Dr. Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko, a renowned Ukrainian scientist working in Russia, created a revolutionary theory that asthma symptoms (as well as COPD symptoms and other breathing difficulties) are the result of chronic hyperventilation. Physiologically, asthma is characterized by both chronic inflammation in the lungs and bronchial spasm. Severe asthma and COPD are further characterized by structural damage to the lungs, leading to poor gas exchange in the alveoli (air sacs). Dr. Buteyko’s theory was that the deep/heavy breathing of asthmatics (chronic hyperventilation or over-breathing) and the coughing, wheezing, chest pain, mucus, and suffocation attacks (asthmatic symptoms) are related in a unique way.
Based on the laws of physiology, we know that hyperventilation depletes the level of CO2 in the lungs. While CO2 is a by-product of metabolism and some needs to be removed from the body, it is in fact an absolutely essential component of life, which regulates many functions in the human body. To begin with, proper oxygenation of the brain, heart, kidneys and other vital organs and tissues relies on appropriate amounts of CO2 remaining in the body (due to the Bohr Effect). When CO2 levels fall below a certain threshold, the body experiences systemic oxygen deprivation. This is very dangerous for the body. Dr. Buteyko theorized that acute and chronically low CO2 levels in the lungs can cause pH shifts in the body, which create a cascade of negative biochemical reactions, with deleterious effects on metabolism, the immune and nervous systems, and most other body systems.
Dr. Buteyko’s theory is that chronic hyperventilation is so dangerous and damaging to human health that the body creates defensive/survival mechanisms in order to adapt to this constant stress. Asthmatic symptoms (coughing, wheezing, chest pain, excessive mucus, and suffocation attacks) may in fact be a defensive/survival mechanism to protect against over-breathing. Specifically, these symptoms, unpleasant and scary as they may be, have an overall effect of reducing respiration, and therefore maintaining alveolar CO2 levels within an acceptable range. Though these symptoms can cause great suffering, this mechanism actually allows the body to maintain essential biological constants necessary to life.
Dr. Buteyko thought that modern pharmaceutical treatments to eliminate bronchial spasm, though effective in temporarily removing symptoms, were, in fact, disturbing the body’s defensive/survival mechanism. This may explain why asthma symptoms often get worse with prolonged medicating. Over time, medication may be creating an even more powerful asthmatic response, in order to maintain the body’s protective mechanism. However, Dr. Buteyko theorized, if hyperventilation could be eliminated, and breathing normalized, then perhaps the symptoms of asthma and other breathing difficulties would no longer be ‘needed’ by the body to protect itself.
This is the central principle of Dr. Buteyko’s approach for the treatment of asthma and other breathing difficulties. By systematically normalizing air consumption and consequently CO2 levels in the lungs, through the use of the Buteyko breathing exercises, and certain lifestyle changes, Dr. Buteyko found that symptoms of asthma could be tamed, a profound healing could take place in the lungs, and a person could regain their health.