Doing nothing more than changing your breathing pattern can ultimately alleviate snoring and sleep apnea, hypertension, hay-fever, high blood pressure, and other ailments.

It doesn’t take much time to convince anyone of the importance of breathing. A person can live a month without food, 3 to 4 days without water, but only about 5 to 10 minutes without air.

Imagine two men that are roughly equal in body type, age, genetics, and lifestyle. I’m picturing Jon Lovitz (guy 1) in a Hawaiian shirt standing in the buffet line on a cruise ship alongside a body double (guy 2). Jon’s irritated because the line is so long and no one is giving him preferential celebrity treatment.

Then a little kid fires a spoonful of fettuccine alfredo in their general direction, the body double ducks and it hits Jon square in the ear. The kid’s dad is about to lose his temper but then sees who was hit and laughs. He gives his son a high five.

“That’s my boy.”

Jon says to his bodyguard, “are you just going to stand there?” “No sir,” the body guard replies after taking a picture of Jon’s fettuccine profile and posting it on twitter. He dashes over to the child and gives him a high five and a thumbs up.

OK, so two similar men; one breathes ten liters of air a minute and the other breathes only five. The man that needs only 5 will be healthier. One can hold his breath for a minute, the other only 20 seconds. The 1 minute guy will be healthier than the 20 second guy.

When you need less air your body’s utilization of oxygen is more efficient. Just like having a passive stream of investment income means you won’t have to work as hard for money each month, someone with more health resources requires less frequent inhalations to maintain life and function.

The good news is your breathing pattern and breath holding time is not set in stone. You can improve by doing simple breathing exercises on a regular basis.

This is what yoga masters thousands of years ago discovered, and what Konstantin Buteyko rediscovered back in 1952. Having recently graduated medical school Buteyko had a blood pressure of roughly 220 over 110. He knew if this continued his chances of survival past two years were very low.

By forcing himself to reduce the quantity of his breathing, which had been quite heavy and frequent he was able to lower his blood pressure and eventually stabilize it. He began teaching his method to patients which drastically improved their health over time.

Physiology

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is often thought of as a waste product of metabolism and respiration but it is in fact essential for our health. CO2 causes dilation (opening) of the blood vessels reducing blood pressure and allowing for better circulation. It also allows oxygen to be removed from hemoglobin in the blood for use by the cells.

The higher the CO2 concentration the greater the oxygenation of our cells and tissues.

CO2, like physical education, 15 minute work breaks, and creativity, is an undervalued but very necessary component of our health.

It isn’t a reduction in the body’s oxygen supply but rather an increase in the concentration of CO2 that causes the initial craving for air. The brain detects a given level of CO2 in the blood and stimulates inhalation. This in turn lowers the concentration of CO2.

CO2 goes up, the brain detects it and causes us to inhale, CO2 goes down.

If someone breathes too much for a period of time the brain becomes accustomed to a low level of CO2, and so even when the CO2 concentration hasn’t gone up that much since the last exhalation, it stimulates another inhalation.

Basically what happens is over time the brain causes us to breathe more and more in response to less and less CO2. So we breathe more and more but get gradually less and less oxygen in our cells.

We are actually better off with a higher level of CO2 in the blood than most of us can maintain. The exercises in Buteyko breathing are designed to accustom the brain to a gradually higher and higher level of CO2 which actually improves the overall level of oxygen in the entire body.

How to test your health based on Buteyko breathing

The control pause is the amount of time you can hold your breath comfortably. The higher it is the higher your brain’s tolerance for CO2 and the better the oxygenation of your tissues.

While breathing normally pinch your nose directly after a normal exhalation. The amount of time it takes for you to first feel the need for air or first have an involuntary movement of the diaphragm is your control pause time.

If you comfortably hold your breath in this manner for 40 seconds or more you are in pretty good shape. If you cannot it means on some level your brain has become accustomed to over-breathing.

Breathing exercises

The goal of the breathing exercises is to increase your control pause.

1) Nasal clearing

You should always be breathing through the nose even when exercising to increase your control pause. To do this your nose must be clear.

To clear your nose hold your nose after a normal exhale and bob your head up and down repeatedly until you can’t hold your breath any longer. Then return your breathing to normal as soon as possible, rest for about 30 seconds and repeat 5 or 6 times or until your nasal passages are open.

Yeah, it’ll look like you’re listening to heavy metal music in an unclean bathroom but no one said you have to do it in public.

2) Reduced breathing

Watch your breathing pattern for a few breaths, then try to reduce each inhale by about 25%. You should feel a gradual build up of air hunger similar to the feeling at the end of a control pause.

It is vital to remain as relaxed as possible during this exercise. If your diaphragm is taking involuntary leaps through the ceiling then allow yourself to take in a little more air. Eventually you will find the balance point where you can maintain a hunger for air and yet stay relaxed.

The goal is to eventually adopt this smaller breathing pattern all the time comfortably.

 3) Reduced breathing with exercise

Exercise is necessary to get your control pause beyond 20 seconds and up to 40. Basically you are doing aerobic exercises but only breathing through your nose.

While you exercise your metabolism goes up and your body produces CO2 at a faster rate. By either decreasing the rate of breath through the nose or increasing the intensity of the workout you will achieve an air hunger similar to that described above.

One way to reduce the breathing while exercising is by covering one nostril while you workout.

I’ve tried this while jogging, and I’m pretty sure it looks completely ridiculous, so I only practice when I’m fairly certain no one’s watching. If anyone catches me I just pretend like I’m picking my nose to avoid embarrassment.

4) Exercising with breath holds

This technique involves holding your breath for a certain number of repetitions of exercise and gradually increasing the amount of repetitions you can do while holding the breath.

So if you were walking you would count the number of steps you can take while your breath is held. If you can do from 80 to 100 steps then your control pause is pretty high and you’re pretty healthy according to Buteyko standards.

It is important that directly following a breath hold you breath through the nose only and return your breath to a normal rate as soon as possible following the hold. It shouldn’t take more than a couple of breaths to get back to normal, if it takes more then you held your breath for too long.

It is key to not overdo it because if there is too abrupt of an inhale after practicing then your brain will remain accustomed to heavy breathing.

Exercise tips

It requires about 3 half hour sessions of reduced breathing per day to increase the control pause. Before bed and first thing in the morning you can practice reduced breathing. Reduced breathing with exercise can be performed in-between these sessions.

If your control pause is less than 20 seconds you shouldn’t ever breathe through the mouth while exercising or it will sabotage your progress. Once it is above 20 seconds you can breathe through the mouth briefly, but try to return to nasal breathing as soon as possible.

Other resources

A great set of videos on the physiology and benefits of Buteyko breathing, this is over an hour of footage but is very interesting and well worth the watch.

A great book and dvd on the breathing exercises and how to practice, this is geared primarily towards asthma patients but the exercises are the same for everyone.