A breathing method touted as a way to treat a range of conditions, including asthma and sleep apnea, shows promise, but claims about the physiological mechanisms for its effects remain unproven, according to a new study.

The Buteyko Breathing Method is examined in an article in the Summer issue of Biofeedback, published by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. The Buteyko Method uses breath-control and breath-holding exercises to treat a range of health conditions thought to be related to hyperventilation and low carbon dioxide levels.

"Despite the growing body of literature, guarded endorsement by health and government authorities, and enthusiasm of individuals who have been helped, the Buteyko Method is still not widely accepted by the medical and scientific community," writes Rosalba Courtney in her article "Strengths, Weaknesses, and Possibilities of the Buteyko Breathing Method."

The method, named for Dr. Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, originated in Russia and made its way worldwide in the 1990s. Its main technique is reduced-volume breathing. Buteyko’s explanation was that his method worked by increasing carbon dioxide levels.

People practicing the Buteyko Method develop an increased ability to comfortably hold their breath, a measure known as Control Pause. They say this, in turn, reduces symptoms of asthma and other health conditions and increases carbon dioxide levels. But in her research Courtney found a slight downward correlation between Control Pause length and carbon dioxide levels – opposite Buteyko’s claims.

Several studies have found that the Buteyko Method results in asthmatics being able to reduce asthma medication and experience better control of asthma symptoms. Courtney states that this may be due to altered symptom perception and perhaps reduction of anxiety about asthma symptoms.

Courtney outlines several additional possible explanations for the Buteyko Method effect:

  • Breathing nasally influences nitric oxide levels, which are made in the paranasal sinuses. Nitric oxide is involved in many physiological responses, including bronchodilation.
  • Breathing at low lung volumes, such as with the Buteyko Method, and at high lung volumes, such as with yoga, can have a bronchodilating effect.
  • Breathing at low volumes can reduce the hyperinflation or trapping of air in the lungs, which is common among asthmatics and people with unexplained breathlessness.

Long breath holds enable the body to reabsorb carbon dioxide and help increase the body’s capacity for exercise and exertion, Courtney says. The Buteyko Method and yoga share breath-holding techniques, but Courtney says more studies need to be done on the therapeutic effects of such techniques.

"We cannot explain why the Buteyko Method works and therefore what its real therapeutic potential is," Courtney writes.

To read the complete article, "Strengths, Weaknesses, and Possibilities of the Buteyko Breathing Method," visit www.allenpress.com/pdf/biof-36-02-59-63.pdf. Biofeedback is published four times a year and distributed by the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback. The association is an international society for mind-body interactions in research, health care, and education. For more information about the society, see www.aapb.org.

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