Have you heard of the breathing method called Buteyko method?
It was invented by the Russian physician Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, and today, the Irish Patrick McKeown is one of the top teachers of it. He has been teaching this method full-time for over a dozen years, not only in his native country but also abroad.
In a TED Talk, McKeown speaks about the ignorance of breathing when it comes to health.
Proper breathing, however, can enhance the transportation of oxygen through our body, and brain. It is also an effective method for relieving anxiety and stress.
Mouth breathing and over-breathing are two of the most common breathing mistakes, as they have adverse effects on our health.
You are changing your facial structure when you breathe through the mouth. This causes narrowing and dropping your facial features downwards. Set back and narrow jaws raise the chances of developing permanent obstructive sleep apnea (1).
In the featured video, McKeown explains the problems linked to mouth breathing as well as the importance of early addressing of this type of breathing since it can have lifelong consequences.
The Key for Stress Management and Good Health is Nose Breathing
The well-known calming strategy of taking deep breaths can sometimes have opposite effects. When you feel stressed, you breathe deeper, faster, and noisier, from your upper chest instead of the diaphragm, and more often through your mouth.
McKeown explains that amplifying your breathing pattern when you are stressed won’t make you calmer. In order to calm, you should breathe from the diaphragm and in a slower pattern. In such situations, you want to breathe less, and the key to this is nose breathing.
The nose directs 30 separate body functions. The nerves located in the nasal passages are connected to the hypothalamus, so they can sense all that’s related to your breathing, and thanks to this information, they regulate the function in your body.
For instance, during breathing, your nose release NO (nitric oxide) that is carried to your lungs. The nitric oxide gas, is vital in keeping the balance in your body (homeostasis) (2), (3), (4), (5), (6). What’s more, thanks to this gas, the air that’s carried to the lungs is sterilized, the airways are opened, and the oxygen amount taken up in your blood is increased. The human is born to breathe through the nose, however, a lot of people have developed dysfunctional patterns of breathing that result in breathing through the mouth.
This can have negative consequences on your health, like developing asthma. When asthmatics feel like they aren’t getting enough air, they start breathing heavier, and increasing the volume of breathing entering into lungs leads to loss of CO2 (carbon dioxide).
Carbon Dioxide Homeostasis Importance
CO2 is not only a waste gas as many belief. We do breathe to release excess CO2, but we need to keep a certain amount of it in order to maintain a normal volume of breathing.
Losing too much CO2 through heavy breathing results in constriction of the smooth muscles set in the airways. When this happens, you get a feeling that you don’t get enough air, so naturally, you begin breathing more intensely. However, this only increases the amount of loss CO2, so your muscles constrict even more. So, the symptoms of asthma feedback to the condition, and to improve it, you should breathe through your nose and breathe less in order to break this negative feedback loop.
Although you may think that taking deeper breaths through your mouth will bring more oxygen in your lungs, clearing your head and making you feel better, this actually doesn’t happen. While breathing deeply, you release too much CO2 from your lungs, leading to constriction of your blood vessels, and making you a bit light-headed. Therefore, if you breathe more heavily, you deliver less oxygen throughout your body.
Mouth breathing and over-breathing are closely linked to snoring and sometimes sleep apnea. These conditions drastically reduce the quality of your sleep, which contributes to the downward health spiral related to unhealthy breathing.
When It Comes to Breathing, Less Is More
The answer to all of these problems is breathing less and through your nose. The medical textbooks point out that the normal breathing volume is 4-7 liters of air a minute, and in-breaths that’s 12-14. According to clinical studies, the breathing volume per minute in asthmatics is 10-15 liters of air (7), (8), while in heart disease sufferers is 15-18 (9), (10), (11), (12).
This indicates that breathing less is the key to good health. Or in other words, if your breathing volume is higher than normal, you have more risks to develop serious health conditions. Therefore, good tolerance to CO2 equates to better health and fitness.
The human body is not constantly attempting to eliminate the excess CO2, so your breathing will be light and smooth when your body and brain have normal tolerance to CO2. Opposite to popular belief, the lack of oxygen is not the main stimulant that signals the body to take a breath, but the excess CO2. McKeown explains that only in extreme situations when the levels of oxygen in your body drop to about 50%, will your breathing be driven by oxygen. So we breathe t eliminate the excess CO2.
Certain CO2 amount is always needed for normal functioning. Normal levels of CO2 mean good CO2 tolerance, and this results in the ability to hold your breath for a longer time (breath-hold time). Moreover, during exercise, the body produces more CO2, so good CO2 tolerance means a much lower breathing rate than that of someone with poor CO2 tolerance.
