History of the Buteyko Breathing Technique

Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko was born in 1923 in the small farming community of Ivanitsa, Russia, about 150 kilometers from Kiev. Inheriting his father's enthusiasm for machines, young Buteyko studied at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute until World War II started and he left to join his country's armed forces. After his experiences during the war, Buteyko felt compelled to study what he called "the most complicated piece of machinery of all" - the human organism.

In 1946, he enrolled at the First Medical Institute in Moscow. During his third year he started working in the clinical-therapy group under the departmental head, academician Evgeniy Mikhailovitch Tareiev.

During this third year at the Institute, Buteyko was given a practical assignment that involved monitoring diseased patients' breathing. He spent hundreds of hours sitting by patients' bedsides, recording their breathing patterns prior to death. He noticed a considerable and uniform deepening in patients' breathing with the approaching of death. By recording these increases, Buteyko found that he was soon able to form a prognosis on how many days or hours were left before a patient's death occurred. This experience foreshadowed Buteyko's future interests.

In 1952, having graduated from the Institute with Honors, Buteyko continued his experiments independently along similar lines. He asked healthy subjects to breathe deeply for a period of time, and found that they became dizzy and nauseous, developed asphyxiating symptoms such as wheeziness and coughing, and eventually fainted. This, he was told, was due to oxygen over-saturation of the brain.

But during the second month of this independent work, it occurred to Buteyko that certain diseases may develop as a result of deep breathing! He himself had suffered from hypertension for some time, and he had often pondered its causes. He measured his own carbon-dioxide levels and found them lower than recommended. It was known that over-breathing lowered carbon-dioxide levels in the body. He theorized that if his low levels were caused by over-breathing, then by correcting his breathing he might able to cure his disorder.

He immediately began experimenting on himself. Soon he had trained himself to breathe less. He found that by reducing his breathing, some symptoms such as headache and rapid heartbeat also subsided. When he increased the depth of his breathing, the symptoms returned. Buteyko concluded that he had discovered the reason for his disease. He immediately set out to devise a program by which a patient's breathing could be quickly and effectively measured and then, if need be, reconditioned. He had shortly healed himself completely.

Buteyko checked and rechecked his theory on patients. He measured the breathing patterns of sufferers of asthma, stenocardia and other diseases. He discovered, without surprise, that they too were hyperventilating. Once again by correcting these patients' breathing to an acceptable level, Buteyko was able to normalize their carbon dioxide shortfall and their attacks stopped immediately. When Buteyko asked the patients to return to their previous breathing patterns, their attacks resumed. It was clear that Buteyko had stumbled across a very important discovery, a global discovery, and that current medical thinking was upside down.

Through further research, Buteyko was able to lay down the theoretical foundation for this idea - hyperventilation causes a depletion of carbon dioxide; low levels of carbon dioxide in the organism cause blood vessels to spasm and also cause oxygen starvation of the tissues. This results in a whole range of "defense mechanisms" that have been previously misunderstood and labeled as diseases. It was not difficult to surmise that vessel spasming occurring in hypertension could occur also with other types of diseases, for example: stenocardia (angina pectoris) with the resultant myocardial infarction (heart attack), end arteritis (inflammation of the innermost coat of an artery, usually occurring in legs) or ulcerative stomach disease. Scientific data associated with the physiological role of carbon dioxide is discussed in more detail in the "Buteyko Theoretical Manual".

Buteyko worked very intensively at the Central and Lenin Medical Libraries researching his theory. Was it really possible that in the history of medical science this had never occurred to anyone else? He learnt very quickly that the answer to this question was yes. For centuries, the majority of the human race had taught their children to breath deeply, and no one, even for a moment, tried to reduce breathing. During his research, Buteyko was lucky to learn of a few experiments supporting the viability of his thinking. (See Bohr, Holden, Priestly, Henderson, De Kosta). This then led to Buteyko sharing his thoughts with his teachers, but he found no support from any of them.

He knew well, through his studies, that many medical discoveries had initially been dismissed and suppressed officially only to become accepted practice years later.

