Expert Answers: Buteyko Breathing for COPD

Here at COPD.net, we often get questions from the community that could benefit from an expert’s answers. There are lots of conversations on our site and our Facebook page about different breathing strategies, and sometimes some very specific ones. So, we asked our experts:

What is Buteyko Breathing and have you seen anyone try or have success with it?

Response from John

No. However, I have heard of it and wrote about it once. It’s a breathing technique that trains you how to breathe slower, assuming that higher respiratory rates are the cause of asthma. That’s about all I know about it. It’s another type of what is now called “alternative medicine.” Or what the Romans referred to as nostrum remedium, or medicine sold but not tested.

Response from Leon

The Buteyko Breathing Method (BBM) is marketed to be a unique breathing therapy that uses breath control and breath-holding exercises to treat a wide array of health conditions. These conditions are believed to be connected to hyperventilation and low carbon dioxide. Buteyko breathing, for those who are unfamiliar with the method, is based on the concept that undiagnosed hyperventilation is the underlying cause of a wide variety of medical conditions, including asthma and COPD. The basic theory (as it might apply to these lung disorders) is that hyperventilation can lead to low carbon dioxide levels in the blood and a concomitant respiratory alkalosis which can cause the red blood cells to hold on to oxygen molecules more tightly than they would under normal conditions (Bohr effect). Ostensibly, by utilizing the technique, the blood alkalosis would be normalized and consequently increase the availability of oxygen to the tissues. The Buteyko method focuses on nasal breathing and incorporates breath control exercises that help a person reduce their breathing rate and volume. The method also utilizes CPAP machines, which are used to treat sleep apnea, and is reported to employ a jaw-strap or tape to keep the mouth closed during the night in order to facilitate nasal breathing.1-3

Reviewing the literature on this topic demonstrates there is little to no scientific evidence to support its claims. Interestingly enough, if one looks deeply into the physiologic explanation provided by the Buteyko Center, all the claims made are actually testable hypotheses. If Buteyko is correct in reporting that chronic hypoventilation can cure all or even any of the diseases reported on their website, the laboratory values associated with these diseases would become a recognizable pattern in lab results for physicians. Sadly, this turns out to be completely untrue. Finally, since our focus is chronic lung disease and even asthma, the BBM predicts that an asthmatic who begins to retain CO2 should have both their symptoms and pathophysiology improve through the use of the breathing method. In reality however, elevation of CO2 in a symptomatic asthmatic is one of the more ominous signs in medicine, and can even be a precursor to a worsening condition.1-3

After over 40 years of experience in the field of respiratory therapy, I have not seen or heard of anyone in this area (metropolitan New York) who has tried or had success with this breathing method. Based on research done to answer this question, I would caution our online membership to ‘let the buyer beware’. Many claims of cures are made in the name of medicine. This would be a subject that I would strongly suggest you speak with your physician about before trying and/or committing any funds.1-3

Response from Lyn

The basic principle of the Buteyko Breathing Technique (BBT) is quite interesting and may hold some weight in aiding a person struggling with COPD. Essentially, the theory behind the method is based on the concept of nasal breathing rather than mouth-breathing, relaxation, and breath control. Therefore, it makes sense that these methods could be very beneficial to a person that suffers from COPD.

First, let’s consider mouth-breathing vs. nose-breathing. Nose breathing has a calming effect on the person performing it; it literally forces us to slow down our breathing. Since our nose acts as a filter to screen out impurities, breathing through it can have the added benefit of possibly avoiding certain triggers. In effect, if a person is able to master nose-breathing they’re actually using the BBT method to a great degree.

To be clear, originally it was suggested that by mastering the BBT method a person could be cured of many diseases. While there is no clear evidence to support that supposition, there is no question that taking control of how we breathe and in some cases, re-learning to breath, can have a tremendous impact on COPD.

It’s important to note that this should not be considered a contradiction of advice to use Pursed-Lip breathing as a technique when short of breath. Pursed Lip breathing is particularly useful to those with emphysema. The airways in someone with emphysema tend to “collapse” prematurely during exhalation. If a person puckers their lips as they’re exhaling it creates a little positive pressure in the airways that prevent them from collapsing – thus allowing a full exhalation and preventing all that air from becoming trapped in the lungs.

What do you think about what you just read? Leave your comments below!

