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Breathing more air delivers less oxygen

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Breathing more air delivers less oxygen sounds controversial and yet, it is the essence of an astonishingly helpful breathing technique developed by the late physician Dr. Konstantin Buteyko. It’s helpful not only for those with bronchial asthma! When people get stressed they develop a degree of (chronic) hyperventilation. They breathe too quickly, too deeply, too much. And what in modern life seems ‘normal’, is nine out of ten unknowingly stressed already. The result of breathing more than you should, is permanently more oxygen and less carbon dioxide than what your body would thrive on. Here’s how you can help yourself…

Benefits of oxygen deprivation training are well known in top sport. The Buteyko breathing method is something similar but for everyman. Its slower rate of breathing increases the pCO2 which decreases the tension of the smooth muscle around blood vessels and airway ducts, which in turn improves the flow of blood and air, which in turn improves the delivery of blood to tissue, which in turn improves the delivered amount of nutrients absorbed in your red blood cells, and also improves the delivered amount of oxygen to tissues, organs or even your brain (thinking and remembering). From research in exercise we know that oxygen deprivation increases the capillary-to-fibre ratio (a functional adaptation thanks to an increase in vascular endothelial growth factor) which is good. It also gives a reduction in arterial stiffness and prevents arteriosclerosis which also is good. For sport the trick is short-burst, high-intensity, intermittent training. For everyman there is Buteyko breathing…

Decades ago I read a book about Pranayama yoga wherein the author said to have suffered from asthma which he helped dramatically by swimming under water. The same in all but a name, this author was normalising his pCO2 via oxygen deprivation.

How can I check myself

Dr. Buteyko found that the level of CO2 in our lungs correlates to our ability to hold breath after normal exhalation. It makes for an easy test that everybody can do safely:

  • sit down legs apart in a comfortable, upright position, breathe comfortably through your nose, keep mouth closed all the time
  • after comfortably breathing out pinch your nose, hold your breath and start a stopwatch (most smart phones have one)
  • when you feel slight ‘suffocation’ discomfort [your individual benchmark], stop stopwatch and resume comfortable breathing
  • note down the length of time in seconds you could hold your breath for, this is your Control Pause (see next line)
  • 5-20 seconds promotes or prolongs poor health, 20-40 is neutral, 40-60 upwards promotes or prolongs good health

Control Pause is the interval in seconds that reflects the tolerance of your body to CO2. If your breathing exceeds the metabolic requirements of your body, resulting in chronic depleted CO2 levels, then in time you will shift the goal posts and ‘get used’ to low levels of CO2 and, as a result, have a lower tolerance to CO2, thus your Control Pause is shorter. The reason why you must breathe through your nose is to control your airflow, your nose is your natural air filter, and your paranasal sinuses generate large amounts of Nitric Oxide (a pluripotent gaseous messenger with potent vasodilating and antimicrobial activity) to clean what you breathe in and help open up your airways. Nasal NO concentration becomes higher at lower flow rate, hence the relaxed small breath in.

Dr Gerald Spence MD (General Practitioner) told the QED Science Programme (broadcast on BBC 1) that Buteyko Breathing had had a major impact on his practice: “The simple fact is that 34 patients, prior to Buteyko, were costing £15,000 for their asthma medication. After Buteyko, they were costing £5,000. That’s a reduction of two-thirds in their drugs bill. If this was extended to the rest of the country, very significant savings could be made.”

How do I do Buteyko breathing

Sit down in a comfortable, upright position. With your mouth closed the whole time, take a small breath in (through your nose obviously), small breath out, now gently squeeze your nose, relax and let your stopwatch run… right up to (or beyond as you improve) your individual current Control Pause, resume your breathing. When ready, repeat, practice makes perfect. As you have seen, it takes 40-60 seconds before you fundamentally change your asthma or other health issues. This isn’t a race, simply aim to improve your own time. Practice Buteyko breathing for a minimum of 15 minutes every day (as you want to see improvement in your Control Pause) and persist for 30 days, then review your progress. You have nothing to loose. If you need help then contact the Buteyko Clinic International (Patrick McKeown) or the Buteyko Breathing Centre (Linda Meads).

Too busy to sit down… do Buteyko during your daily constitutional walk, with your mouth closed the whole time, take a comfortable breath in, comfortable breath out, now simply stop breathing (you’d look weird pinching your nose whilst walking) and in your head count to say 5, or 14, or whenever you feel that slight suffocation discomfort, now resume comfortable breathing. Repeat, repeat, repeat as perseverance is the only way to success. Improving your tolerance to CO2 via breathing is not something you can get lucky at. Oh and if, after holding your breath, you’re gasping for air then you haven’t fully taken the instructions to heart. If you have asthma then you may want to use a pulse oximeter (available via internet) to verify that your oxidised to deoxidised haemoglobin ratio is improving i.e. more oxygen gets delivered to peripheral cells thanks to you training yourself not to chronically hyperventilate.

Other things that ease lung problems are dietary changes notably the exclusion of dairy products as these are mucous forming which effectively narrows the diameter of your airways. Many people with lactose sensitivity improve by improving their bowel flora (microbiome) which is achieved by combining Aloeride with probiotics. Your ability to keep inflammation and infection under control will be helped greatly by what I call Environmental issues like dust mite, particulates in the air (e.g. pollen, spores, dust), or mould obviously can aggravate respiratory symptoms.

Science behind it

Lloyd (1963) established in healthy individuals a negative dependence between the degree of bronchial constriction and the level of CO2 in alveoli. Quoting from the first paper listed below: “as a result of hyperventilation (mean duration of the tests : 1min.45sec) pCO2A dropped to 26 mmHg, respiratory frequency increased to 22/min, tidal volume to 0.764 L, minute ventilation to 23.22L/min, Δ pCO2A to 6.4 mmHg/sec. As a result of reduced pulmonary ventilation (i.e. Buteyko Breathing) pCO2A increased to 29 mmHg, respiratory frequency decreased to 13.5/min, tidal volume to 0.430 L, minute ventilation to 5.620 L/min, Δ pCO2A to 4.84 mmHg/sec, symptoms of bronchospasm disappeared in all patients within an average duration of 105 seconds“.

– Buteiko KP, Odintsova MP, Nasonkina NS. Ventilation Test In Patients With Bronchial Asthma. Vrach Delo. 1968 Apr; 4:33-6. PMID: 5664602
– Bowler SD, Green A, Mitchell CA. Buteyko breathing technique in asthma: a blinded randomised controlled trial. Med J Aust. 1998 Dec 7-21;169(11-12):575-8.
– McHugh P, Aitcheson F, Duncan B, Houghton F., Buteyko breathing technique for asthma: an effective intervention., N Z Med J. 2003;116(1187).
– Cooper S, Oborne J, Newton S, et al. Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a randomised controlled trial. Thorax. 2003;58:674–9.
– Lundberg JO. Nitric oxide and the paranasal sinuses. Anat Rec (Hoboken). 2008 Nov;291(11):1479-84. doi: 10.1002/ar.20782.
– Kon M, Ohiwa N, Honda A, Matsubayashi T, Ikeda T, Akimoto T, Suzuki Y, Hirano Y, Russell AP. Effects of systemic hypoxia on human muscular adaptations to resistance exercise training. Physiol Rep. 2014 Jun 6;2(6). pii: e12033. doi: 10.14814/phy2.12033. Print 2014 Jun 1.

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