What is Buteyko Breathing?

Konstantin Buteyko

Konstantin Buteyko

While researching heart disease in the 1950s, Konstantin Buteyko, a Russian medical researcher, developed a breathing technique that not only helped reduce high blood pressure, but also a variety of conditions including Asthma, Anxiety, IBS and Sinusitis.


The premise of the Buteyko technique is that many conditions are the result of dysfunctional breathing, that Konstantin Buteyko termed ‘over breathing’ or chronic hyperventilation. Completely at odds to the popular view that taking big deep breaths of air is ‘good’ breathing, the Buteyko way is to minimise intake, reducing and calming the breath towards normal. Not so different to ancient yogic pranayama or Hatha yoga breathing whereby man could breathe one breath per minute for the duration of one hour. Take the breathing test to find out if you have dysfunctional breathing.

Carbon Dioxide

The Buteyko breathing method believes that we need to increase carbon dioxide levels in the body. Carbon dioxide is often thought of as a ‘waste’ gas, but carbon dioxide is vital to life. While it is true that we breathe to get rid of excess carbon dioxide, it is also important that we retain a quotient of this gas. Depending on our genetic predisposition, the habit of breathing too much causes a reduced concentration of carbon dioxide in the blood, resulting in narrowing of the airways and blood vessels. Conversely, a slight rise in carbon dioxide towards normal has several beneficial effects in the body including; relaxing smooth muscle, increasing oxygenation, switching on the relaxing nervous system, and increasing the body’s production of nitric oxide.

Smooth Move

Relaxing smooth muscle is how the Breathe Well course naturally improves conditions including: High blood pressure, Asthma, Headaches, IBS, Constipation, Diarrhoea, Reflux, Coughing.

Smooth muscle surrounds and lines all hollow structures in the body, including the airways, blood vessels, bowel, bladder and uterus. A slight increase in carbon dioxide serves to relax smooth muscle. In the case of smooth muscle lining the blood vessels, this will dilate or widen the arteries, improving circulation and helping lower blood pressure, and the effect on the blood vessels in the head will reduce the incidence of headaches. For the respiratory system, relaxation of the bronchi and smaller airways, bronchioles, will improve airflow and markedly reduce airway spasms associated with asthma. In the case of the bowel wall, relaxed smooth muscle means relief from symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Constipation and Reflux.

A study on people with Asthma, reported in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that after 3 months people practising the Buteyko breathing method had decreased their requirement for reliever medication by 90 per cent and the use of inhaled corticosteroids by 49 per cent. Buteyko exercises can have remarkable effects on a variety of conditions as well as helping to prevent a host of others.

Increase Oxygen

It seems counterintuitive that higher carbon dioxide levels will increase oxygenation in the body. Yet it’s true. In fact, the Danish professor of physiology Christian Bohr sussed out how this works in 1904, and the Bohr effect has been named in his honour.

In the Buteyko breathing exercises, air is inhaled into the lungs, causing oxygen to cross over the alveolar membrane. Oxygen travels around by ‘sticking’ to haemoglobin molecules, themselves attached to red blood cells. An increase in carbon dioxide ‘tells’ haemoglobin to let go of the oxygen molecules, encouraging the precious oxygen cargo to be delivered to the organs and tissues where it is most needed. The Bohr effect proves that a slight increase in carbon dioxide levels increase oxygenation throughout the body, oxygen needed for muscles to work, energy to be produced, and the brain to function at optimum efficiency.

Increasing oxygenation of tissues will improve conditions including poor concentration and memory, poor circulation and low energy.

Rest and Relax

Switching on the Parasympathetic (or relaxing) nervous system is how the Breathe Well course improves conditions including: anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, IBS, headaches and reflux.

The Autonomic nervous system is comprised of two parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) fuelled by adrenaline and known as the ‘fight and flight’ response, and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS), which has the opposite effect and has been coined the ‘rest and digest’ response. Most people today have an overabundance of ‘fight and fight’ hormone due to the many stresses of modern life. Increasing carbon dioxide levels helps to dampen down the SNS response and switches on the PNS. Which makes Buteyko breathing exercises perfect for anyone who feels stressed and anxious. In the ‘old days’ a person experiencing a panic attack was advised to breathe into a paper bag. What did this do? Increase carbon dioxide levels, switch on the PNS, and switch off the SNS.

Dr. No

Nitric Oxide (NO) is a naturally produced gas that medical scientists want to capture into saleable capsules as it has so many health benefits. At a cellular level, NO works as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, helping in the prevention of heart disease, cancer and diabetes. NO improves the immune response as well as increasing blood and oxygen flow throughout the body, including the brain. Large amounts of NO are produced at the time of sexual climax. Increased carbon dioxide increases natural NO production, bring on Dr. NO.

Belly Breathing

If the muscles of your shoulders and neck feel perpetually tight and knotted, the chances are that you not using your diaphragm to breathe. Diaphragmatic or ‘belly breathing’ is not a Buteyko breathing technique, however Mim teaches this in the Breathe Well course as it complements all the benefits of Buteyko and more.

Correct breathing means using the diaphragm, a thin dome shaped band of muscle that separates the chest from the abdomen. The diaphragm relaxes on the outbreath by moving upwards in a high dome, pressing on the lungs, causing air to be exhaled. On the in-breath, the diaphragm muscle contracts or shortens, allowing air to enter the lungs. The diaphragm presses down on the abdominal organs, causing the tummy to expand slightly, which is why this method is sometimes called ‘belly breathing’. People who don’t use the diaphragm properly, rely excessively on the accessory muscles of breathing (scalenes, trapezium and sternocleidomastoid) located around the neck and shoulders, which often causes neck and shoulder pain.