Buteyko Breathing: Can It Really Help People With Asthma?

Have you ever wondered if just learning to "breathe better" might help with your asthma?  Or if it might at least be an alternative to prescription medications? If so, you're certainly not alone. Today, we take a look at a special breathing technique called "Buteyko breathing" and examine its value to people who have asthma.

What is Buteyko breathing?

The Buteyko (pronounced bu-TAY-koh) method, sometimes called BBT for short, is a special way of breathing. It strives to control the hyperventilation thought to be common in people who are struggling to breathe with the symptoms of asthma. Buteyko claimed that this breathing method would decrease the number and severity of asthma attacks. He also sought to cut down on the need for asthma medication.1

Konstantin Buteyko was a Russian scientist and physician who developed this method in the 1960s. He theorized that asthma symptoms are caused by hyperventilation. In turn, that would create a disruption in the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs. This breathing technique was designed to teach people with asthma how to adopt healthier breathing patterns aimed at promoting the right ratio of these two blood gases.1

Despite Buteyko's goals, it is important to note that this type of breathing should only be seen as a complementary or alternative asthma treatment method. BBT should not replace traditional asthma treatment. In other words, don't count on being able to totally discontinue your inhaler or other asthma medication prescription.

How do you do Buteyko breathing?

Ideally, people who have asthma will learn the proper way to perform the Buteyko Method from a respiratory therapist or other health care professional. However, a Google search will quickly reveal that there are a number of websites, books and videos that offer to teach this method.

The goal with this method is to stop mouth breathing and breathe only through your nose. You are also taught to take shallower, more controlled and less frequent breaths. The idea is that you breathe in and out shallowly through your nose. Then you pause, or hold your breath, for a brief amount of time. When you feel as though you need to take a breath, then you do, without gasping in a huge breath.1

How long you can stay in the "pause" segment is thought to be a measure of how healthy your breathing pattern is. Most people should shoot for 30 to 40 seconds. However, it's likely that most asthmatics will no be able to achieve that long of a pause in the beginning. It can take 2 to 3 days of practice over several weeks to change how you breathe.2

Does BBT really work?

There have been a number of studies done to examine the value of BBT in treating asthma. Most of them are quite small and not all of them were well-designed. More research on a wider scale would probably be valuable in measuring the true value of this technique. However, two rather universal benefits include:3

  • A better quality of life by improving asthma symptoms
  • Possible reduction in the need for asthma inhaler medications

A more comprehensive, randomized study was done in Canada and reported in the Respiratory Medicine journal in 2012. This study failed to find significant proof that the Buteyko breathing method was effective in improving asthma control. They did note a slight decrease in the use of asthma medication among the group who were taught BBT.1

Most studies conclude that using BBT will not have any harmful effects and might very well produce some benefits, as an adjunct to other therapies.

In summary

The Buteyko breathing method offers some interesting opportunities to change and improve how you breathe. It may very well have some positive benefits on your breathing and your overall quality of life. Think of it as a tool, one of many that people with asthma can use to feel more in control of what is going on with their bodies.

But you are cautioned to only add this to your treatment regime with the knowledge of your healthcare team. You are also strongly encouraged to learn how to do it correctly from a professional well-versed in the technique. And, under no circumstances, should you make the decision to cut down on your asthma medication without first consulting with your doctor.

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