Londoners with asthma are learning to breathe more easily thanks to breath control techniques such as the Buteyko method.
By Sarah Graham
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is one of 437,000* asthma sufferers living in the capital. “I only recently started suffering from asthma as an adult,” Mr Khan revealed back in May, as he announced that one of his first acts as Mayor would be to launch a consultation on cleaning up the city’s air pollution.
We all know that air quality across the UK, and London in particular, is not what it should be – although our pollution levels rank as pretty middling when compared with other global cities. But just what impact is this toxic air having on our lung health, and how can London’s asthma sufferers breathe more easily?
While the exact cause of asthma is still unknown, common triggers do include atmospheric pollution, especially from traffic, as well as tobacco smoke, allergens such as pollen and dust mites, heightened emotions like stress or laughter, and particular weather conditions, including sudden changes in temperature, windy days, thunderstorms and humidity.
Pollution has become a particular concern in recent years. According to charity Asthma UK, “two thirds of asthma sufferers say polluted air makes their asthma worse.”
If you’re affected yourself, you’re no doubt familiar with the traditional treatments for asthma, using reliever inhalers and preventer inhalers to administer medication that either relaxes the muscles around your airways or reduces the inflammation and sensitivity of airways.
A number of complementary therapies have also been suggested as alternative, natural ways of tackling asthma, and breathing exercises seem to be the most effective. Patrick McKeown is one of the leading proponents of the Buteyko breathing method, which promises to help asthma sufferers breathe more easily.
“Dr Buteyko recognised that there was a link between asthma and over-breathing, so people with asthma breathe too much, and the vast majority of them breathe through their mouth,” Patrick says. “Because their airways are narrowing, they feel that they’re not getting enough air so they’ve got to breathe harder to try and compensate. However, what’s overlooked is that feedback loop – when you breathe too much, your airways aren’t able to cope with that volume of air; it actually causes them to constrict further.”
Counterintuitive as it sounds, and no doubt feels, Buteyko actually teaches asthma sufferers to breathe less.
“There’s a gas called nitric oxide that’s secreted from the paranasal sinuses into the nasal cavity. Nitric oxide sterilises the incoming air and naturally opens up the airways, so breathing lightly through the nose is the one thing that actually helps,” Patrick explains.
“We show people how to decongest their nose by holding their breath, and then we practise breathing exercises to help them slow down and reduce their breathing volume to the point that they feel they’re not getting enough air. When someone practises that, it resets the breathing centre in the brain, so their breathing becomes lighter. When their breathing is lighter, their asthma symptoms decrease.”
“It is counterintuitive; it’s the opposite to what somebody feels, but we do get results with it pretty quickly, and that’s enough often to motivate people.” Patrick speaks not only as Clinical Director of the Buteyko Clinic International and a leading breathwork expert, but also as a former asthma sufferer himself. “I discovered [Buteyko] by accident 20 years ago for my own asthma – I was on asthma medication, in and out of hospital as well, and within a week it completely changed my life,” he says.
Although based in Ireland, Patrick offers four-day Buteyko courses in London every three months, with the next two scheduled for August and November 2016. At £200 for four two-hour sessions, it’s certainly not a cheap option, but Patrick’s Buteyko Clinic promises a 50% reduction in symptoms within two weeks, “even if you’ve had symptoms for 15 or 20 years,” he adds.
There are a number of Buteyko practitioners operating in and around London, offering courses and one-to-one consultations. Prices vary, with most courses costing £200 or more, although you can also access books, DVD sets, and even YouTube videos on the technique much more affordably.
Besides Buteyko, many asthma sufferers also find relief from their symptoms through yoga, or breathing exercises taught by respiratory physiotherapists. One such technique is the Papworth Method, which also involves learning to breathe using the nose and diaphragm, and includes relaxation training.
“There are 5.6 million people with asthma in the UK, and very few healthcare professionals are encouraging people with asthma to breathe through their nose, but it would save a fortune – not just in terms of the suffering of individuals, but also in economic costs for the NHS,” Patrick says.
Of course, as with all treatments, Buteyko and other breathing exercises won’t necessarily work the same for everyone. Though practitioners sing its praises, 10 clinical trials have had positive results, and some patients describe it as life-changing, others find Buteyko an expensive waste of money.
Alternative holistic therapies that have been linked to asthma treatment include hypnotherapy, acupuncture, and speleotherapy, although further research is needed to prove their effectiveness. Speleotherapy involves spending time in a salt mine or specially built salt room, or using a salt pipe at home, to breathe in tiny salt particles.
Both the NHS and Asthma UK emphasise that complementary treatments and breathing exercises are not a cure, and should be used alongside conventional medication.
You can find qualified Buteyko practitioners through the Buteyko Breathing Association (www.buteykobreathing.org/teachers/london.html) and Buteyko Clinic International (www.buteykoclinic.com/worldwide-buteyko-clinics.html/uk)
*2014/15 Quality and Outcomes Framework – number of people registered with their GP as having asthma, across all London boroughs