View References
  1. Buteyko Breathing Center http://www.buteyko.co.uk/ (Accessed August 2016)
  2. Buteyko breathing technique - nothing to hyperventilate about https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/buteyko-breathing-technique-nothing-to-hyperventilateabout/ (Accessed August 2016)
  3. The Buteyko Breathing Technique Won’t Cure Your Asthma! http://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=13301 (Accessed August 2016)

Comments

View Comments (10)
  • Mortimer
    8 months ago

    I disagree that there is little scientific evidence to support the claims made by the buteyko practitioners. There have been numerous studies on buteyko and asthma, which pretty much all find the same : Most of the patients feel much better and need dramatically less asthma medications. At the same time, their is no improvement in lung function tests. Make of that what you will.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    8 months ago

    Hi Mortimer and thanks for expressing your opinion regarding the efficacy of Buteyko breathing. We appreciate that everyone has their own views on various forms of therapy and we welcome everyone’s comments.
    Wishing you the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • lizlizardrn
    1 year ago

    I didn’t know before this article that there was a name for this breathing but I have used it for quite awhile. Sometimes,especially if my heart rate gets too high and I am hyperventilating, I will breathe thru my nose slowly and then hold my breath …I will do it two or three times and it helps to calm me down and slow my breathing . Really helps me!

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    1 year ago

    Hi lizlizardm and thanks for letting us know this method works for you so well. I thought you might also find it helpful to look over this material on breathing strategies for COPD: https://copd.net/living-with-copd/pulmonary-rehab/breathing-strategies/.
    Wishing you the best,
    Leon (site moderator)

  • carmen
    2 years ago

    I also agree with Bob and Leon,

    I have found that it is a great help to me, I have Emphysema, and I hope I am doing the exercises correctly I do a small breath in and then breath out gently and slowly then hold my nose and rock my head back 10 times 5 times morning lunch time and night and my breathing has improved immensely.

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi Carmen – it sounds like you have found a method that helps you as well. It may be unconventional, but from what you said, it seems to make things better for you.
    All the best, Leon (site moderator)

  • Bob H.
    2 years ago

    I certainly agree with Leon, that there’s a huge amount of “junk science and irritating sales” info out on the web re. the Buteyko Breathing Technique. I’ve been thru ALL the traditional Pulmonary Rehab (almost uniformly pursed-lip) training in trying to deal with my COPD/Emphysema over the last couple of years. Most of the time this works and is VERY helpful. (I tend to be a “CO2 retainer”.) Other times, however, it doesn’t help – even with the addition of a kind version of BIPAP from Philips, called Trilogy 100 AVAPS. Sooo… in these instances, I thought I’d try Buteyko, and it actually works… beautifully… in bringing up my SpO2 saturation levels & decreasing O2 hunger tensions! I am now convinced that there are times when CO2 retention ISN’T my momentary problem. (Here, Buteyko proponents would conclude that CO2 hunger was my problem – but that might well be completely unsupportable, scientifically. There are now, thank goodness, beginning to be a number of other far more scientific reasons for successful results. (Some good, credible papers are thankfully beginning to appear.} So… I’m for now keeping BOTH techniques at the ready, and when breathing tensions appear, I sometimes watch my pulse oximeter to determine which technique is actually working at that moment. Thankfully also, there are now beginning to appear some good “how to” instructions in learning the Buteyko Method exercises. While there’s much “junk science” out there surrounding Buteyko, I think we should also be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” 😉

  • Jenn Patel
    2 years ago

    Hi Bob H. –

    Thanks so much for sharing – it’s so great to hear you’ve found a process that works for you. It sounds like you’ve done a fantastic job of figuring out a combination of different methods that is helpful for you. We really appreciate your sharing your insights about this – and your being part of our community!

    Best,
    Jenn (Community Manager, COPD.net)

  • lynn2u
    3 years ago

    Good response, Lyn. i am into yoga breathing and I combine inhalation through the nose with pursed lip exhalation and that mode of breathing helps me a lot: enough that I do not use medications or even a rescue inhaler and I am diagnosed as severe, “end stage” COPD according to spirometry and have remained stable for about 10 years. I had never heard of BBT.

  • Casey Hribar moderator
    1 year ago

    Thanks for sharing, Lynn! What an amazing story to share! It’s so awesome that you have been able to utilize varying techniques and are finding relief! Glad to hear you’ve learned something new from this too! : ) -Casey, COPD.net Team

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