Breathing Exercise for Lower Stress and Better Blood Circulation
McKeown gives the following instructions for proper breathing in order to reduce your stress and improve your blood circulation:
- Place one hand on your belly, and the other on your upper chest. Feel your chest remains unmoving with each breath, while your belly moves slightly in and out.
- Breathe in and out through your nose while your mouth is closed. Try to focus on the cold and fresh air entering through your nose, and the bit warmer one leaving it when you exhale.
- Gradually reduce the volume of each of your breaths, until you get the sensation as you are no longer breathing as your breath will become very quiet. The most important thing here is to develop a slight hunger for air. This only means that your blood has a slight accumulation of CO2, signaling your brain to breathe.
You will begin noticing the beneficial effects of CO2 accumulation after 3-4 minutes of air hunger. Some of them are an increase in saliva and in body temperature. The first shows that you have successfully activated your parasympathetic nervous system, important for reducing your stress, and the second shows that your blood circulation has improved.
Proper breathing means light, soft, and quiet breaths, and it won’t be either visibly, or audibly noticeable. If the hairs in your nose barely move while you breathe, it means you have successfully reduced the speed of the breathing which will allow you to enter into a calm, meditative state more easily. Breathe less than you were breathing prior to starting the exercise.
The shortage of air shouldn’t be stressful, but tolerable. If you feel too much air shortage, take 15 seconds to break from the exercise before continuing with it again. This way of breathing will also help reduce your blood pressure, without the use of any drugs. Moreover, your nasal congestion will reduce so you will be able to breathe more easily.
Quell Panic Attacks and Anxiety with This Breathing Exercise
This exercise can help you a lot when you experience a panic attack or anxiety, or when you’re under a lot of stress and your mind won’t stop wandering. It will help you retain and gently accumulate carbon dioxide, making your breath calmer and your anxiety reduced. So, your urge to breathe will decrease as you relax more and more.
- Take a small amount of air in and out through your nose. Hold your breath for 5 seconds, and release to continue breathing.
- Breathe normally for 10 seconds.
- Take normal breaths for ten seconds. Do the whole process a few more times.
How Breathing Affects Your Sports Performance
Your heart is also affected by your way of breathing. McKeown explains that the physical condition of athletes who experience heart attacks or cardiac arrest is excellent and doesn’t fit the condition of someone with a heart problem.
But, athletes usually breathe very heavily while training and performing, so this alone can trigger a chain of events that can result in cardiac arrest.
As we explained, blood vessels are constricted by the loss of CO2 when breathing heavily, resulting in lowered blood flow to the heart. Consequently, the oxygen delivery is decreased, and the heart needs oxygen to function properly. So when there are insufficient oxygen and blood flow, you can develop arrhythmia, increased and chaotic pulse. In severe conditions, the heart can even stop.
The effects of holding your breath while exercising to simulate high altitude training were also analyzed by McKeown. The percentage of red blood cells saturation with oxygen must be lowered to less than 93% in order to simulate high altitude training.
McKeown gives the following explanation on how breathing restriction during physical exertion is actually beneficial:
You are going into anaerobic metabolism (working without air) when your body is exposed to a reduced oxygen concentration, such as when doing high-altitude training. The oxygen partial pressure is reducing to below normal. The concentration of oxygen is reduced when holding the breath after an exhalation, triggering raised lactic acid. Simultaneously, the amount of CO2 also increases, resulting in higher hydrogen ion concentration to further acidify the blood.
When your body is frequently exposed to increased acidosis, it is forced to adapt. The body buffering capacity gets improved in order to neutralize hydrogen ions, and this postpones the fatigue improving the anaerobic capacity. Thanks to this, athletes can train longer or at a higher intensity for a set distance (13).
The spleen is an organ that contains about 8% of the total count of red blood cells. But, if your exercise involves breath-holding or you’re doing altitude training, there’s a drop in the arterial saturation of oxygen. The spleen notices this drop, so it will produce and release more red blood cells in your blood circulation. Furthermore, during breath-hold exercise and high altitude training, your kidneys become a bit hypoxic. Since the oxygen in the blood is reduced, the kidneys will produce the EPO hormone, which stimulates red blood cell maturation in the bone marrow.
During both, prolonged exercise like running a marathon, and short-term, high-intensity exercise, the respiratory muscles like the diaphragm might become exhausted. The diaphragm gets mobilized when you hold your breath after breathing out until you feel a medium to strong urge for air, which is in a way a workout to strengthen this respiratory muscle. According to a new study, breath-holding improves the values of inspiratory muscle strength of elite athletes by 14.9% (14).
