Hacking Breathing for the Wrong Reasons:
In the rush to get the latest “hack” that will make us fit, slim and attractive to others with no personal effort or self awareness needed, Professor KP Buteyko’s methodology has become reduced to a set of epithets about shutting your mouth and holding your breath. Today there is so much Buteyko advice online about “how” to “Do Buteyko”, that so many people are forgetting to ask “do I need Buteyko?”. There is a belief these days that fixing everything – even when it is not broken – is a worthwhile undertaking. But you cannot “optimize” something that is already optimal – without causing it to become sub-optimal. Breathing in a way that causes stress will only make symptoms worse.
In a nutshell, using Prof KP Buteyko’s methodology is a way to “Normalize” breathing patterns. Normal breathing IS “optimal” breathing. Healthy breathing patterns are normally automatically adaptive, have the ability to compensate for the myriad environmental factors encountered daily, from Altitude to Zika viruses, without us even noticing.
When breathing patterns become “fixed” and are unable to easily adapt or compensate (or optimize) leads to symptoms.
Disordered breathing means there is a disordered oxygen supply, which means we cannot produce energy and remove waste products via circulation as well as we may need to. At a cellular level, we struggle with energy loss and tissue cell death which causes symptoms of illness.
Prof Buteyko explained how and why the stress of the modern lifestyle triggers many changes to Normal breathing patterns, which cause energy deficits and chronic health issues related to regulatory functions (hypertension, asthma, arrythmia, etc.). These lectures are part of a massive body of work on which his patented method is based, (held by his son, Vladimir Buteyko at his clinic) and KP Buteyko had several areas of interest as a medical researcher, including obstetrics, cardiac health and respiratory health.
KP Buteyko showed how it was vital to identify all stressors – we call these “triggers” today – in order to reduce and eliminate them where ever possible. Many people mistakenly believe that with Buteyko you can carry on doing what you always did, and by holding your breath a few times a day, you can magically overcome your polluted working environment, your stress-junkie boss and continue to load up as much as possible.
Sorry to disappoint.
I don’t believe his method was meant to “override” any natural compensation, but to rather identify and eliminate the true cause of the compensation while also improving the function of breathing and the awareness of the client. But this doesn’t mean stopping there. In Buteyko’s Methodology many of the things we consider “causes” would be termed “symptoms”. Some of these include food sensitivities, sleep issues, anxiety, hormonal imbalances, mineral losses and even some childhood developmental issues.
Anything that affects breathing function by overstimulating adaptation or compensation mechanisms may be a “hidden trigger”; but some triggers stop triggering symptoms when functional breathing is restored.
One example of this scenario is continual fluctuations in temperature. Most people with asthma and sinus issues at some time or other will report symptoms being triggered “in the car”. They may assume it has to do with pollution, driving stress or fuel fumes. They may be getting closer to the truth if they tell you that aircon makes it worse, but they will often assume that it is a gas from the aircon, or dust in the filters. How many asthmatics or people struggling with hay fever are aware that getting in and out of a cold car into a hot environment is the real trigger?
Airways need to respond rapidly to heat and cold in order to assist with whole body temperature regulation. If you live in the polar regions, this is obvious, as one breath through the mouth may freeze your lungs. To reduce the risk, protective gear is worn over the nose and mouth and people generally nose-breathe more outdoors. When entering a cold space, the body will close the airways slightly to restrict airflow until it is able to make a successful adaptation.
People with asthma have stronger, thicker airways, this can create stronger responses leading to stronger sensations of constriction which can cause panic and hyperventilation as a stress response. This response to the simple stressor of moving froma temperate to cold environment – by example, leaving the heated home or car and stepping into the freezing air outside; can create a hyperventilation attack which can be similar to an asthma attack; and / or can become an asthma attack very easily. People who live in colder regions are more aware that asthma attacks happen as a response to the cold.
In more temperate climates, we are blissfully unaware of this protective mechanism. When we go from our car with aircon of 16 degrees C, into the midday summer heat of 40 degrees C – this is totally unnatural. Where else in nature would this occur several times per day?
This is a “hidden trigger” creating the need for the body to make a rapid adaptation – in the time it takes you to get from the car to the mall. And then back again on the way home…So basically from a climate of a cold day in England to a climate of sunny South Africa, in less than a few minutes…and this could happen several times a day….
These rapid compensations and adaptations cannot be easily sustained without sufficient energy supplies. Fit, healthy people are not really going to notice any symptoms as a result of these adaptations. Energy and breathing are intricately linked. Without adequate oxygen, we struggle to produce efficient energy. In a person with compromised breathing patterns, constantly adapting to triggers and stress could result in an increased or unsustainable loss of energy; creating fatigue.
In a person with asthma, the airways are stronger and thicker; and they can respond more intensively to the slight changes, so these adaptations are felt more strongly and can result in an asthma attack.
So in this case, the stressor is the sudden temperature change, more specifically triggered by air-conditioning systems, and the symptoms triggered by this stressor can be immediately reduced by reducing breathing by breathing nasally until the body has successfully adapted to the changes. Keeping the aircon on at a temperature that is closer to the outside temperature could be a temporary solution, or leave it off completely. Identifying the trigger or stressor is not enough. Understanding WHY and HOW it affects your breathing health is vital for overcoming the panic of recognizing that breathing is becoming disordered. Knowing HOW to reduce and arrest symptoms with small modifications to breathing behaviour – at the time when difficulty is experienced, is just one part of a set of “tools”. Predicting and monitoring is another way to manage and reduce the fear associated with chronic illness. So, in other words, understanding that the airways are tightening in response to temperature changes and understanding that this is a natural response for most people, helps to ease the fear that these sensations create. Making the changes to breathing behaviour at the appropriate time and place – as well as mindfulness to notice changes; are both important practices to assist with overcoming and reducing or removing symptoms. Overcoming symptoms is key to restoring function. Restoring function is key to lasting healing and long-term positive outcomes. This is all part of the methodology of the Prof KP Buteyko.
In cases where you cannot control the environmental temperature, you can be mindful of your breathing and help to reduce the stress by ensuring you are maintaining nasal breathing that is calm and light at rest, and steady and rhythmic when undertaking activity. This makes less work for the lungs and reduces the load, and thus the demand for energy is not suddenly increased creating deficits which lead to symptoms.
In fact, anything can be a Stressor to someone – and because we are all unique; that Stressor may not create any stress reaction in another person. Breathing Patterns are unique to the individual and can tell us so much about that person’s state of health, state of mind and their levels of metabolic and emotional stress from the way a person breathes, because these patterns can give clues as to functional imbalances within the body. These patterns help to explain why there are compensations causing distress; and / or identify and reduce stressors that may be triggering symptoms. Normalizing a resting breathing pattern has huge effects on health, and helps to stabilize oxygen delivery which improves energy. Beneficial effects of better oxygen uptake are usually felt immediately and improve over time.
This is also why having an experienced guide makes all the difference to breathing outcomes. A well trained Buteyko Normalization Educator should be able to help you identify hidden stressors and determine a strategy to help normalize breathing once more. Addressing the true causes of breathing difficulties are key to effecting true change.
©Melody Mitchell, Buteyko South Africa, 2022