Breathe Easy (from South China Morning Post, Hong Kong)

South China Morning Post // Friday December 16 2005

Do you inhale using your mouth or your nose?
Karen Pittar and Tara Jenkins speak to a Buteyko practitioner who says proper techniques for life’s simplest task can have numerous benefits

AT 34, AMANDA was the picture of health.
She was fit and healthy, wasn’t overweight, exercised regularly, and ate well.
So it was an unwelcome surprise when – in early 2003 – she started experiencing chronic fatigue, unrelenting sore throats and distressing respiratory problems.

‘Initially, the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was constantly on antibiotics and had to undergo a battery of tests,’ she says. ‘I was eventually diagnosed with a depleted immune system and severe adult-onset asthma. The doctors told me I’d have to learn to live with the condition and be on high doses of medication for the rest of my life. I felt totally out of control and I hated taking the drugs.’

It’s a story that Buteyko practitioner Jac Vidgen hears on a daily basis – and one he believes he has the answer to. Discovered by Russian doctor Konstantin Buteyko in the 1950s, the Buteyko technique is drug-free and is believed to reverse a wide range of chronic health problems – most notably asthma, allergies, and sleep and anxiety disorders.

It’s based on the premise that people ‘over-breathe’ and breathe through our mouths when we should use our noses. ‘The nose is a temperature control, a filter and a dehumidifier for the breath coming in and a regulator for the breath coming in and out. None of these roles are effectively fulfilled by the mouth,’ says Vidgen.

‘The mouth is designed for talking, eating and drinking and not for regular breathing.’ According to Buteyko practitioners such as Vidgen, over-breathing has a poisonous effect on the body – impeding oxygenation, overexciting the nervous system and upsetting metabolic processes. Advocates of the Buteyko method believe so strongly in the importance of breathing through the nose that they tape their mouth closed at night.

Amanda says that initially, taping her mouth at night was unnerving. ‘To begin with, I didn’t like it, but now I would feel uncomfortable not doing it,’ she says. ‘When I started practising Buteyko, I was sceptical. But within a few months, I was drug-free and I haven’t looked back.’ She says her medication is still in the bathroom cupboard, but she hasn’t used it since.

According to Vidgen, the bottom line is that everyone who practises Buteyko sees benefits. ‘The person needs to make slight modifications to their lifestyle, practise some exercises, develop an understanding of their own breathing and learn to breathe through their nose.’

He says anyone who’s willing to develop more optimal breathing patterns will see improvements in some areas of their wellbeing, as evidenced by four clinical trials carried out in Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. The trial results show that three months after adopting the Buteyko method, there was a dramatic reduction in asthma symptoms, as well as a 96 per cent reduction in bronchodilator use and a 49 per cent reduction in anti-inflammatory preventer medication.

However, Kenneth Tsang, professor of respiratory medicine at Hong Kong University, says that while he’s not opposed to the technique, there are a number of important considerations people should take into account. ‘The Buteyko trials are not stringent when you look at the current gold standard. The number of patients tested is very small, some involve only a handful – about 30 or 40 cases,’ Tsang says.

‘Additionally, some of the studies test a lot of variables, from lung function to quality of life to symptoms; it’s very worrying when you have a small number of subjects and test a large number of variables as, undoubtedly, you’ll have problems in incidental findings. When you invest your health in something, it has to be stringent.’
Tsang goes on to say that, because the Buteyko technique requires the patient to make significant changes in so many different areas of their life, it’s impossible to know exactly which aspect of the treatment is making the difference.

‘It covers a lot of issues, such as advice on lifestyle, education on medication, exercise, nutrition and general relaxation techniques,’ says Tsang. ‘These components are all individually very important to any illness. When you change so many aspects of a person’s life, they do alter. ‘Whether or not it’s because of the exercise or the relaxation that you use less asthma medication, it’s hard to judge.’

He also says the practice does place a lot of demands on people’s personal lives – nutrition, exercise and relaxation rules. Many people in Hong Kong don’t have the time for that. Vidgen acknowledges you have to put in the groundwork to see results. ‘

The average person is lazy. They’re not interested in their wellbeing,’ he says. ‘For some people, it’s hard but it’s also very hard for some people to have the problem they’ve got. If you’ve emphysema and you’re using a nebuliser and oxygen every day just to get around, it’s worth sitting down and doing half an hour three or four times a day, just practising breathing exercises.’

The result, Vidgen says, is that such people use much less oxygen, don’t need the nebuliser as much and get around more effectively. He says people using long-acting bronchodilators are weaned off them within a few sessions of working with him. ‘Once they’re off those, they may take their inhaled steroid, of course, and then use Ventolin as they need it.

‘A few days later, they don’t need it – they’ve removed half their combination drug and it just works, over and over, and over again. All you have to do is teach a mild asthmatic how to use breath control and the symptoms reduce. This is not about ‘don’t take medicine’, it’s about how can we take less and how can we address the underlying problem and not just manage the symptoms.’ While Tsang understands that some of his patients want to come off medication, he stresses this must be done only under strict medical supervision as it may interfere with the treatment

Vidgen nose the best way to beat stress

According to Buteyko practitioner Jac Vidgen, it’s fundamental that children are taught to breathe through their noses instead of their mouths to alleviate a range of conditions including respiratory problems.

‘Look at children today and see the way they’re breathing,’ he says. ‘They all have their mouths open. I teach people of 25 who have never breathed through their nose. Their passages are all closed up, but within three days they are breathing through their nose 70 per cent of the time.’

Vidgen says children as young as three can learn the technique and it’s not just for treating respiratory problems. ‘In Australia today, many orthodontists are sending children to Buteyko because we teach children to breathe through their nose and consequently, the teeth form much more naturally and healthily,’ he says.

Vidgen also believes intense stimulation and stress from birth are the root cause of over-breathing. ‘When we experience intense stress, our body doesn’t distinguish between threatening and non-life threatening situations.

‘It always reacts the same way – increasing heart rate, adrenaline and the body tells you to breathe more.’ He says children today are intensely stimulated from birth.

‘Busy mothers-to-be in Hong Kong run around and over-breathe and when the child’s born they want an intelligent child so they put mobiles in the cots, play videos and so on. Stimulation like that is interpreted by the brain as a kind of stress, so the baby over-breathes.’