“Excessive breathing is the road to death.” Dr. Buteyko
“My son was born with only one lung,” Margaret, a successful businesswoman from New York City, casually reveals this information during her Preliminary Consultation.
We are looking at each other through our computer screens. Margaret is considering taking Breathing Normalization training for her 4-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with enlarged adenoids. I often work with children with this condition. According to Dr. Buteyko, adenoids growth is the body’s response to over-breathing, its attempt to decrease air consumption by obstructing air intake and consequently boosting the level of CO2. The deficit of carbon dioxide in the lungs is analogous to poison: it is detrimental to overall health and can be potentially lethal. The body tries hard to overcome this hindrance. When a child stops breathing through his or her mouth and starts breathing like a little mouse, adenoids contract and eventually become atrophied. By restoring natural breathing patterns, the Breathing Normalization course prevents adenoid removal surgery.
Norman, Margaret’s little son, is sitting on her lap in front of her computer screen. He looks tired and pale; dark circles goggle his eyes. Norman inhales audibly through his mouth. Even without measuring his breathing, I know that his Positive Maximum Pause is below 10 seconds, a level which, according to Dr. Buteyko, indicates a severe health condition.
Norman is silent when Margaret keeps talking. “Sports will make my son sturdy,” she states confidently. “Several times a week, Norman goes to a swimming pool whether he wants it or not. By the way, he hates sports… this is because my boy is lazy.” She puts her palm on her son’s forehead and looks at him with great love. “Norman needs to learn how to overcome his inertia. Soon, he will be able to compete.” Margaret’s voice rises with optimism and hope.
Norman sighs heavily.
“Your son is not lazy,” I tell Margaret. “He is in tune with the intelligence of his body. Intuitively, he knows that right now, sports can only damage his health. His respiration is feeble; intense physical activities will make your son hyperventilate intensely, losing more CO2. As a result, his adenoids will grow faster, and his overall health will continue declining. I propose that Norman stops swimming for a while and instead strengthens his breathing. This will improve his health and make him more energetic.”
“Quitting sports? I thought you were going to teach him the breathing exercises!”
“Buteyko breathing exercises will help Norman to gain CO2; however, he will lose a great deal of it by breathing through his mouth heavily while swimming. It is essential to generate carbon dioxide, but it is equally important to prevent its loss.”
“If my son has to quit sports, we don’t need the Buteyko program.”
I never heard from Margaret again. Often, I found myself wondering about her little “lazy” boy. Is Norman still alive? With great sadness, I admit that I doubt it.
Another Preliminary Consultation, now with a high school junior and his father. Nick, just like his dad, is tall and lean; he plays soccer almost every day. His Positive Maximum Pause is only 4 seconds. Nick is a chronic mouth-breather. His nose is stuffy virtually all the time; he has allergies, hypertension, and anxiety. I am trying to convince his dad that it is advantageous for his seventeen-year-old son to stop playing soccer. Nick can resume this activity in a month or two when his breathing becomes reliable. At that point, playing soccer will start improving his overall health instead of harming it.
“Nick’s admission to college depends on how he plays soccer,” his father responds.
That was the end of this story.
Why do children have to exert themselves, often sacrificing their wellbeing? Growing up in the Soviet Union, I did not experience the pressure of sports to the extent youngsters do in the United States. After school, we kids often hung out outside in a park-like schoolyard. We jumped through a robe, played hide-and-seek, and had blissful times sitting on the branches of a giant oak and sharing our fantasy worlds. At school, we had physical education classes a few times a week—mostly gymnastics. Periodically, we also sprinted and did cross-country skiing, but we did not have a great deal of competitive sports. A school physician kept an eye on the level of physical activities appropriate for every child; some pupils were not permitted to exercise intensely. This system was not perfect, but health-wise, I believe it was superior compared to the one adopted by American public schools. When I visited my daughter’s soccer game at her high school in upstate New York, I noticed many children breathing vehemently through their mouths while chasing the ball; the pace of the game was beyond their respirational limits. My daughter’s physical education classes contained mainly competitive sports, which typically don’t allow a child to catch his or her breath without being labeled a loser. No doubt, sports are beneficial for those whose respiration is stout, but for frail breathers, sports are harmful to their wellbeing.
Ella, an asthmatic girl, regularly experienced breathlessness during her physical education classes. Learning Buteyko helped her; however, her PMP was still not high enough to protect her from panting and gasping while playing field hockey. Trying to keep up with other children, she was forced to breathe through her mouth. Being breathless, she felt that she could die on the spot. This generated a dark cloud of fear which followed her to every physical education class. Periodically she had nightmares, dreaming that she was dying, suffocating on the synthetic grass. I did not consider Ella’s fear groundless and suggested to her parents to talk to her PE teacher. Perhaps he would allow Ella to slow down. The conversation with the coach did not go well; he stated that Ella should not retreat but instead use a rescue inhaler, as many other children did. Finally, Ella’s frustrated parents transferred their daughter from her public school to a private Waldorf school where the approach to physical activities was holistic and radically different. Instead of combining long periods of sitting with short periods of intense sports, in Waldorf school physical exercises were harmoniously intertwined with the rest of education. Every day, children were playing active games, doing gymnastics, yoga, or hiking without the burden of becoming a winner. Within one year, Ella’s PMP increased significantly, and she stopped experiencing suffocation attacks.
