Blog Post

The Buteyko Breathing Technique Won't Cure Your Asthma!

HM writes: "Ihave been reading the articles about alternative medicine and want to make sure of something. . . .(R)ecently I have been learning BUTEYKO breathing for relief from Asthma and I am being taught by an Asthma nurse who suffered with it herself and got cured. The Australian Asthma website teaches it and some of the doctors in the UK teach it. To be honest I think it is a reliable method and not New age, certainly the practicioner is a conventional practitioner and you are told at all times to keep your medication with you but the aim is to reduce and sometimes stop taking medication which is not a bad thing. Recently I had prayers for having done TM and Yoga and would hate to think that this is anything like that. . . . Can you advise?"

The Buteyko breathing technique (BBT) is not New Age but many of its practitioners are and you should be aware that it's founder was a dabbler in the occult. I would also like to point out that BBT has not been found to do any more than offer a slight improvement in the symptoms of asthma sufferers so don't give up that inhaler!

For those who are not familiar with this breathing technique, it is based on the concept that undiagnosed hyperventilation is the underlying cause of many medical conditions, including asthma, because it can lead to low carbon dioxide levels in the blood. The Buteyko method focuses on nasal breathing and incorporates breath control exercises that help a person reduce their breathing and breath volume rate. It also uses CPAP machines, which are used to treat sleep apnea, or jaw-strap or tape to keep the mouth closed during the night in order to facilitate nasal breathing.

According to this excellent expose of BBT written by Joseph Albietz of Science Based Medicine,  the inventor of this technique was a Russian man named Konstantin Buteyko. Born in 1923 in the Ukraine, he served in the Soviet military on the Eastern Front and became fascinated by the injuries he witnessed.  After the war ended he joined the First Medical Institute in Moscow and began his medical training.

While still in his 20's, he was diagnosed with "a severe and lethal form" of hypertension and was given just months to live. One night in 1952, he was standing alone and staring at the sky, wondering about his illness, and was dazzled by a bright light and lowered his gaze to shield his eyes. He suddenly noticed that his chest and belly were moving a great deal as he was breathing. A sudden revelation made him suspect that the heavy breathing was not a symptom, but the cause of his problems. He intentionally slowed his breathing and felt immediately better. BBT came from this experience.

Some speculate that Buteyko was having a panic attack at the time, a condition that is known to be relieved by slow controlled breathing. However, he believed he was on to something big and began to treat patients with the new method.

What follows in this personal account found on the Buteyko Breathing Center website is a recounting of decades of persecution, physical intimidation, destruction of his laboratory, and all kinds of professional sabotage due to the promulgation of his discovery. During this time, Buteyko still managed to treat patients and supposedly discovered that BBT could cure 150 different diseases and disorders, although there are no published studies evaluating BBT for any of them. In 1987, he obtained a "top secret" patent on BBT from the Soviet government and established the Buteyko clinic.

Here's where Buteyko's background becomes alarming.

"In the final period of his life, Buteyko came to the conclusion that a reduction of breathing leads to clarity of mind, inner peace, and calmness. Additionally, he found out that it promotes intuition, telepathy and other types of extrasensory perception. Konstantin started his career as a talented, yet regular medical doctor, but, by the end of his life, he developed qualities of an advanced spiritual practitioner. He was known for being able to read people's thoughts, predicting the future, and many other extraordinary abilities. He hardly slept at all, was able to exist without food for 50 days at a time, and was capable of holding his breath after an exhalation for several minutes."

Albeitz's articles goes into great detail about the science of BBT and is worth reading in its entirety.

BBT suffers from the same problem as other alternatives in that there is simply no scientific evidence to support the claims made. A 2009 article in The New York Times, which was written by an author whose friend was helped by BBT, cited plenty of research, all of which have important caveats that were not explained to the reader.

For instance, the British study cited in the article was not peer-reviewed and was only an abstract at the 2003 British Thoracic Society Winter Meeting. In spite of its remarkable results, the study has never been published which, according to the scientific community, makes it a "non study."

Albietz's research uncovered 21 studies of BBT at PubMed, but of the three studies designed to test Buteyko’s proposed mechanisms of action, none of them supported Buteyko’s theories.

Five other studies comparing BBT to a control for the treatment of asthma show nothing more than a slight reduction in the use of maintenance drugs. The only consistent finding in the studies was the lack of any change in the participant's pulmonary function.

"Given the most charitable interpretation and taken at face value, these studies imply that BBT can alter a patient’s perception of their symptoms, and perhaps prevent overuse of asthma medications,"  Albeitz writes.  "However, they also provide evidence that BBT does very little to alter the underlying pathophysiology of asthma, and absolutely no evidence to support Buteyko’s claim that BBT can cure asthma."

For those who hope BBT will cure their asthma, Albietz advises: "I wouldn’t hold my breath."

When perusing the websites of BBT practitioners, I did notice that many of them are also into Chinese medicine, yoga, neuro-linguistic programming and other New Age practices. People who are seeking this treatment need to exercise caution and should thoroughly research whoever they are intending to visit for BBT therapy (Rely only upon independent reviews of a practitioner, never material supplied by the practitioner.)

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