He recalled the story of sepsis from 1846. A doctor friend of Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis had cut his finger while performing an autopsy on a woman who had perished of sepsis (or "puerperal fever" as it was then known). Three days later, the doctor also contracted the "puerperal fever". Zemelweise concluded that "something" had been passed from the corpse and into the doctors cut, via the blood. At the time microbes were not yet known of, they were discovered by Pasteur 20 years later.

With the desire to confirm his supposition, Zemelweise began washing his hands prior to operations, disinfecting them with a chloride of lime solution. He suggested his assistants also follow this routine. In those times, about one third of all new mothers and surgical patients died of sepsis. A three month experiment confirmed Zemelweise's hypothesis, and he lost no patients thereafter. He informed his societ of surgeons and suggested they follow his example. He was declared to be mentally disturbed.

Similar destiny befell Professor Lister, an Englishman, who 10 years later also called for disinfection of hands prior to operations. Only after this discovery had reached the ears of the public, and hordes of patients' relatives started to turn up at the operations demanding to know if the surgeons had washed their hands before operating, did this procedure become accepted by the surgeons. This happened half a century after the initial discovery by Zemelweise.

Historical knowledge of this nature made it clear to Buteyko that voicing his convictions was not likely to bring any positive results at that stage. He knew he must set up a research laboratory . He had to gather evidence, develop it, and only then, announce his ideas to the world.

Later that year Buteyko became a clinical-therapy intern under Professor Tareiev again. Here he was given his chance to establish a functional-diagnostics laboratory, This project failed due to lack of funds, personnel and equipment. An attempt to establish the laboratory under the auspices of the Ministry of Health in Moscow was also unsuccessful - the necessary equipment was made available, but not the scientific personnel. In 1958 Buteyko was invited by Professor Meshalkin to join the Institute of Experimental Biology and Medicine at the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Science (where Meshalkin was the director). Once again he set about the task of establishing a laboratory of functional diagnostics. This project was completed in 1960.

In 1958-1959 Buteyko conducted clinical studies on nearly 200 people, both healthy and sick. All the data confirmed the correctness of Buteyko's discovery. On January 11, 1960, he presented his work to the Scientific Forum at the Institute and tried to explain his thinking. He told those present of the experiments, which showed the objective linear relationship between the depth of breathing, the content of carbon dioxide in the body and vessel spasming and degrees of illness.

Buteyko's colleagues were stunned. Surgeons took the studies as some dirty trick, because Buteyko offered to treat such diseases as asthma, hypertension, stenocardia, without a knife. Invasive surgery never cured these disease anyway, everybody knew that, and mortality was high. But the Buteyko method gave a quick, almost 100% recovery. Buteyko had expected the surgeons to be delighted but unfortunately their reaction was quite the opposite. Nevertheless, he did receive temporary approval from Professor Meshalkin, who chaired the Forum, to continue the research.

Over the next 10 years of the laboratory's existence, Buteyko and his team were able to obtain extensive information on the basic functions of the human organism - whether healthy or diseased. The laboratory was equipped at the highest level. There were 40 various instruments capable of registering almost all basic functions of the human organism, and producing approximately 100,000 pieces of data per hour. Analysis of this information was done on computers, mathematically deriving physiological measurements and the various conformities of the body's processes.

Two hundred medical specialists were trained in the laboratory, most of whom, by the way, had suffered from one condition or another and successfully treated themselves with the method. Soon they were all treating other patients utilizing Buteyko's method. Official statistics showed that as of January 1967 more than 1,000 patients suffering from asthma, hypertension or stenocardia had been successfully treated and had totally recovered from their illnesses.

Despite this, Meshalkin categorically refused Buteyko's request for official sanction of his method at the clinic. Shortly thereafter Meshalkin mysteriously implemented brutal repression, up to the forcible confiscation of the laboratory equipment. There were to be no publications, and strong reprimands were made for any public appearances or speeches on the subject. About 1963, the Institute was officially disbanded and closed.

