When it comes to health information that I wish I’d discovered sooner, few things would rank above this one. Having given credit to a fellow named ‘Buteyko’ (bless you, Dr Konstantin Buteyko), we can now just think of this as ‘low volume nasal breathing’.
This isn’t the place and I’m not the man to get comprehensively sciency, but I’ll touch on the basic theories that this approach to the breath is based upon:
- In humans, the nose is for breathing and the mouth is for eatin’.
- When you breathe out, you’re getting rid of (excess) CO2. The higher the volume of air one breathes, the more CO2 they lose.
- Many don’t realise that a healthy CO2 level is essential for efficient body oxygenation, meaning that taking deep breaths with the intention to get in more oxygen is a deeply flawed practice.
- The higher one’s air volume, the lower their tolerance for CO2, leading to chronic hyperventilation habits as the body learns to exist in a low CO2 state.
- Habitual mouth breathing results in far greater air volume exchanged than nasal breathing.
- Many variables increase one’s air volume, including various forms of stress, processed foods, caffeine and sinus congestion.
- Consequently, the vast majority of people today chronically hyperventilate, and inefficient body oxygenation unsurprisingly has a hugely detrimental effect on people's health.
I was first introduced to a test called the “Control Pause” (CP, also known as the 'BOLT score') perhaps a year and a half ago. Although the incredulous spelling mistake in the title may cost this article its credibility, I’ll link it anyhow:
You can read about the test there, but here’s what this site proposes about interpreting the results:
- 10 and under: your health is severely affected
- 10 to 20: you are probably suffering from a chronic illness, along with symptoms, such as: blocked nose, snoring, insomnia, coughing, short breath, asthma
- 20 to 40: most symptoms are not there, but may occur following a triggering event
- 40 and more: good health
The accuracy of this assessment is surely contentious (there'd be many who exist below 20 without chronic illness, including even some athletes), but it’s still eyepopping for me to read it and recall my initial experience attempting the test. I recall practically gagging within a moment; my score would have been 2 seconds, maximum.
This was after years of intensive health treatments and dedicated lifestyle changes, and at the time I was in unrecognisably better health than previously. Still, clearly, my breathing habits had spiraled horrifically over time, and not much I’d done must have restored a greater tolerance for CO2 in my body.
One thing that this helped elucidate was that I must be hyperventilating through the mouth during sleep. No great surprise given that I’d had awful sinus issues for many years, and although those had long been resolved, I’d not engaged in any corrective exercises to retrain that overnight breathing. Perhaps not being much of a snorer made me too lax in that area!
As well as that, I’d catch myself routinely mouth breathing during the day at various times – something I wouldn’t have been sure that I did before focusing on it. So, I quickly became fixated on exclusively nasal breathing whenever possible, which was a critical change.
When it came to corrective breathing exercises (taken from the Buteyko method), though, this wasn’t a treatment that had been prescribed to me specifically to do, and I hadn’t researched it (not even read basic articles like this one) to realise the profound significance of the information. The exercises felt so difficult given my level, and I already had ongoing plans I was working through with the doc (as well as plenty of life stress!). After (shockingly) not seeing instant improvements, they regrettably went into the too hard basket.
The fixation on nasal breathing continued, though, and once I got the all clear from the doc to try using mouth tape at night, I did that too, with mixed but generally positive results. I slept terrifically in Vegas compared to at home, likely due to the very low humidity desert air making it extremely easy to breathe there.
Remember this isn’t medical advice; you must talk to a physician before trying this yourself – for many it might be dangerous and not advised (eg. those with sleep apnea); in my own case I had to improve my daytime breathing and other habits somewhat before it was recommended.
In the second half of last year I revisited the information and listened to a podcast with Patrick McKeown – author of “The Oxygen Advantage”, a book I’d highly recommend that strongly espouses the merits of these breathing practices. I recommitted to an extremely stringent routine of exercises, 4 times a day for a total of around 2 hours of moderately mentally challenging breathwork.
At the time my CP began at 6 seconds, and for as long as I kept it up, it’s fair to say it was an absolute rollercoaster. Within a week or two I’d gotten the CP time up to an average of 12-13, which was pretty exciting, but that progress stalled as it kept inducing radical changes in my body. Likely due to the detoxification effect, I’d have nights where I’d go to bed feeling like I’d just taken a triple shot of coffee, and essentially had to back off, as it was having too strong of an effect. My cravings went nuts and the blood sugar complications were tough to handle, as the changes radically altered my insulin sensitivity. On the days when things were more settled though, there was a remarkable sense of calm clarity that was somewhat euphoric.
The problems I was having for a few months with sleep and recovery after becoming anemic halted progress, but now I’ve really found some consistency that’s working amazingly. With a change in my training to purely aerobic intensity work, it’s meant I’ve been able to exclusively nose breathe during exercise, which is helping to train my body to become more oxygen efficient - but doesn’t seem to be nearly as stressful as inducing hypoxia the way I was doing with the exercises. My nasal passages seem to be permanently far more open now too, and the endless frustration I was having with waking up at 2am with a stuffy nose has disappeared.
Two years ago, I couldn’t walk up a flight of stairs without having to open my mouth to get more air... now, just the other day I was able to play an hour of tennis at medium intensity exclusively nasal breathing. The progress has been swift and thrilling, and gives me great hope for what my body may be capable of in the future. When I heard that the target for CP was 40 seconds, and saw my doc demonstrating his being at around 34 just moments after stopping talking to me, I couldn’t actually fathom how that was possible... it was completely mind-blowing. Now, I’m at around 18 seconds on a good day; one day maybe I’ll actually be there at 40. Since my body’s stress tolerance should be improving all the time, I’ll get back to some more intense exercises soon to accelerate the progress.
If I ever do really make something of tennis, it’ll be in no small part with thanks to this information, and I can only encourage people to investigate this area for themselves – whether motivated by exercise performance or simply general wellbeing.
You know when people reference “The power of the breath”? ... Don’t be silly enough to be that person who rolls their eyes!