing and deeply to reduce anger, and there is some truth to this because fast and forceful breathing tends to increase emotions, so stop practising those deep breathing exercises where you attempt to clear out all that ‘stale’ air from your lungs. The atmosphere in your lungs is totally different to the air around you, and if it wasn’t this way, you would be dead.  Repeatedly forcing air out is not going to make you healthy. It will not make breathing easier. And in the long run, the reverse is likely to happen.
Try these tips at night:
  • If possible, go to sleep when you are tired, rather than being concerned about the time on the clock. And when you wake up refreshed, get out of bed, again without being concerned about the time on the clock.
  • Finish eating for the day two to three hours before going to sleep.
  • Attempt to lie on your side when you sleep. No animal sleeps for long on its back, and it seems likely that this should be the same for humans. Until beds were comfortable and houses had proper chimneys to rid rooms of smoke, it is unlikely that anyone slept flat on their back, but instead were propped up, or slept on their side. If you sleep on your side, you will change sides several times a night, which is perfectly normal.
Remember that if you breathe at the correct level all day and all night, you will find that you are less reactive to the stress in your life, and this makes life a whole lot more fun!

[i] 1/6/13 [ii] Stark, R & J, The Revelation of the Breath. Ed SG Mijares. State University of New York, New York. 2009. p119 – 120. [iii] Lum LC. Behavioral and Psychological Approaches to Breathing Disorders. Ed. B.H. Timmons & R Ley.  Plenum. New York.  1994. p116 [iv] Chaitow L, Bradley D, Gilbert C. Multidisciplinary Approaches to Breathing Pattern Disorders. Churchill Livingstone. Edinburgh. 2002. P48 [v] Fried,Robert. Breathe Well, Be Well. John Wiley & Sons. 1999. P45 [vi] 1/6/13 [vii] Lumb AB. Nunn’s Applied Respiratory Physiology. Reed. London.  2000. p267 [viii] Magarian G, Middaugh D, Linz D. Hyperventilation Syndrome: A Diagnosis Begging for Recognition. West J Medicine.1983. 138. p733-736 [ix] Kontos HA, Richardson DW, Raper AJ, Zubair-Ul-Hassan, Patterson JL. Mechanisms of action of hypocapnic alkalosis on limb blood vessels in man and dog. Am J Physiol. Dec 1972;223:1296-1307 [x] Lum LC. Behavioral and Psychological Approaches to Breathing Disorders. Ed. B.H. Timmons & R Ley.  Plenum. New York.  1994. p115 [xi] 1/6/13 [xii] 1/6/13

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