When we breathe out too much carbon dioxide, we are unable to sufficiently oxygenate our bodies. Does it sound like a paradox? Yes, but it’s true.
When he was a student, Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko was delegated to monitor terminally ill patients. After hundreds of hours of observation, the young doctor trained himself so well that he could predict the moment of death with remarkable accuracy. In each case, one of the signs of the approaching end were heavy, deep breaths – similar to the ones that upset people are encouraged to take in order to calm down. Yet in this case, deeper breathing was the result of stress overcoming the patient’s body.
Buteyko decided to investigate and understand the relation between the way we breathe and illnesses. In those days, the 1940s, breathing methods were already used to regulate emotions. Yet the doctor reversed the order of cause and effect and in incorrect breathing saw the source of a wide array of emotional states and their respective associated diseases.
Many anxiety disorders are accompanied by chronic excessive breathing. This is also the way many asthma sufferers breathe between asthma attacks. The habit results in the narrowing of blood vessels and reduces the supply of oxygen to tissues and organs, especially the brain. The heightened excitability of brain cells aggravates anxiety, which leads to quickened breathing. A vicious circle.
How do we check if we are breathing the right way? If you sigh often, lose your breath in the middle of conversation, breathe mainly through your mouth, yawn many times a day, sniff, experience sleep apnea, have irregular breathing accompanied by visible movement of your breast, then, in a nutshell: things are looking bad. If we combine this with living in a polluted environment, overeating, immobility, a sedentary life, irregular sleeping, stress and staying in overheated rooms, then we can be pretty sure to develop health issues in the near future.
From numbness of limbs, to twitching, fainting, loss of balance, sight disorders, the feeling of physical and mental exhaustion, sudden allergic reactions, asthma, headaches, limb pain, acute period pain, cold feet and hands, to emphysema, stroke and heart attack – these are all consequences of excessive breathing. The list is actually much longer. Why is excessive breathing so dangerous?
The human body functions optimally only with the right level of carbon dioxide in the alveoli. Increased breathing means the loss of this gas. With an insufficient level of CO2, a response called the Bohr effect is triggered, the result of which is an impediment of oxygen transport from blood to tissues. The air vesicles contract, there is a higher production of phlegm and saliva, a swelling of mucous membranes and pulmonary ducts, an increase in the production of cholesterol in the liver. And that’s just the physical side. Excessive excitation of the nervous system, alarmed by the deficiency of carbon dioxide, leads to heightened stress, irritability, insomnia, panic attacks, and many mental illnesses linked to these states.
Buteyko proposed a method of gradual reduction of the tidal volume. It consists in teaching the patient to breathe less deeply in order to exhale less air. As a result, the concentration of CO2 in the body rises, and the pathological changes resulting from oxygen starvation (hypoxia) in the cells start being reversed. The body regains physiological equilibrium.
The Eucapnic Buteyko method was officially patented in 1983 on the basis of research conducted 20 years prior. In Russia, Australia, Ireland and the UK, there are clinics offering treatment with the use of the technique. It is estimated that over 100,000 patients have used their services.
Your work with the breath starts with learning diaphragmatic breathing. The thoracic diaphragm is the body’s main breathing muscle. Its movements massage the internal organs in the abdomen and stimulate the lymphatic system. According to Buteyko, with correct diaphragmatic breathing, the process of toxin elimination from internal organs is sped up 15 times. When we use the diaphragm, the air reaches the lower lobes of the lungs, and the parasympathetic nervous system (a division of the autonomic nervous system) is activated, which leads to the relaxing of both the body and mind.
The best way to learn diaphragmatic breathing is to lie on your back with your legs bent and consciously direct the air stream towards your lower belly while you breathe in. This exercise should be repeated as often as possible. Each morning and each night offers a good opportunity for exercising. When we have mastered this technique, we will be able to breathe like this while sitting, and even while moving. This should be our goal.
The perfect breath is taken through the nose, is noiseless, relaxed, with no forced pauses. When we start breathing slowly but naturally, we should effortlessly feel a boost in our mood and an improvement in our physical shape. It is worth trying.
Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski
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