Asthma Under Attack by Russell Lander, The Bulletin (Australia) 8 October 1996

For 14 years I have been on asthma medication but on February 9 this year I threw out my spray and have remained drug-free and well for some six months.For those who suffer from chronic asthma, this assertion is likely to engender astonishment or extreme scepticism, as this now very common medical condition is generally regarded as intractable, requiring lifelong preventative drug treatment. Doctors won’t promise that you’ll never get off asthma drugs because they don’t know the precise cause of what is now an epidemic.

I hope my story will encourage chronic asthmatics to consider an alternative approach to what is now regarded as standard treatment reliever and preventer medication delivered by puffers, turbuhalers and nebulisers, and cortisone and theophylline tablets. Needless to say, each of these treatments comes with its own suite of side effects and asthma sufferers who follow this course are riding a tiger.

Technique: My wife heard from her physiotherapist about the Buteyko breathing technique and we decided that, with our daughter Jennie, we would do the course. A Buteyko instructor, one of a number of practitioners in Australia teaching the technique, took us through a series of breathing exercises, explaining the theory as he went along. It is surprising how many people have heard about what has become known as “That Russian breathing technique”, but few, it seems, actually do a course.

Our two-week course, conducted at home, comprised five sessions of about one-and-a-half hours each. During this period we had to practise a routine and time our results. The instructor encouraged us to reduce our use of reliever medications within a comfort zone but not to reduce the preventers. I chose to stop all medication at a stroke on day one of the course, even though the instructor had advised against it.

Like many great ideas, the Buteyko approach seems deceptively simple, but is actually quite complex to apply. In essence, the method advocates taking in small breaths through the nose, breathing out gently and holding the breath for extended periods. At first it is foreign to the asthma sufferer but with a little practice it soon becomes second nature.

So how does it work? Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko is a 73-year-old Russian doctor whose research over many years revealed that deep breathing far from being a virtue can be harmful, and that shallow breathing is the natural way to inhale. Deep breathing, he claims, depletes the bloodstream of carbon dioxide, causing blood vessel spasms and oxygen starvation. This in turn may bring about asthma, headaches, rapid heart beat and a number of other medical conditions.

Gulp: Asthmatics tend to gulp in too much air and their efforts to exhale as much as possible to make way for the next hard-won breath deprives the bloodstream of carbon dioxide, a smooth muscle dilator. The effect is that the more asthmatics strain to take in extra air, the less oxygen is actually being released to the body’s cells. Buteyko’s technique of breathing through the nose is alien to most asthmatics because more air can be inhaled via the mouth than the nose, and in any case the nose may well be blocked.

But there are four good reasons why breathing through the nose is beneficial to asthmatics. It regulates the temperature of the air, filters it, humidifies the lungs and limits the volume of air that can be inhaled. The Buteyko method teaches how to unblock the nose and how to maintain nasal breathing all day and all night.

Since giving up all asthma drugs, I have noticed a number of positive changes. I am generally calmer, my hands are steadier, I have stopped suddenly feeling breathless, I can sleep peacefully right through the night instead of waking feeling choked, I have stopped bruising badly at the slightest knock or scratch (attributed to cortisone use), pain experienced in my upper back over many years associated with hyperventilation has disappeared and I seem to have more cash.

That is not to say that I haven’t had asthmatic symptoms occasionally, but I have been able to overcome these by following the book, as it were lowering the breathing rate, softening exhalation and holding the breath for extended intervals every five minutes or so. The Buteyko method has worked for my daughter, Jennie, too. Now 28, she has been a chronic asthmatic from the age of two. On numerous occasions she has been rushed to casualty in a state of dire breathlessness, sometimes put on a cortisone drip for days. Since doing the course she has come down from a towering 25 or more puffs of Ventolin each day to none at all. She has also been able to reduce her preventer medication from six to two puffs of Pulmicort a day. The Buteyko method of controlled breathing has worked wonders in my family and I urge asthma sufferers to be open-minded about it. Although it is not currently covered by health funds, sufferers should weigh the cost against that of regular asthma medications, doctors’ fees and possible hospitalisation. And, anyway, what price quality of life?