Asthma Breathing Overview

In normal breathing, air flows more or less freely into and out of the lungs. During an asthma attack, however, airway linings swell, muscles around the airways tighten and constrict, and the airways of the lungs become clogged with mucus. The end result is episodes of coughing, wheezing, and breathlessness, with a suffocating sense of never being able to get enough air.

No Scientific Consensus on What Causes Asthma

Asthma attacks can be brought on by many things, including stress, exercise, respiratory infections, irritating smells, pollen, smoke, dust or dust mites, mold, mildew, certain kinds of food, poor breathing, and so on. A study (1994) in The American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine seems to show that “gas stove exposure” increased asthma symptoms and resulted in more visits to the emergency room. The findings seem to suggest that those with severe asthma should avoid gas stove cooking.

Though theories abound as to what causes asthma, there is no real consensus. Scientists used to believe that petroleum-based pollutants might be a major cause, but this theory is no longer in favor since asthma cases are increasing while pollution levels are said, at least by some, to be declining. One of the most recent theories is that genetics plays a role. Several years ago researchers at the Lawrence National Laboratory in California isolated two genes that they believe contribute to asthma.

One recent and unsusual theory has to do with the increasing hygiene of modern life. This theory states that since babies are less exposed to viruses and bacteria than they were in previous generations, their immune systems do not develop fully. These researchers point out that people who live in rural areas or on farms—people who are much more likely to be exposed to organisms in the soil—are much less likely to get asthma than those who don’t. Some studies seem to confirm these findings.

Deep Breathing and Over Breathing

Another intriguing theory, this one coming from Dr. Konstantine Pavlovich Buteyko in Russia, and this one seemingly offering a cure, claims that asthma is really just the result of bad breathing habits, especially “deep breathing.” What Buteyko seems to actually mean by “deep breathing” is “over breathing.” When we inhale and exhale too much air too quickly, says Buteyko, we lose too much carbon dioxide too quickly. We hyperventilate. This fast loss of carbon dioxide causes the various airways to clog and tighten, and also makes it difficult for the oxygen in our blood to reach the cells of our brain and body. Buteyko tells us that the symptoms of asthma are simply the body’s way of attempting to slow down the loss of carbon dioxide. His cure? Breathe less air.

Buteyko and his instructors cite their high incidence of success in helping people reduce or even eliminate both their symptoms and their medications through their methods as proof that they are right. But their logic seems a bit flawed. Clearly, one can influence asthma through good breathing habits. One can also influence asthma through specialized breathing techniques that help increase carbon dioxide in the body to normal levels. But this reduction of symptoms does not prove that asthma is caused by not breathing a certain way, any more than reducing asthma symptoms through medication proves that asthma is caused by not taking the right medication. And it certainly does not prove that “deep breathing” is the culprit behind asthma, especially since many of us in today’s stress-filled world, including asthmatics, are unable to breathe fully and deeply in the first place. The fact is, many people who “over breathe” do not get asthma, though they may, indeed, eventually wind up with other health problems.

Nonetheless, Buteyko is clearly right about “over breathing.” When we breathe too much air for the needs of the moment–that is, when we “over breathe”–we are actually hyperventilating. And chronic hyperventilation does indeed have many negative health consequences, including a constriction of the airways. Related to this increasing phenomenon of “over breathing” is the fact that more and more people today breathe frequently through their mouths. Unless one breathes very slowly, breathing through the mouth, especially on exhalation, is associated with a rapid loss of carbon dioxide. Asthmatics must learn to breathe through the nose, and this may require special breathing practices.

Learning to Breathe in a Coordinated Way with Your Whole Body

As vital as the oxygen/carbon dioxide balance is to asthma and many other diseases, healthy breathing is not just a matter of blood chemistry. It also requires the full fluid motion, coordination, and use of all the breathing muscles and spaces of the body. For most people, this will require increased awareness of their breathing habits and an exploration of natural, authentic breathing. When we breathe though our nose in a coordinated way with our whole body (including our diaphragm, belly, back, and chest) our breath automatically slows down and we instinctively begin to breathe the right amount of air for the demands of the moment. While one is still learning how to breathe in this way, it is imperative to breathe as much as is possible only through your nose, and to learn to extend the length of your exhalation whenever possible.

For more information about whole body breathing (and safe, effective ways of extending your exhalation to reduce hyperventilation) and to make it a reality in your life, you can read my books or listen to my three-CD set Natural Breathing.

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