Buteyko Breathing - What is it, How does it work, and how can I try it?

Buteyko Breathing - What is it, How does it work, and how can I try it?

Jason Kapnick, Catalyst S.P.O.R.T. Co-Founder

Buteyko breathing promises amazing drug-free relief of asthma, allergies, and many other sinus issues. But does it deliver on its promises? Read on to find out!

I had heard about this somewhat obscure Russian breathing methodology from some of the smartest people in the fitness and orthopaedic rehab industries (including SFG's Brett Jones, PRI's Mike Cantrell, and our own Dr. Kathy Dooley), but had never explored this method until recently. While the material itself can seem esoteric and inaccessible at first, my personal results were nothing short of amazing, and so I want to share a little info in the hopes that others can benefit. 

I've tried to keep this blog post as short and science-free as possible. If you'd like to learn more, I highly recommend the work of Patrick McKeown, particularly "Close your Mouth": https://www.amazon.com/Patrick-McKeown/e/B006X1OD3U

First - What's the Problem?

The problem that Buteyko breathing seeks to solve is chronic, low-level hyperventilation. If you've ever seen someone hyperventilate in panic or fear, you'll notice a few things: open-mouthed breathing, rapid cadence of breathing, and no pause between the exhale and inhale.

As it turns out, many of us exhibit these symptoms, albeit of a much lower magnitude. Whether due to stress, digestion issues, excessive sitting, or postural issues, many of us simply breathe too much. As a result, we cause a deficiency of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our blood.

While we typically think of CO2 as a waste product, the actual physiology of this gas is much more complicated. The important things that you need to know are: 

  • CO2 is necessary to oxygenate tissues (via the Bohr effect)
  • CO2 opens your airways - a lack of CO2 can cause the constriction of airways including the nasal passages
  • CO2 reduces histamine levels in the blood - very important for allergy sufferers

How do I know if I can benefit from Buteyko breathing?

Notice your breathing - do you find yourself often breathing through your mouth? Is your breathing rapid, shallow, and primarily from the chest rather than the abdomen? 

According to the Buteyko method, chronic hyperventilators may notices symptoms such as asthma, allergies, and sleep apnea.

The method also provides a simple diagnostic test, called the "control pause:" Sit upright and relaxed and breathe normally. After completing an exhale (a regular exhale - don't force out more air than usual), pause your breathing and start a stopwatch. Continue to pause your breathing until the first sign of mild discomfort, stop the watch, and resume breathing. A good "control pause" will be 30-40+ seconds. If you couldn't make it past 10-15 seconds, you will almost certainly benefit from Buteyko breathing. 

Note: if you're not sure about this technique, or have an underlying medical condition, consult your physician.

But Wait! I only breathe through my mouth because I CAN'T breathe through my nose

Before I started applying the Buteyko method, I thought this too! My nose was frequently stuffed up- I've broken my nose several times, and have had surgery to repair a ruptured septum. For many years, I blamed these injuries for my inability to breathe through my nose more consistently.

But, as it turns out, "If you can't breathe through your nose, it's because you DON'T breathe through your nose!"

Recall that CO2 helps to open our airways - if you habitually (and indeed, it is a habit) breathe through your mouth, you will cause a deficiency of CO2, which can constrict nasal passaages. The result: more mouth breathing, and a vicious cycle.

My Personal Benefits

The benefits that I've personally seen have been astounding. I now breathe consistently through my nose, and my nasal and sinus congestion is nearly completely gone. I've also seen a massive decrease in my sensitivity to allergic triggers such as dust and pollen.

I believe that I'm sleeping better and am recovering more quickly from exercise.

As a result of breathing more efficiently with my diaphragm and no longer compensating excessively through my neck and shoulders, my shoulder mobility screen (from the Functional Movement Screen) is the best it's ever been, and I've seen a significant decrease in neck tension. 

How to Get Started

The Buteyko-prescribed exercises can be challenging and time consuming. While they are very effective, I don't think that the formal exercises are the only way to access the benefits of this method. Quite simply, the Buteyko method comes down to training your body to tolerate less breathing. Just like an overweight person who feels hungry when starting a diet, an overbreathing person will also perceive a lack of air when starting this training. That's okay - even desirable. 

Here are a few strategies you can use to reduce your HABIT of overbreathing. Once again, if you are concerned about your health or have a pre-existing medical condition, consult your physician before trying these:

  1. Mindfulness - Most simply, you can be aware of your breathing. If you catch yourself breathing through your mouth, breathing too quickly, or using your chest and neck excessively, simply focus on calming and controlling your breathing for a few minutes.
  2. Formal Training - The formal method of Buteyko breathing exercises involves holding your exhale to disomfort, and then returning to a normal breathing cadence, breathing through the nose. While it can be hard to maintain a normal breathing cadence after a breath hold, this is the challenge. You may repeat this exercise for up to 30 minutes. 
  3. Mouth Taping - Taping your mouth shut is a great way to put your training on "auto-pilot." Many people recommend taping your mouth shut while you sleep, which can be scary for many people. Instead, try taping your mouth shut while doing housework or reading as a gentler starting point. 
  4. Exercises which limit breathing - Swimming is the most obvious example here. With your face under water, your breathing is necessarily limited. Buteyko practitioners claim this is why asthmatics get so much relief from swimming. Another strategy would be to breathe only through your nose while performing light cardio. For example - I walk my dog up a big hill every day, and I try and not open my mouth to breathe until I've made it to the top of the hill. 
  5. Breathing ladders - This is a much more advanced strategy, which involves using a number of breaths, rather than a time or repitition interval, to dictate rest during exercise. A classic "breathing ladder" with a kettlebell swing would involve doing 1 swing, followed by 1 breath only, 2 swings followed by 2 breaths....up to 10 swings and 10 breaths, and then working back down from 10:10 to 1:1. 

Give these methods a try, and let me know how it goes!


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