Breathing to Regain our Health
When lives burst at the seams with activity and present many conflicting priorities, multi-tasking lets us compress more events, more decisions, and more outcomes into each precious hour. And although clearing our to-do list feels good, there is a price we pay for living continuously on overload.
The social and health costs of this cumulative stress load have been well documented. It is undeniable that stress ranks high on the list of conditions that create demand for healthcare services. Stress continues to drive the increasing prevalence of disease, despite massive expenditures in medical research and the proliferation of new wonder drugs. How we respond to stress, though, determines whether we exist in a state of health or sickness—and learning to cope with stress begins with awareness.
Fight or Flight and Our Response to Stress
Our nervous system, uniquely attuned to danger stimuli for self-preservation, remains the same as that of primitive hunters and gatherers. Razor-sharp reactions were essential survival traits when lethal danger was close at hand. However, many physicians attest that contemporary humans are, in many ways, far from the same physiological state as primitive healthy men and women on the lookout for tigers or unfriendly clans.
Yet, when stress predominates in our lives, the whole body can be impacted. Even without looming tigers, our defense system acts just as if danger exists: digestion and immune systems take a back seat while heart rate accelerates, breathing speeds up, and blood flows to our muscles to prepare for the fight or flight response. When stress continues day after day, our bodies invariably wear down, often to the point of failing to establish homeostasis.
Dr. Penny Kendall-Reed suggests in The Complete Doctor’s Stress Solution that the chronic stress cascade initiates persistent secretion of cortisol and is exacerbated by the body’s inability to handle real emergencies when they arise. She continues, “the result of these two factors is a body that is overweight, sleep-deprived, poorly muscled, fragile, prone to infection, and often depressed, unable to perform under pressure or handle a difficult or threatening situation or illness.” She refers to “metabolic syndrome” as a kind of one-stop shopping cart of serious health conditions parked in a single person: “Obesity [abdominal], high blood pressure, high insulin levels with insulin resistance, diabetes, high cholesterol, and increased risk of heart attack and stroke.”
The sneaky thing about stress is that it does not choose only one organ or system, but all of them: nervous, immune, hormonal, digestive, cardiovascular, respiratory, and the urinary tract. Its symptoms include anxiety, chest tightness, inability to breathe, shortness of breath, light headedness, poor concentration and memory, irritability, depression, fatigue, poor sleep patterns, yawning, sighing, weakness, abdominal bloating, indigestion, hormonal disturbances, etc. Kendall-Reed adds that chronic habitual stress is implicated with obesity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, hypercholestemia, infertility, insomnia, weak immunity, cancer, allergies and asthma, osteoporosis, arthritis, irritable and inflammatory bowel syndromes, peptic ulceration, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and migraines.
This exhaustive list corresponds to another list of conditions that were successfully treated using a novel treatment that re-establishes healthy breathing patterns—and that treatment is called Butyeko Breathing.
Dr. Konstantin Buteyko (1923-2003), a Russian medical scientist, spent more than 50 years studying how stress affected breathing. Buteyko Breathing is the culmination of that lifetime of research and study. He formulated breathing exercises that restore and retrain breathing to a healthy pattern.
Interestingly enough, Dr. Buteyko did not invent a new law or principle governing respiration or human physiology. Rather, he used existing data and theory commonly found in standard medical physiology texts and applied the information to create the basis of his therapy. Buteyko turned everything known about breathing upside down and inside out by observing that unhealthy breathing affected every part of the body.
His research demonstrated that people under stress or exposed to a stressful trigger, whether physiological or emotional, excessively increase their rate of respiration. Through methodical scientific research and careful observation of breathing’s impact on numerous ailments, Dr. Buteyko concluded that healthy breathing, without any other intervention, was curative for over 100 diseases.
Science supporting the notion that we “breathe too much” is mired in the common supposition that oxygen is precious. General perception assumes that we can’t possibly breathe in enough air. Buteyko countered, saying, “the theory of deep-breathing disease is based on the principles of physiology. However, our opponents holding higher positions in our [medical hierarchy], are still not able to grasp the fundamental idea stating that deep breathing causes hypoxia [a prolonged state of systemic oxygen-deficit].”
Carbon Dioxide: a Waste Gas?
As far back as 1905, scientist J.B.S. Haldane discovered that carbon dioxide levels actually determine how we breathe.
We hardly think of carbon dioxide as fulfilling an important role—but perception, supported by current medical paradigms and the use of oxygen for so many conditions in the critical care unit, galvanizes the belief that oxygen is gold and carbon dioxide is superfluous.
The concept that carbon dioxide is nonessential was first voiced by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier (1743-1794). His work on carbon dioxide demonstrated the parallels between the combustion of fire and the human respiratory metabolism (both need oxygen, and both generate carbon dioxide and heat). His admonition, still virtually gospel in academia and gymnasiums across the land, proclaims that oxygen is the bearer of life and that carbon dioxide is a waste gas. But according to Buteyko, Lavoisier’s hypothesis has, in fact, become one of medicine’s greatest misconceptions. The importance of carbon dioxide is immense.
To demystify these conflicting perspectives, Dr. Buteyko used a physiological precept called the Bohr Effect, which was discovered in the 19th century. The Bohr Effect illustrated the error in assuming that breathing more has no ill effects. The principle describes the relationship of hemoglobin and oxygen. Hemoglobin transports oxygen throughout the body, providing it to all the cells. Once carbon dioxide levels fall below a certain threshold, the behavior of hemoglobin changes. Rather than giving up the oxygen, low carbon dioxide levels in the blood signal hemoglobin to retain the oxygen that it carries. Thus, even though oxygen is abundant, the cells cannot access it. Consequently, we take in a deeper breath or increase our breathing, which further aggravates the situation by increasing the bond between hemoglobin and oxygen. When the brain does not get oxygen, it panics and irritability ensues.
