Imported from Overseas, Breathing Technique Offers Natural Relief and Reduces Medication Use

Breathing should be the most ordinary of physical tasks since we do it about 20,000 times each day. But for the many millions of Americans who have asthma and other breathing disorders, this ordinary act can be a challenge. A few years ago I wrote about a book called Reversing Asthma that describes one effective natural breathing technique — and now here’s another, called the Buteyko Method. Developed decades ago by a Russian doctor, Buteyko is popular among people with asthma in Australia, United Kingdom and Russia but has been virtually unknown in this country until quite recently. A study in Thorax in 2003 and another in Journal of Asthma in 2000 found Buteyko can reduce reliance on bronchodilators and the need for corticosteroids in asthma patients.


The basic theory underlying the Buteyko Method is that a dysfunctional breathing pattern evokes symptoms of asthma and is in fact one of the root causes of the constriction of the airways. Buteyko practitioners believe that many people with asthma actually over-breathe by taking in air too rapidly or through their mouth all the time, but only notice it when it becomes uncontrolled, during an attack. People with asthma typically breathe 12 to 14 liters of air per minute, compared with the normal intake of four to six liters. The body is designed to fully oxygenate itself via normal breathing — over-breathing (the same as hyperventilation) results in abnormally low levels of carbon dioxide (CO2).

You may think of CO2 as the “waste” exhaled from the lungs, but CO2 is crucial for helping regulate many bodily functions including the blood pH, which affects release of oxygen into the tissues. In an attempt to reduce the intake of excess air from over-breathing and to preserve CO2, the body narrows the airways and produces excess airway mucus, which, along with inflammation and swelling, is characteristic of asthma. In people with asthma, breathing stressors such as perfume, pollution or emotional upset may trigger even more rapid breathing or gasping for air, thus further decreasing CO2.


I spoke with Carol Baglia, RRT, CBP, ( who is a registered respiratory therapist, certified in the Buteyko Breathing Method. The Buteyko method uses personal instruction and exercises to teach people with asthma a new way to breathe, thereby improving the balance between their oxygen and CO2. Students learn to inhale and exhale through their nose only, because nasal breathing serves as a natural way to control the amount of air allowed in — Baglia calls this the “volume control.” The measure of success for people learning Buteyko is a “control pause” (the amount of time you can comfortably hold your breath, starting at the end of a normal exhalation) of about one minute, says Baglia.


The Buteyko Method also works well for many people who suffer from sleep apnea, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), panic attacks and the many other conditions that can make it hard to breathe easily. People with sleep apnea over-breathe while asleep, causing CO2 loss that soon overwhelms the body, which could be why sufferers stop breathing altogether — it’s an attempt to regain balance. But having reached the opposite outer limit, the sleeper then gasps for air and another round of over-breathing and breath-holding begins. Baglia explains that in such cases the respiratory control center in the back of the brain has ceased to function properly and must be retrained. Rigorous practice of the Buteyko exercises over a period of weeks enables people to bring the control center back into proper functioning, and from then on they are able to breathe correctly in sleep as well as when awake.

Not only do the clinical trials of Buteyko show a vast reduction in asthma medication use and symptoms, but also a significant improvement in quality of life and a sense of optimism about the future as people became less afraid of their asthma. While there are only a handful of Buteyko trainers in the US, training can be done over the phone — it does not require face-to-face interaction. If you are interested in learning the method and don’t have access to a trainer, it is possible to purchase a home-study kit on-line for under $100 that comes with personal e-mail and telephone support with a trainer who is certified in the technique ( While medical insurance won’t cover this, people who have flexible spending accounts may be able to receive reimbursement for the purchase.