Physical Health

A Brief History (video)

Lesson 3 Chapter 2 Module 1

Short History of Dr. Buteyko and the Development of his Theory and Method

Constantine Pavlovich Buteyko was born in 1923 in a small Ukrainian town close to the Russian border.  His father worked as an auto mechanic.  After serving in the Soviet army in the Second World War, Buteyko started medical training at the First Medical Institute in Moscow in 1946.  During his third year he was given an assignment to a ward for dying patients, to monitor and record their breathing.  

Not a very inspiring assignment but he came away with an interesting observation.  The closer a patient was to death, the faster and deeper his breathing became.  This same assignment had probably been handed to many students before and after, so he reported his findings he was told that it was a well-known medical fact - the sicker the patient, the deeper and faster the breathing. Simple cause and effect. 

Buteyko was not entirely satisfied with this explanation. What if, under some circumstances, the relationship was reversed?  the severity of the condition depending on the breathing rate, rather than the other way around?  If this was true, slowing the breathing rate should improve the condition.  This could open up a whole new field of medicine with exciting possibilities.  

After Graduation

After graduating in 1952, Dr. Buteyko decided to investigate the idea further and experiment first on himself.  For some years he had been suffering from hypertension, with frequent headaches and rapid pulse. Blood tests showed that his blood CO2 was below normal.  Buteyko was familiar with the older work of physiologists Bohr and Haldane, that showed that the CO2 level in the blood has to be maintained within a very narrow range for the blood to release oxygen where it's needed.  It was also known that overbreathing depleted the carbon dioxide in the blood, so Buteyko thought that lowering his breathing rate should increase his CO2 levels and result in an improvement.  

He developed and practiced a reduced form of breathing.  His symptoms vanished, and then when he resumed his old breathing pattern they came back.  Buteyko felt confident enough of these results that he decided to try the technique with his patients.  He had patients with asthma, angina and various other diseases.  Once again, by correcting the breathing of these patients he was able to normalize their CO2 levels and the attacks stopped immediately.  When asked to go back to their previous breathing patterns the attacks resumed.     

The Basics of his Theory

After trying his new method on a wide variety of diseases he formulated the basics of his theory.  

  1. Hyperventilation causes a depletion of carbon dioxide. 
  2. Low levels of carbon dioxide cause blood vessels to spasm and oxygen starvation of the tissues where it's needed.  
  3. This resulted in a whole range of "defense mechanisms", such as asthma, nasal congestion, etc. considered by conventional medical science to be diseases.  Buteyko believed they were actually the body's attempts to prevent the hyperventilation.  
  4. Some other diseases such as hypertension, angina pectoris, heart attacks, endarteritis, or ulcerative stomach disease, could be triggered directly by insufficient oxygen, so these should also improve as more oxygen was made available. 

Acceptance in the USSR

He was able to get some funding for a formal research program, and after some years, and some spectacular research results;  the USSR State Medical System finally approved the technique for widespread use. In 1980, more than 20 years after its discovery.  It is estimated that more than a million people have benefited from the technique.  

Spread of the Buteyko Method to the West

The second part of the story is the spread of the method from the USSR to the West. 

In 1990 an Australian businessman had an angina attack while on a visit to the USSR, and was successfully treated with the Buteyko Method.  

He was greatly impressed, and sponsored two Russian Buteyko teachers to go to Sydney, Australia.  

One of these teachers, Alexander (Sasha) Stalmatsky, went on to have an interesting career in the West, training teachers in Australia and elsewhere; starring in the 1998 BBC documentary "Breathless" and teaching Buteyko for two years at the prestigious Hale Clinic in London.  The documentary is also summarized here.

During this time he trained around 45 practitioners in Australia, the UK, Ireland, and Asia, and these formed the first generation of Buteyko teachers and trainers in the West.  Many of these and others went on to train at the Buteyko Clinic in Moscow, under Dr. Buteyko.

Acceptance of the Buteyko Method among the medical establishment in the West has not been any faster than it was in the USSR. 

The countries where it has made the most headway, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, Ireland and Canada all have government funded healthcare, so there is an incentive to find an effective, low-cost treatment for asthma. 

Asthma is a rapidly growing scourge worldwide so what research has been done on Buteyko in the West has focused on asthma. 

Clinical Trials of the Buteyko Method

Here are the results of some of the clinical trials that have been completed.  They show a 50% - 90% reduction in medication use and a substantial improvement in subjective quality-of-life measures. They have been subject to various criticisms related to small sample sizes and short durations, the results of limited funding.  

Most formal clinical trials for asthma, the gold standard for effective treatment methods, focus on testing medications.  They are financed by the pharmaceutical industry which has no interest in running a full-scale trial of the Buteyko method against the accepted treatments.  

The medical and research establishments are tied tightly to the pharmaceutical industry and its products, and have the ear of the government funding agencies, such as the National Institute of Health in the US and the National Health Service in the UK.  Here is a summary of some Buteyko clinical trials.

Why it Matters to You

If you are a sufferer from asthma, allergies, or other more serious breathing disorders, or such sleep related issues as snoring or sleep apnea, the Buteyko Breathing course will be very helpful for you.  

If you don't suffer from any of these, but your questionnaire score is more than 15 or your breath hold time less than 30 there is room for improvement. 

The goal of our five-week course is to reduce your questionnaire score to 15 or less and increase your breath hold to 40 or more.  This will boost your immune system making you more resistant to colds and flu, and will also cut down on miscellaneous aches, pains, and some kinds of headaches.