Woman breathing

Breathing is one of the body functions that we delegate to the autonomous nervous system and don’t really pay attention to anymore. It is something we don’t have to learn, we start breathing as soon as we are born, without even thinking about it. We are though able to control our breath, we can be aware of it and we can decide when to hold or release it. This is in contrast to most of the other automated functions of our body, like digestion, heart rate or blood flow. Practicing the Buteyko breathing method will improve your body’s performance by helping you get in control of your breathing.

When you breathe properly, the oxygenation of the tissue and organs is optimal. The Buteyko Breathing Method teaches you how to optimize your breathing. It has been developed by Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian medical scientist, in the 1950’s. He combined his clinical observations with eastern practices like yoga and meditation, where slower breathing is an important factor.

Nose Breathing Versus Mouth Breathing

The nose has evolved as a specialized organ for breathing. the fact that you can also breathe through the mouth, does not mean you should or that it is the same thing as breathing through the nose. The nose is optimized to handle breathing in a proper way, meaning it has cavities and nasal mucosa in order to prepare the inhaled air for the lungs.  When you breathe in through your nose, the air is warmed, moistened, conditioned and mixed with nitric oxide. The nitric oxide has two very important functions: it kills deadly bacteria and works as a vasodilator on the airways, arteries, and capillaries.

The lungs primarily extract oxygen from the air on the exhale, not on the inhale. When you exhale through the nose, it slows down the air escape, so the lungs have more time to extract the needed oxygen. This means it is very important to breathe through the nose even when exercising. Unfortunately, if we don’t think about it and are not used to controlling this process, we start breathing through the mouth as soon as the effort level increases. This is because we think we are getting more oxygen, faster. The effect is exactly the opposite.

Overbreathing

Man using asthma nebulizer

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For some reason, we have been thought that deep breathing is great, as it allows more oxygen to enter the blood. Newer studies concluded that oxygen deficiency is not actually caused by the actual lack of oxygen, but by lack of carbon dioxide. This means that if we breathe too much, we actually get less oxygen. Deep breathing can be good if it is followed by a long pause and a long and slow exhalation.

The normal breathing frequency is somewhere between 8 and 12 breaths per minute, but we often tend to breathe much more often, and sometimes also through the mouth. The main reasons for this are stress and anxiety. This increased ventilation rate will cause the loss of more carbon dioxide, leading to worse oxygen absorption.  There is also another effect of the low carbon dioxide concentration: the carbonic acid levels in the blood, decreasing the hydrogen ions, leading to an increased PH level of the blood.

The Control Pause Breathing Test

Dr. Buteyko developed a test in order to estimate how well you breathe. This is very important because it can evaluate your current state but also your progress.

Here is how to take this test:

  1. sit comfortably, and breathe normally, calm, through the nose a few times
  2. take a small breath in and a small breath out
  3. hold your nose with the thumb and forefinger and start a stopwatch
  4. hold until you feel the first signs of an air hunger
  5. release the nose, and breathe in. Your inhalation at the end of the test should be no greater than your breathing prior to taking the measurement

It is important to note that the first step ends with a gentle exhale and that you need to hold your breath only until you feel the need to breathe – it is not a test of how much you can hold your breath. If you have to take a deep breath at the end of the test, it means you held for too long.

The most accurate results are obtained when taking this test first thing in the morning, right after waking up. While you sleep you do not influence your breathing in any way, so right after you wale up you have a great baseline for testing.

You can reference the following table for result interpretation:

Control Pause Table

Control Pause Test Interpretation

The time you were able to hold is your control pause score, also called CP score. A higher result indicates you are more relaxed and calm than a person with a lower CP score. The target score is 40 seconds.

Most of the subjects who take this test score somewhere between 15 and 20 seconds, so there is a lot of space for improvement. Improvements are felt every time you increase your CP score with 5 seconds, and if you keep practicing, you should be able to increase it with 3 to 4 seconds per week. Expect your score to remain steady at times – do not give up, it is normal, as your body has to undergo profound changes and learn to adapt.

The Buteyko Breathing Method

In order to increase your CP score, there are two directions:

  1. become aware of your breath and try to control it
  2. exercise periodically

1. Become Aware of Your Breath and Try to Control It

Do your best to remain aware of the way you breathe throughout the day, maintain a steady slow breathing rhythm, and do your best to avoid sighs. When you feel you are about to sigh, try to swallow or hold your breath. If you don’t manage to avoid it, try to hold your breath for 10 seconds after, in order to compensate. Make sure you use your diaphragm and not the rib-cage – you should feel your stomach moving when breathing, not the upper chest.

While in a resting state, you should not hear your breathing. Breathing needs to be slow and silent. Try to pay attention to what determines you to take big breaths. you need to be aware of the cause in order to try to combat the habit. The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, father of Taoism, said: “he perfect man breathes as if he does not breathe”.

