Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the airways. Symptoms may include episodes of wheezing, coughing, tightness of the chest and shortness of breath. These symptoms are mostly due to a narrowing of the airways and an over production of tenacious mucus.
The underlying causes of asthma are still poorly understood, but there are a number of genetic, environmental and lifestyle factors which may increase the risk of developing this disease.
Asthma affects people of all ages. For some people it starts at an early age and resolves in adulthood, for others it continuous to worsen throughout life. Some people experience asthma symptoms for the first time much later in life and people suffer from it to varying degrees.
Symptoms can be mild or severe, episodic or constant. It can result in frequent hospitalisations, can seriously affect your quality of life and even result in death.
There are many factors which can trigger an asthma attack, including:
viral respiratory infections
environmental irritants and allergens such as: pollens, mould, dust mites, pet dander, air pollution, cigarette smoke, fumes, dust
exposure to cold or dry air
dietary sensitivities such as: additives & colours, preservatives and foods containing salicylates
medicines such as: aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Symptoms are thought to be manageable and even reversable with steroid preventer medication and a variety of bronchodilator reliever medication.
The Medical Journal of Australia states that “Asthma is described as well-controlled when there are few symptoms and little reliever use (e.g. less than 3 days/week), and no night waking or limitation of activity.”
[Reddel HK, Sawyer SM, Everett PW, Flood PV, Peters MJ 2015. Asthma control in Australia: a cross-sectional web-based survey in a nationally representative population. Medical Journal of Australia 202:492–7].
Australian Bureau of Statistics: “Around 2.5 million Australians (11% of the total population) have asthma, based on self-reported data from the 2014–15 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) National Health Survey (NHS)”
[Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2016. National Health Survey: First Results, 2014–15. ABS Cat no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS.].
Australian Burden of Disease Study: “In children, aged 5─14 years, asthma is a leading cause of total burden, with asthma being the top ranked leading cause of total burden for male children aged 5─14 and the second leading cause of total burden for female children aged 5─14.”
[AIHW 2016. Australian Burden of Disease Study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2011. Australian Burden of Disease Study series no. 3. BOD 4. Canberra: AIHW.].
Buteyko’s view – asthma is a defensive reaction
Professor Buteyko was a medical doctor and agreed with the conventional reasoning that asthma was an inflammatory disease of the airways. He understood the need for steroid preventer medications as they addressed the inflammation in the lungs but he had strong reservations about the over-use of bronchodilators for managing symptoms. He saw them as working AGAINST the innate healing efforts of the body.
Let me explain …
Dr. Buteyko believed that the symptoms asthmatics experience were due to a defensive mechanism of the body against habitual hyperventilation or chronic over-breathing and the resulting loss of carbon dioxide or CO2. In his opinion, symptoms such as airway constriction and excessive mucous production were created to limit the loss of carbon dioxide(CO2).
The common asthma triggers listed above, are all capable of causing chronic over-breathing or mouth-breathing and may therefore contribute to excessive carbon dioxide loss.
Dr. Buteyko believed that the indiscriminate use of bronchodilators contributed to the further depletion of CO2 from the body, as they opened up the airways at a time when the body tried to defend itself against the loss of CO2. (Please note that use of bronchodilators in acute emergency situations is fully supported!) Normalizing breathing with the use of Buteyko Breathing however helps break the vicious cycle, lifts carbon dioxide levels to normal, and asthma sufferers experience less asthma symptoms. As a result, they are frequently able to reduce their use of medication and experience a greater sense of well-being.
Studies & Evidence
The evidence base for the effectiveness of breathing training, such as Buteyko, has recently improved, with positive reports from several large controlled trials. As a result the British Thoracic Society Asthma Management Guidelines recommend Buteyko to help control asthma symptoms.
More recent studies state that breathing exercises such as Buteyko breathing can help people reduce medication and improve quality of life:
“Most randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of the Buteyko breathing technique demonstrated a significant decrease in β(2)-agonist use while several found improvement in quality of life or decrease in inhaled corticosteroid use.”
Respir Med. 2008 May;102(5):726-32. doi: 10.1016/j.rmed.2007.12.012. Epub 2008 Jan 31.
A randomised controlled trial of the Buteyko technique as an adjunct to conventional management of asthma.
Cowie RL, Conley DP, Underwood MF, Reader PG.
"Six months after completion of the interventions, a large majority of subjects in each group displayed control of their asthma with the additional benefit of reduction in inhaled corticosteroid use in the Buteyko group. The Buteyko technique, an established and widely recognised intervention, or an intensive programme delivered by a chest physiotherapist appear to provide additional benefit for adult patients with asthma who are being treated with inhaled corticosteroid."
Brigitte is a member of Buteyko Practitioners International and you can read more about the Buteyko breathing method at Buteyko Clinic International