Wednesday, 13 July 2011


Following the post in which I confessed to bearing joint responsibility for the financial ills of the NHS, I have taken up Buteyko.
Buteyko was a Russian physiologist, trained in scientific method, which was the first thing that made his ideas more attractive to me than some of the less scientifically based ways of doing things. In the course of his work he noticed that people with a variety of chronic conditions all had low levels of CO2 in their bodies. He devised a breathing method which he hoped would help people elevate their CO2, and he discovered that when it worked properly, people's conditions either disappeared or at least ameliorated. So it's now a method taught by practitioners in various places around the world. The Wikipedia article on Buteyko is quite high quality.

Like all these things they have a long list of conditions that they claim to have success with. Among them were high blood pressure and cholesterol, so I thought what the heck let's give it a go.

The treatment involves five two hour sessions spaced over five days, and then a month of follow up by telephone. The follow up is genuine - I know other people who have done it and who have had hours of conversation on the phone to sort out what they are doing. A one off price covers all that and a reunion meeting after the month is up, and participants can do the course again free of charge. Again, that sounded like a very fair deal, unlike some who will charge by the hour for an unlimited number of sessions, and leave you with the feeling that it's your fault if it didn't work.

An interesting feature of the course is that it is run by a woman who lives locally, Martha Roe, but backed up by a man who lives in Thailand, Christopher Drake. He joins the sessions via Skype video, and will also do telephone calls to people with more complex problems than Martha feels able to deal with. Hooray for new technology. They share a website, and Martha has her own as well.

The method involves breathing less. It sounds, shall we say, counter intuitive, but there is a logic to it. We use only a proportion of the oxygen we breathe in, so if we breathe in less, we don't starve of oxygen, we just use more of what is in each breath. We breathe in air with approximately 21% oxygen in it. We breathe out approximately 17% - 19%. If we didn't, mouth to mouth resuscitation wouldn't work (that's my excuse anyway). And if we breathe less, we lose less carbon dioxide. It's all connected to the brain's respiratory centre, which is what controls the feelings we get when we need to breathe according to the level of CO2 it perceives, and the idea is to retrain it to trigger the breathing response only at higher levels of CO2.

To do that we learn what are called pauses, and very shallow breathing (VSB, there had to be a TLA in there somewhere). The pauses can be quite unpleasant, and you look a right tit when doing them. A pause is holding your breath for a specific length of time, and as the length gets longer you do distractions - these are bodily movements which have the function of distracting the mind from the need to breathe. Sounds stupid but it works - I can add up to 20 seconds to the length of the pause by jerking up and down. Not something to be done in public. I got a very quizzical stare from the cat last night after a particularly flamboyant set of distractions.

Does it work? it can take a long time, but I did my course last week, and I've been doing the method for ten days now. I have seen two things happen. From the first day I did it, I have been sleeping better. I've been unwell for the last four months, and for the whole of that time my sleeping pattern hasn't changed, but I've been waking up feeling completely unrested, having great difficulty forcing my body out of bed, and taking at least an hour after getting up to get my brain in gear. But since day 1 of Buteyko, I have woken up feeling as if I've had a night's sleep. That alone was worth the price.

Has it had an effect on my blood pressure? I bought my own monitor a few days before starting Buteyko and so far I have detected a very slight downward trend since starting the course. It's difficult to tell at the moment, partly because I have been using the monitor experimentally - after coffee (adds 10 points), during indigestion (adds 20 points), after exercise (ye gods), and so on, and I haven't tracked it under stable conditions. But there is a hint of downward movement, which I hope will continue. Maybe I'll be less of a burden to the NHS in a while than I am at the moment.

Among other things we've been told that Buteyko can change the way you breathe when you sing, and can change the way you use your voice. So we are considering a Buteyko choir, Buteyko ventriloquism, and of course, the Buteyko dance, which would be a kind of punk / Goth rendition of the distractions. I can see it being a big hit at the Brighton fringe next year.

And, on a more serious note, evidence based medicine should be taking a good look at Buteyko. The evidence is that it works. It doesn't work for everybody, but neither do pills. A properly conducted scientifically based study should show that many people can avoid long term costs and long term invasion of their bodies by drugs and other techniques. Maybe the NHS will come to embrace Buteyko. On my limited experience so far, that would be a good thing.


Dr. Artour Rakhimov said...

Good resources about the Buteyko breathing method, with breathing exercises, lifestyle modules, analysis of clinical trials and more:

Rob said...

Thank you for that, Dr Artour - that's very kind. I really need to put some time aside to read more, but time is what I have least of at the moment :-( I've bookmarked your site for later.

TheBreathingMan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TheBreathingMan said...

Hi Rob, thank you for talking about Buteyko it very kind of you, do you want to conect on Facebook
warm regards

Dr Janet Winter said...

Hi Rob,
Buteyko is best known as a natural, drug-free way to control asthma. Indeed for asthma, several small clinical trials have shown positive results, so much so that Buteyko has since 2008 been listed in the UK Asthma guidelines (British Thoracic society and SIGN) with a "B" Rating, the only complementary therapy with such an endorsement.
Dr Janet Winter