So, implementing breath-holding in physical activities like walking, can enhance the respiratory muscle strength and anaerobic capacity, as well as improve the oxygen-carrying capacity in erythrocytes. A lot of athletes did this illegally and unethically, but they, as well as everyone, should use their own body as a natural source, of course, if properly guided.
The Basic Buteyko Self-Test
The inventor of the Buteyko breathing method has designed a simple self-test for calculating one’s tolerance to CO2. He discovered that the CO2 level in one’s lungs correlates to that person’s ability to hold his breath after exhaling normally.
According to research conducted on asthmatics and cystic fibrosis patients, the lower the breath-hold time, the heavier one breathes (15), (16), (17), (18). Count the number of seconds or use a stopwatch.
Here’s how to do this test:
- Sit in a straight position, but don’t cross your legs. Breathe steadily and comfortably.
- Take one silent and small breath through your nose, and breathe out in the same way. Then, hold your nose with your fingers to prevent air from entering.
- Hold your breath and count the seconds, or let the stopwatch count, until you feel the first strong urge to breathe.
- Resume the breathing once you feel this urge, and note the time. You can feel the urge as involuntary movements of your breathing muscles, stomach twitching, or contracting of your throat. Take calm and controlled breaths through your nose. You are holding your breath for too long if you feel you have to take a deep breath.
The measured time is called CP, or “control pause”, and reflects your tolerance to CO2. Short control pause times correlate with CO2 levels which are chronically depleted. Here’s the meaning of your CP time in regards to your fitness and health:
- 40-60 seconds CP – a normal, healthy way of breathing, and great physical endurance.
- 20-40 seconds CP – mild breathing impairment, potential health issues in future, and moderate tolerance to physical exercise
- 10-20 seconds CP – poor exercise tolerance and worrying breathing impairment. Changes in the lifestyle (taking care of your overweight, poor diet, excess alcohol, and stress, etc.) and nasal breathing training are recommended.
- Under 10 seconds CP – serious breathing impairment, chronic health problems, and extremely poor tolerance to exercise. Dr. Konstantin Buteyko advises seeking help from a Buteyko practitioner.
How to Practice Buteyko Breathing on a Daily Basis
The good thing is that if you perform this breathing method on a regular basis, you will improve your control pause.
The below video demonstrates the exercise. You will notice positive results with each 5sec increase in your CP, such as improved exercise endurance.
However, if you are pregnant, or you have high blood pressure, cardiac problems, panic attacks, type 1 diabetes, or any other serious health problem, stop holding your breath once you feel the first urge to breathe.
To improve your CP, and decongest your nose, do the following exercise:
- Sit in a straight position.
- Inhale and exhale a small breath through your nose. In case you have a blocked nose, inhale a bit through the corner of your mouth.
- Hold your breath by pinching your nose with your fingers, and with your mouth closed.
- Sway your body or nod your head gently until you feel a strong urge to take a breath.
- Release your nose when you need to breathe, and take light breaths in and out through your nose, while keeping your mouth closed.
- Try to calm your breathing ASAP.
Do this exercise a few times in succession, but make sure you make a 30-60 seconds pause between rounds. The ideal way is to do this exercise every day. If you learn how to be mindful of your breathing all the time, you can increase your CP more quickly. Here’s how to achieve that:
- Breathe through your nose, with your mouth closed always, even when you exert yourself. In case you have to open your mouth to gasp for air when exercising, slow down and make sure you’re not exerting yourself more than you can bear breathing through your nose. In this way, you will prevent over-breathing and related hazards, like heart damage.
- Try breathing more lightly than usual, even when you breathe through the nose. Ideally, you will not see your breathing in your abdomen or chest.
- Try to have control over your breathing, particularly when you are stressed.
McKeown lists the modern contributing factors to developing dysfunctional breathing patterns: overeating, processed food (acid-forming), stress, excessive talking, lack of exercise, the belief that big, deep breaths are beneficial, asthma, high indoor temperatures, and familial habits or genetic predisposition.
If you want to read more about the breathing method of Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, check out the following books written by McKeown: “Close Your Mouth: Self Help Buteyko Manual”; “The Oxygen Advantage”; and “Anxiety Free: Stop Worrying and Quieten Your Mind”. ButeykoKids.com is the Buteyko breathing method website dedicated to children.
Via Dr. Mercola