Try to remain relaxed throughout the day. Daily meditation helps a lot in this regard, but this is a subject discussed in another article.

After you pass the 20 seconds threshold, you usually need to do physical exercise while controlling your breath in order to improve your score.

2. Excercise Periodically

The Buteyko exercises are designed to correct your breathing and reverse chronic hyperventilation. The goal is to have a quiet, gentle, calm and regular breathing. All exercises involve one thing and that is to breathe less for periods of time in order to reverse the bad habit of overbreathing. While practicing these exercises you will feel a non-stressful hunger for air – this is great feedback, as it means you are doing the exercise correctly. This is the body’s immediate reaction to an increased level of carbon dioxide in your blood. It takes 9-15 minutes for the increased levels of CO2 to pass the blood-brain barrier and trigger a respiratory center adaptation. If you do not feel this hunger, it means you are not doing the exercise correctly!

There are many types of exercises designed by Dr. Buteyko. There are Buteyko clinics specialized in helping patients correct their breathing and a huge part of their patients have asthma, apnea or other sleep disorders or even anxiety and panic attacks.

This is a simple exercise that will help you correct your breathing and improve your CP:

  • Sit with the back straight, and put a hand on your abdomen and the other on your chest
  • Try to use the abdomen when inhaling and at the same time try to keep you chest still
  • Exhale by using your abdomen, again, trying not to move the chest
  • Aim for smaller breath-ins, taking in less air than you would normally do (aim for about 3/4 of a normal inhale)
  • Try to relax and your breath should automatically be reduced
  • Have a relaxed exhalation – try to leave your lungs and diaphragm to do the exhaling, without pushing
  • You should feel a tolerable hunger for air – try to maintain this for 3-5 minutes
  • If during the exercise your abdomen becomes tense it means the air shortage is too great and you should relax and take it slower (or focus on something else for a few seconds and then resume)

How a practice session should look like:

  • Measure your pulse
  • Do a Control Pause test
  • Reduce your breathing for four minutes
  • Wait for two minutes and do another Control Pause test
  • Reduce your breathing for four minutes
  • Wait for two minutes and do another Control Pause test
  • Reduce your breathing for four minutes
  • Wait for two minutes and do another Control Pause test
  • Reduce your breathing for four minutes
  • Wait for two minutes and do another Control Pause test
  • Measure your pulse

Try to relax during this entire exercise, because you can easily get stressed, especially because of the air hunger sensation.

At the end of the test, your CO score should be about 25% higher than it was before, and your pulse should be also a few beats lower. If the pulse does not decrease, it means you were stressed during the exercise and you need to focus on relaxing next time.

The Buteyko Breathing Method Detox

Better breathing improved blood flow and oxygenation of all tissues and organs. During the first few weeks, or when your CP reaches certain thresholds (usually 10, 20 and 40) you may experience a strong detoxifying process in the body. This process is usually felt as an amplification of the symptoms you initially had, and can be one or several of these: mucus from nose or lungs, loss of appetite, increased yawning and fatigue, insomnia, general unwell feeling, short term headache, increased irritability or anxiety, more saliva, diarrhea, depression.

These can last between several hours and several weeks, but usually, they cede after 1-2 days. if you experience a strong reaction, it means the body is going through a major physiological transformation, and you will feel much better after. During this detoxifying phase, the CP score will have a sudden drop, but it will increase again once after this.

Warning

Do not commence breath retraining if you have any of the following conditions: sickle cell anemia, arterial aneurysm, very high uncontrolled blood pressure and heart problems in the past three months, uncontrolled hyperthyroidism, a known brain tumor, cancer, thrombosis, chest pains or pain in the heart region or kidney disease.

Also, if you have any of the following conditions: diabetes, severe asthma, epilepsy, schizophrenia, very low blood pressure levels, you should contact a qualified Buteyko Clinic practitioner in order to proceed with exercising.

If you feel an increased sensation of cold during reduced breathing it is best to stop and consult a certified practitioner.

 

Conclusion

Photo by Tobi from Pexels

Most likely your regular breathing pattern is bad, and it is not helping your body perform at its best. Proper breathing means breathing through the nose, from the diaphragm, relaxed, rhythmically, and silently.

Once you improve your breathing you will notice less anxiety and stress, better sleep, more energy, a more constant state of calmness and focus. You will reach a state of improved wellbeing. Practice the Buteyko breathing method as often as you can, at least once per day, and you will reach that state in no time.

When you are under stress or you feel angry, immediately pay attention to your breathing and focus on keeping your breathing level, calm and quiet. Stress and anger require heavy and irregular breathing, and if you can prevent it from happening you can control these reactions.