Over breathing causes an excessive loss of carbon dioxide in the blood, called respiratory alkalosis (similar to hyperventilation). In reaction, unhealthy acid levels build up in the bloodstream (metabolic acidosis) as hypoxia-induced under-oxidized products accumulate. Buteyko postulated that as a result of hypocapnia (low carbon dioxide in the blood), enzymes and hormones slip into dysfunction. In this regard, he believed that diabetes mellitus is caused by carbon dioxide deficiency and that lack of carbon dioxide also leads to spasms of bronchial smooth muscles, brain vessels, heart, intestines, gall ducts, and other organs.
Since respiration affects every cell in our body, breathing correctly brings tremendous health benefits. Asthmatics and those with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other conditions such as angina, anxiety, and panic disorders know only too well the panic and terror that occurs when they can’t breathe, so they breathe faster. For those who experience stress, sleep apnea, snoring, anxiety, and headaches, changing their breathing to a healthy pattern will bring them into balance and back to health.
Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life
The first step to improve breathing is to develop awareness of how you breathe. Observe whether you are breathing with your nose or mouth, with your chest muscles or your diaphragm. Take note of how people around you breathe and you may be surprised that many primarily use their mouths. Consciously breathing through your nose completes the first key step toward respiratory health and positively impacting your stress levels.
The dangers of mouth breathing were first examined and documented by George Catlin, a mid-19th century ethnographer in North and South America who studied indigenous populations. A number of early 20th century naturopaths also recommended nasal breathing, regarding oxygen’s role as vital in the cleansing and circulation of the blood. Caitlin noted that those who were mouth breathers would “waken in the morning with open, dry mouth, foul-smelling breath, persistent hoarseness, sometimes headaches, and a loss of appetite.”
Dr. Ray Peat, a researcher focusing on aging, nutrition, and hormone function, provides comments that support Buteyko’s findings and address the benefits of carbon dioxide in dealing with stress: “A quick reduction of carbon dioxide caused by hyperventilation can provoke an epileptic seizure, and can increase muscle spasms and vascular leakiness, and (by releasing serotonin and histamine) contributes to inflammation and clotting disorders. On a slightly longer time scale, a reduction of carbon dioxide can increase the production of lactic acid, which is a promoter of inflammation and fibrosis. A prolonged decrease in carbon dioxide can increase the susceptibility of proteins to glycation (the addition of aldehydes, from polyunsaturated fat peroxidation or methylglyoxal from lactate metabolism, to amino groups), and a similar process is likely to contribute to the methylation of histones, a process that increases with aging. Histones regulate genetic activity.”
Elsewhere he adds that “the therapeutic effects of increasing carbon dioxide are being more widely recognized in recent years. Even Jane Brody, The New York Times writer on health topics, has favorably mentioned the use of the Buteyko method for asthma, and the idea of ‘permissive hypercapnia’ during mechanical ventilation, to prevent lung damage from excess oxygen, has been discussed in medical journals. But still very few biologists recognize its role as a fundamental, universal protective factor. I think it will be helpful to consider some of the ways carbon dioxide might be controlling situations that otherwise are poorly understood.”
Technology progressively dominates every part of our lives (including health and medicine) with increasing sophistication and expense. New machines and new super drugs inundate the landscape of health care. Are we, perhaps, overlooking simple, low-cost, natural methods to reinforce wellness in our bodies? One such method is as simple as breathing. What could be more natural?
Sussanna Czeranko ND, BBE has been in practice since 1994. She is an adjunct faculty member of the Transformative Voice Institute in Portland, the founder of the Breathing Academy, and a founding board member of the Buteyko Breathing Educators Association. Contact her through breathingacademy.com.
The Quick Breath Test
Breathing Too Much? It sounds impossible, but it may affect you. Here’s how to tell:
1. When you take a deep breath, do you inflate your chest?
2. Do you tire easily or wake up tired?
3. Do you often feel that you are not getting full breath?
4. Do you feel short of breath or breathless?
5. Do you sigh often?
6. Do you breathe with your mouth?
7. Are your muscles often tense or sore to the touch?
8. Do you experience queasy sensations in chest or stomach?
9. Do you have excessive nasal mucus on waking?
10. Do you snore and have problems with your sleep?
11. Do you experience anxiety out of the blue?
12. Do you suffer from headaches and mental fatigue?
Ineffective breathing can cause all of these symptoms. If you answered yes to any of these questions, restoring your breathing to a healthy pattern may help.
The diaphragm is a sheet of muscle that separates the heart and lungs from the abdominal organs. When it contracts, it drops, expanding the chest cavity toward your pelvis. The change in volume causes pressure in the chest cavity to drop, which draws air from outside the body into the lungs. As it relaxes. the reverse process occurs. This is the way our bodies were designed to operate and provides an approach to breathing that reduces stress and allows you to relax.
Many people have learned to expand the chest cavity laterally during inhalation by flexing the intercostal muscles that weave the ribs together. This habit can quickly lead to overbreathing.
If you find that you breathe mostly with your chest, you can experience a pure diaphragmatic through the following exercises:
1. Blow as much air out of your body through your mouth as you can. Close your mouth without inhaling and allow air pressure to close your air passage off at your throat. (You will feel like someone is putting mild pressure on your throat.) Count to three, then inhale through your nose. Your belly should expand as your lungs fill with air.
2. If the first exercise does not work, lay on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Repeat exercise 1 in this position, and watch your belly rise as you inhale.