This disbandment may have saved Buteyko's laboratory. He was able to keep one-third of all the instruments, personnel and the original laboratory premises. From 1963 to 1968 the laboratory was attached to the Institute of Cytology and Genetics of the Siberian Branch of the USSR Academy of Science. Professor Meshalkin's clinic was reassigned into the system of the Russian Ministry of Health. Buteyko's repeated requests to accredit his method had not met any support whatsoever.

Only In January 1968, after the local and foreign press supported his discoveries, was the official approval of the method granted in Leningrad, at the Institute of Pulmonology under Professor Uglov. Shortly before this, a visit was paid to Buteyko's clinic by the Minister of Health, Professor Petrovsky. The Minister informed Buteyko that if he successfully treated at least 80% of the patients given to him, Petrovsky would immediately endorse his method as a standard medical practice. He promised also to make available a 50-bed facility for the continuation of Buteyko's clinical work. The Minister had one condition -- that the patients used for the test were the most serious and difficult cases, not otherwise treatable by conventional methods of medicine.

Of the 46 patients who underwent Buteyko's treatment, 44 (95%) were officially recognized as cured. Only 2 of the 46 had a smaller positive effect. Some of the patients had up to 20 different conditions each. One of the female patients had been recommended to undergo a mastectomy, diagnosed with a malignant tumour in the early stages. She had refused the operation. She was included on the list of patients because of her asthma. She recovered not only from her asthma but from the rest of her illnesses, including the tumor.

It should be added that the two patients not included in the success rate were also cured of their diseases after longer treatment so, in effect, Buteyko could describe the results of his method as having had a 100% success rate.

The official conclusions of the test, which was monitored by the health ministry, were sent to the Health Minister, Professor Petrovsky. However the ministry later repudiated the results, saying the test  had failed, with only two out of the 46 patients having been cured. This unexplained falsification served as a foundation for closing the Buteyko laboratory. On August 14, 1968, all of the scientists were dismissed without any offers of alternative employment, and all of the equipment was confiscated or stolen.

However, even against such great odds, the method survived. The originally-trained team of medical practitioners continued to treat patients. Although not one official medical establishment in Moscow was using the method, it was being used in Harkov, Chernigov, Kdhovka, Leningrad, Krasnoyarsk, Khabarovsk, Sverdlovsk, etc...

Success after success forced the government to once again look into the method. The second official review was conducted at the First Moscow Institute of Pediatric Diseases in April 1980 at the direction of the Government Committee for Science and Technology of the Soviet Ministry of USSR. The study confirmed the findings of the earlier trial conducted in Leningrad: 100% success rate.

The Soviet Health Ministry officially acknowledged Buteyko's discovery in 1983. His discovery was formally recognized more than 20 years after it had been made. It is reputed that the technique has been successfully taught to more than one million citizens of Russia and the surrounding independent republics.

The Buteyko method was brought to Australia in 1990 by Kyle Alberts, a businessman. While visiting Russia, Alberts had an angina attack that, to his amazement, was successfully treated with the method. He sponsored two Russian Buteyko teachers to come to Sydney. One teacher left and the other, Alexander (Sasha) Stalmatsky stayed and taught the method.

Following extensive media coverage and public pressure, five years after Stalmatsky began to teach the method, a formal study was now conducted in Brisbane. Thirty nine subjects were randomized to the Buteyko group and a control group. The control group was taught a general asthma-education program and physiotherapy exercises. The Buteyko Method group significantly reduced bronchodilator use (96%), steroid medication (49%), asthma symptoms (80%), and reported significant improvement in quality of life. No improvement was recorded in the control group. The method has had several other successful clinical trials (England, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Ukraine, USSR).

The method was introduced to New Zealand in 1994 by Russell and Jennifer Stark, who have now taught the majority of North American and Western European teachers since 1999.

 

Dr. Buteyko made at least one trip to New Zealand and Australia late in his life to support the Western teachers, and died in 2003.

 

--adapted from the late Peter Kolb