“I made a very good choice,” says Fiona Teudt.
One year ago, the speech pathologist and mother would wake up after nine to 10 hours of sleep a night still feeling sluggish and unrested.
She didn’t know you were supposed to feel refreshed when you wake up in the morning.
After being diagnosed with sleep apnoea and being told by her partner that she was snoring at night, she began exploring alternatives to a CPAP machine (a mask with an air pump attached) or dental appliance that she would have to wear at night.
A friend had done a Buteyko course, where practitioners are trained to breathe slowly and evenly through the nose. The method, advocates say, can lead to “significant improvements” among those with asthma, sleep disordered breathing and other respiratory conditions.
Teudt chose to try the course herself and, the night after her first two-hour session that involved various breathing exercises, discovered how rest was meant to feel.
“For the first time in my life I felt like I had a proper night’s sleep and actually felt refreshed. I didn’t know we were meant to experience that so it has quite genuinely changed my life,” the 55-year-old from Manly Vale said. “Now I’m quite happy with seven to eight hours. It’s given me more hours in my day that I didn’t have before.”
As for her snoring and sleep apnoea, she says she hasn’t done another sleep study because she hasn’t felt the need.
“My partner tells me I do still snore some of the time – now, I snore through my nose instead of my mouth,” she says chuckling, “but because I now feel so well, I don’t mind that I snore some of the time.”
The power of the breath
Dr Angelina Fong is a lecturer in the department of physiology at the University of Melbourne.
She says she doesn’t know a lot about the Buteyko technique, which was developed in the 1950s by Ukrainian doctor Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko. But, she does know that the breath is an underused tool in our mental and physical health.
“Breath is one of those things that we just do and most people don’t ever think about – a lot of people underestimate the power of breathing and breathing properly,” Fong says. “I say to a lot of people we don’t know how to breathe properly.”
This is because, Fong says, unless you’re a singer or an athlete, a yogi or a freediver, learning breath regulation and deep, slow breath is not something most of us are ever trained to do.
“There’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that it does have impacts on body systems, on health and physiology – for example, in pranayama [the yogic practice of breath control] there are techniques for lowering blood pressure, techniques you shouldn’t do if you have high blood pressure and so on,” Fong explains, adding that scientific research has also been conducted.
“There is some evidence that slow, deep breathing can help lower heart rate and lower blood pressure because these two systems are really tightly integrated together. You also hear the stories of athletes who control their breath to control their heart rate and so on. We know there is a lot of power behind how we breathe and controlling breathing can have impacts on other systems, getting deeper breaths, getting more oxygen in, getting more CO₂ out, is going to help balance and help maintain physiology better. There’s no doubt about that.”
There is little doubt about the psychological benefits of breath work too.
“You can think about it from a mindfulness perspective – what goes on during meditation,” Fong says. “Maybe being aware of the breath changes the neurochemistry – the functions in the brain that calm you.”
She notes one study that looked at anxiety indexes over six months and, among those who practiced a slow, mindful breath, there was a reduction of anxiety levels (it is also Hillary Clinton’s preferred method for anxiety-reduction).
“It’s certainly a possibility that being aware of the breath then changes how your mind is, which brings a calming effect, which could potentially override some of the impacts of stress and anxiety, which we know have all these downstream effects of cardiovascular function, metabolic function and so-on.”
Why nasal breathing?
Apart from practicing awareness of the breath and slowing it down, a common theme in the various techniques is nasal breathing.
Fong says that anatomically, the nose is designed to help warm and humidify and cleanse the air as we breathe in, but apart from that says it’s unclear why nasal breath tends to be emphasised in eastern breathing techniques.
Mim Beim, a naturopath and Buteyko teacher says that the curvature of the nose means we are forced to breathe more gently and slowly than through the mouth.
“If you’ve coached yourself into more gentle breathing the upper airway remains open,” she adds, explaining why it may assist those with snoring issues.
Beim, who credits the technique for helping cure her of asthma 20 years ago, believes there are other benefits to breathing through the nose.
“The nasal cavity takes up a third of the skull and the mucus membrane produce the most nitric oxide in the body – nitric oxide being an amazing antioxidant and also an antibiotic,” says Beim, who is running a training program in early November alongside the “world’s leading authority” on the Buteyko Method, Patrick McKeown. “If you’re not nose breathing you’re missing out on a lot of nitric oxide.”
A slow and steady race to better health
The technique, she says involves reducing the rate or volume of breathing, but it is not about shallow breathing.
“It is normalising breathing to being diaphragmatic, to being at a slower rate,” Beim explains, adding it has the “same physiological basis” as other pranayama techniques.
“The idea is that people have gotten into a habit of over-breathing where the carbon dioxide levels are a little bit lower than optimal – and we’re talking a tiny per cent, it’s not changing pH that much, but shifting that a little bit.
“The idea is that Buteyko is like a bootcamp and changing the brain’s acceptance of having that slightly higher CO₂ so that affects the relaxing of smooth muscle, of switching on the parasympathetic nervous system, of increasing oxygenation become normal.”
Relaxing the smooth muscle of the blood vessels helps with high blood pressure and headaches, Beim says while relaxing the smooth muscle of the bowel can help with reflux and IBS symptoms while the smooth muscle of the respiratory tract affects asthma, sinusitis and hayfever.
Fong is “uncomfortable with the extent of the claims” without more evidence, but says “I don’t see any major harm in breathing techniques compared to pharmaceuticals and so on which have broader implications”.
For Beim and Teudt, the effects have been “extraordinary”.
“It’s totally changed the way I practice,” says Beim, who has been a naturopath for 30 years.
“I find that the breathing is the most fundamental thing and if people are not breathing well then changing that has incredible flow on … Diet is really important, exercise is really important but why don’t we think about the breath?”