Without taking into consideration the CO2 factor, there is no way to safeguard that physical exercises improve health. School sports are a mere reflection of a bigger picture, which comes into a focus when a camera points at professional sports. In 2003, many people witnessed on live television a football player, Marc-Vivien Foe, collapsing in the middle of the pitch during the game at the Confederations Cup. His eyes rolled up and stopped moving; the athlete was carried on a stretcher to a nearby ambulance, but by the time he arrived at the nearest hospital, he was pronounced dead. Doctors concluded that the Premier League star, 28-years old, expired due to sudden cardiac death. Another famous football player, Thomas Herrion, died from heart failure at the age of 24. In 2005, after an exhibition game, he fell in the locker room and passed away shortly after. The list of athletes who followed the nutritional advice and fitness regimes from the best physicians and coaches and yet perished unexpectedly is long. Why did their lives end so suddenly?
Dr. Buteyko answered this question during a TV interview recorded at a small stadium. He said:
“Everyone thinks that the more you breathe, the stronger you will be. Just the opposite! More you breathe, the weaker you will be. Why is that? The more we breathe, the less oxygen enters the body. This is proved by the Verigo effect. About a hundred years ago, Verigo, the scientist, discovered that excessive breathing alkalinizes blood and strengthens the bond between oxygen and hemoglobin. The deeper the breathing, less oxygen gets released to the brain, heart, kidneys, muscles, etc. Everybody knows that if you start breathing a lot and deeply, you will feel dizzy. This is caused by oxygen starvation in the brain. Over-breathing weakens the body instead of strengthening it.
“For 35 years, I have been searching for smart athletes and coaches to master my method. Athletes breathe excessively and often die of heart attacks. …Heart attack after a heart attack caused by deep breathing... Learning to breathe excessively means learning to die. I want to put professional sportsmen on my method to help them winning gold. Nonetheless, as soon as I suggest to the athletes to reducing their breathing, they run from me like from the plague. This is because their heads are full of medical manure, not real scientific knowledge. Athletes were taught ‘Breathe more to have more oxygen,’ but this is nonsense.
“My theory was set out in 1962. It proves that excessive breathing causes heart attacks. If a person breathes normally, his Positive Maximum Pause is 60 seconds, and he has plenty of oxygen. The deeper the breathing, the shorter PMP is, and less oxygen is received by the organs. Most athletes breathe excessively; their PMPs are only 20-30 seconds; 60 seconds are rare. As air consumption increases, oxygenation of the body decreases; if, as a result of it, it reaches zero, death occurs. Breathing more is the path to death. There is a correlation between pulse and respiration. With PMP of 60 seconds, the pulse is about 60 beats. The less we breathe, the less frequent pulse is; the more we breathe, the faster the pulse gets.”
Dr. Buteyko was also concerned about former athletes who typically develop health issues after they retire from sports. In Russia, this phenomenon was well known, but physicians were at a loss to explain its cause. Dr. Buteyko pointed out that athletes develop a strong habit of excessive breathing and continue over-breathing when they stop exercising intensely. Here is what happens. When an athlete exercises hard, his or her metabolism becomes much more active, and as a result of it, his or her cells generate an abundance of CO2. Unfortunately, a great deal of it gets lost due to his heavy breathing. When the athlete is young and exercises regularly, in most cases, he can still maintain an acceptable level of CO2 and consequently decent oxygenation of his body (Verigo/Bohr effect). When this athlete leaves the sport, this picture changes: he stops exercising intensely but continues breathing as if he still does sports. Now, this former athlete is sitting on a couch instead of running on a track but keeps breathing as if he is still running. The production of CO2 in his body becomes insufficient when the loss of it remains high, resulting in carbon dioxide bankruptcy, following by oxygen destitution and booming of ailments.
Ted was big! And so was his breathing! His broad shoulders and pumped torso were merely fitting into my computer screen. A hurricane of air was flying into his mouth. Ted was a professional wrestler who left the arena nine years ago. Instead of spending his days in a gym as he used to, now, he was sitting in a comfy office chair, selling insurance. After he stopped pushing pounds, he started gaining them; he stopped collecting awards and began accumulating health disorders. When we met, he was obese, suffered from hypertension, and his doctor warned him about possible heart failure.
“Ted, breathe through your nose!” this became my mantra for at least three weeks. By the end of the course, Ted was able to maintain nasal breathing day and night; he lost 19 pounds, and his high blood pressure lowered. His PMP rose from 5 seconds to 25; nevertheless, he still needed to reduce his air consumption further. His habit of over-breathing was as strong as his biceps used to be. A couple of months of breathing re-training did not entirely erase the respirational damage caused by years of his physical training. For Ted, it was a long way to go. Nevertheless, he was satisfied with the results of the program—because of it, he realized that the root of his health trouble was hyperventilation. He became mindful of his air intake and acquired the know-how to optimize it. He believed that our online meetings saved him from a sudden heart attack and diverted his fate from “the road to death”—as Dr. Buteyko called big breathing—to “the road to life,” as Ted renamed the Breathing Normalization program.
“I wish I had learned about healthy breathing at the early stages of my wrestler’s training,” he stated despondently during our last session. “It would have protected my health.”
“I wish so, too,” I said, nodding my head. “As Dr. Buteyko also wished for all athletes.”