Learning to breathe (aged 41) finally got my asthma under control

'I've suffered from asthma since my teens,' said Beezy Marsh'I've suffered from asthma since my teens,' said Beezy Marsh

Few of us give a second thought to how we breathe.

But if we did, we’d probably think we should be breathing deeply and getting plenty of oxygen into our system.

In fact, if you have asthma, trying to inhale too much oxygen could make it worse, say experts.

This is because it can disturb the delicate balance of CO2 — carbon dioxide — in your lungs, which is crucial to the process of transporting oxygen around the body.

Too much CO2 sets up a vicious circle of worsening symptoms, which may lead to hospitalisation.

‘Quite often, asthma patients have to work harder to breathe, but if they work too hard — drawing in too much oxygen — their CO2 goes down, breathing gets harder and their chest gets tighter,’ explains Dr John Moore-Gillon, a spokesman for the British Lung Foundation.

‘Overbreathing can, in fact, affect anyone,’ he adds.

But it’s thought to be widespread in people with existing lung conditions such as asthma.

For them, not only are the effects more obvious, but they’re riskier as they are more prone to feeling wheezy and tight in their chests in the first place.

It can also be harder to get out of the cycle of tightness once it has started.

The difficulty is spotting the problem of overbreathing (known as Breathing Pattern Disorder, or BPD).

Dr Moore-Gillon says: ‘The symptoms — whether you have asthma or not — can be quite vague: a sort of muzziness in the head or tingling in the fingers.

'They vary from person to person, so it is not always easily diagnosed.’

‘As well as seeking medical advice, one of the key things someone with asthma must learn to do is calm down, because this will often help their breathing.

'It is vital that medical help is sought, because a genuine and dangerous asthma attack must not be mistaken simply for panic.’

Some hospital lung clinics will refer patients to respiratory physiotherapists to help ‘retrain’ their breathing.

But can this really work? I’ve suffered from asthma since my teens, have been hospitalised with an asthma attack, and, at 41, have used inhalers every day.

'My breathing is rapid and shallow, at 16 breaths per minute,' said Beezy'My breathing is rapid and shallow, at 16 breaths per minute,' said Beezy

When I heard the BPD theory, I was far from convinced: how could this medical condition, which gets worse around cats and grass pollen, be in any way due to my breathing?

And yet it seems I am a good candidate for breathing retraining, as I discover when I go to the New Medicine Group in Harley Street for assessment.

First, I am hooked up to a strange-looking machine, with tubes up my nose to measure the carbon dioxide coming out of my lungs.

The machine is a capnograph, a standard piece of medical kit used to assess those who have a tendency to over breathe.

After ten minutes of being attached to the machine, I get the results — the amount of CO2 when I exhale is extremely low at 27.

The normal range is 35 to 40.

Apparently, anything under 30 may start to cause symptoms such as dizziness.

I’ve always suffered from a kind of fuggy-headed feeling, but I have never really told anyone about it, as it just seemed too difficult to pin down — and it comes and goes.

In the past, I have used coffee to get over it.

But coupled with my low carbon dioxide levels, my breathing is rapid and shallow, at 16 breaths per minute — the normal average is eight to 12.

I am astonished. It’s true, I need to use asthma inhalers every day — I cannot leave the house without my Ventolin inhaler (to relax the airways) and it is something of a comfort blanket. I also take a couple of puffs of a steroid ‘preventer’ inhaler a day.

But I’m also fit and can run a couple of kilometres as long as I take my Ventolin inhaler first — and I enjoy swimming, karate and Pilates, as well as running around the park with my two young sons.

So, what is going on with me?

Carbon dioxide is the waste product of the respiratory system, but it also dilates smooth muscle, which surrounds spaces in the body such as the bronchial airways.

If CO2 levels are low, the smooth muscle will constrict, making breathing harder. This is why asthmatics who breathe too deeply find it harder to breathe generally.

My ‘mugginess’ is apparently a result of less oxygen reaching the brain — oxygen is transported in the bloodstream via red blood cells; but if levels of carbon dioxide are low, the oxygen molecules won’t detach from the red blood cells, meaning vital organs have a reduced supply.

As well as my CO2 and breath counts being assessed, I’m given a breathing exercise using a computer chart that shows me when to breathe in and out.

This is the proper rate of breathing and my chest feels strangely uncomfortable — it’s as if I am using different muscles when I breathe.

But my carbon dioxide level rises to 30 and I manage eight breaths a minute.

I’m told that learning to breathe properly like this may ultimately alleviate some of my asthma symptoms — some people apparently need to use their inhalers less and suffer fewer attacks after retraining their breathing.

But I also might not notice any difference.

Carbon dioxide is the waste product of the respiratory system, but it also dilates smooth muscle, which surrounds spaces in the body such as the bronchial airwaysCarbon dioxide is the waste product of the respiratory system, but it also dilates smooth muscle, which surrounds spaces in the body such as the bronchial airways

In any event, it certainly won’t do me any harm.

The therapist, however, warns: ‘Do not throw away your inhalers or try to come off your medication.

‘This is not about turning your back on conventional medicines. It is about teaching your body how to breathe properly and then seeing what happens from there.’

I go home with some equipment to help me — a little headset attached to what looks like a Sony Walkman.

It plays chimes and I am supposed to sit or relax, listening to the chimes and breathing in and out accordingly.

As I breathe in, I have to imagine a lift descending from my diaphragm (the horizontal wall of muscle under the ribs) with a slight pull up on the pelvic floor that rises to meet it.

The out breath must not be forced, but slow and steady as the lift rises back up to its position.

The lungs expand down and outwards on the in breath.

Over the first three months, I slowly find I’m only using my preventative steroid inhaler once in the mornings and my blue Ventolin inhaler — which acts immediately to relax the airways — hardly ever.

Within six months, the amount of carbon dioxide coming out of my lungs has also risen, so that it is within the normal range, now reading 33 and six to seven breaths per minute.

The fuzziness in my head has disappeared and I have even given up coffee because I don’t need that kick start.

A year since I first started to learn how to breathe properly, the final proof that it’s helped comes in the gym, when I forget to take my Ventolin inhaler before swimming.

I am in the fast lane and a man in the next lane keeps lapping me.

I use the technique to breathe in calmly and breathe out slowly, before starting a spot of competitive swimming.

Not only do I do my best impression of Olympic medal-winner Rebecca Adlington, I get to the end of the lane first — and I’m not even out of breath.
  1. 2013/03/12(火) 16:17:55|
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