The Buteyko Breathing Method (in depth)

The Buteyko Breathing Method (BBM) is a renowned therapeutic approach to breathing that can significantly benefit individuals suffering from asthma, sleep issues, stress, and many other issues.

Dr Buteyko
Dr Konstanin Buteyko

Background and History

Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian physiologist and researcher, observed that individuals with respiratory disorders, such as asthma, often engage in chronic hyperventilation or over-breathing. This leads to lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood, which is essential for efficient oxygen delivery to the body’s tissues.

To address this imbalance, Dr. Buteyko devised a set of breathing exercises and techniques aimed at restoring a healthier CO2 balance. He encouraged individuals to normalise their breathing volume and breathe more efficiently. He hypothesised that their respiratory health and overall well-being would improve significantly by breathing in this way.

Applications of The Buteyko Breathing Method

Historically, the primary application of the Buteyko Breathing Method has been managing and treating asthma and similar breathing dysfunctions. 

By guiding individuals to adopt calmer and normalised breathing patterns, the method helps to prevent asthma attacks and, in some cases, reduce dependence on medication.

The method focuses on preventing over-breathing and creating a conscious mode of breathing that improves biomechanics (the act of breathing), balances biochemistry (oxygen and carbon dioxide), and improve psychophysiology (mind-body connection and interaction).

Numerous studies – see below – have suggested that the Buteyko Breathing Method can lead to a reduction in the frequency and severity of asthma symptoms. Moreover, it may decrease the reliance on rescue inhalers and corticosteroids, resulting in improved respiratory function and an enhanced quality of life.

More recently, the exercises of the method have been applied to sleep apnea, stress management, long COVID, and anxiety, to great effect.

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The Exercises

The Buteyko Breathing Method incorporates a series of simple yet impactful exercises, specifically tailored to improve breathing patterns and lung function.

Here are exercises as taught by instructors from The Buteyko Clinic International, the world’s leading authority:

1. The Control Pause: This exercise involves measuring the time taken for a comfortable exhalation, followed by holding the breath until the first signs of discomfort. Gradually increasing the duration of the control pause indicates improved breath control and efficiency.

2. Nose Unblocking Exercise: BBM emphasises breathing solely through the nose, which helps to filter, warm, and humidify the air, promoting healthier lung function. This exercise opens the nasal airways.

3. Breathe Light: This exercise focuses on normalising the volume of each breath, encouraging slower and calmer breathing. This allows individuals to maintain higher CO2 levels, increasing CO2 tolerance, and positively influencing respiratory function.

4. Walking with the Mouth Closed: This exercise provides moving practice with nasal breathing. It helps individuals improve tolerance of the feeling of breathlessness, normal breathing function, and create a better breathing habit.

5. Walking with Breath Holds: This exercise introduces breath holds while moving. It helps improve breathing efficiency and effectiveness.

6. Step Exercise: This exercise introduces tolerable air hunger in a playful manner, and is often used with children. Longer breath holds are achieved by holding the breath while walking as many steps as possible.

7. Breathing Recovery: This powerful exercise is used to help prevent the onset of symptoms like coughing and wheezing, and also recover the breathing after exertion or excessive periods of talking.

Please Note

It’s essential that learning the Buteyko Breathing Method is learned correctly under the guidance of a qualified instructor. This is especially true for individuals with pre-existing medical conditions.

You can learn these techniques freely online but the subtleties require professional instruction.

As with any therapeutic approach, consulting a healthcare professional before integrating BBM into an asthma treatment plan is advisable.

Scientific studies - just a few of many

Bowler et al., 1998

In this study, Bowler et al. compared the effectiveness of the Buteyko method with traditional asthma education and general breathing exercises. The participants in both groups were encouraged to use their reliever inhalers (beta-agonist) only when asthma symptoms were present, and the inhaled preventer (corticosteroid) medications were gradually reduced for stable patients.

Results: The study included 39 participants (20 in the control group and 19 in the Buteyko group). Those treated with the Buteyko method demonstrated a reduced need for reliever inhalers and a trend towards lower inhaled corticosteroid use, suggesting improved asthma management.

Source: Bowler SD, Green A, Mitchell CA. Buteyko breathing techniques in asthma: a blinded randomised controlled trial. Medical Journal of Australia 1998; 169: 575-578.

Cooper et al.,2003

Cooper et al. enrolled 90 patients and compared three different breathing techniques for asthma management, including the Buteyko method. After six months of treatment, those completing the Buteyko treatment experienced symptom improvement and a reduction in reliever use. 

Source: Cooper S, Oborne J, Newton S, Harrison V, Thompson Coon J, Lewis S, Tattersfield A. Effect of two breathing exercises (Buteyko and pranayama) in asthma: a randomised controlled trial.

McHugh et al., 2003

In 2003, McHugh et al. conducted a study that broadly replicated the findings of Bowler et al. Nineteen participants received training in the Buteyko method, and nineteen received traditional asthma education and relaxation techniques.

Results: Both groups showed a reduction in reliever use after six months, and those in the Buteyko group also demonstrated a decrease in their inhaled corticosteroid dose, indicating positive outcomes with the Buteyko method for asthma management.

Source: McHugh P, Aitcheson F, Duncan B, Houghton F. Buteyko breathing technique for asthma: an effective intervention. The New Zealand Medical Journal 2003; 116-1187: Slader C, Redde H, Spencer L, Belousova E, Armour C,

Narwal & Misra, 2012

30 subjects with mean age of 30 years diagnosed as having asthma were randomly divided into two groups. Group – A, comprising of 15 subjects were treated with Buteyko Therapy and 15 subjects of Group – B were treated with Diaphragmatic Exercise (DE) and Pursed Lip Breathing Exercise (PLBE). 

Both groups were given treatment 6 days a week for 6 weeks. Parameters were recorded before commencement of treatment and subsequently at completion of 2nd week, 4th week and 6th week of treatment by PFT & dyspnea scale.

Results: Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT) group-A showed significant improvement in the FEV1 and PEFR, and a significant decrease in the levels of dyspnea, where PLBE with DE Group – B showed no significant changes in any of the three measurements.

Source: Narwal Ravinder, Bhaduri S.N., Misra Ajita A Study of effects of Buteyko Breathing Technique on Asthmatic Patients  Indian Journal of Physiotherapy and Occupational Therapy 2012, Volume : 6 Issue : 4

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The Buteyko Breathing Method has been proven both scientifically and empirically to help treat those suffering asthma, breathing dysfunction, and other broader health and wellness issues.

There is no suggestion that this method is a cure all. It is best incorporated into a greater wellness protocol.

It is important to understand that whilst the exercise are widely available online and elsewhere, learning and applying these exercise and concepts correctly is essential for lasting, meaningful results.

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