Up until a few years ago, lifelong allergies kept me from hanging out at the homes of friends with pets. I missed scores of parties, and I envied people who could couch-surf or stay in someone’s spare bedroom on trips. I had to stay at hotels whenever I traveled to feel comfortable.
Have you ever experienced a feeling of separation from others — wishing you could join the fun activities everyone else seems to be doing — because of health symptoms? If so, read on.
As an only child, I would have loved a pet or just to play with other people’s animals when I was a kid, but I couldn’t go anywhere near them without sneezing and wheezing. As an adult, allergies continued to influence many choices.
When I stumbled onto The Buteyko Breathing Technique in my mid 40s, I was delighted that my asthma symptoms improved almost immediately as I practiced the breathing activities. But for several years afterward, my nose still got stuffed and my eyes would water when I pet a dog or cat, and my face often puffed up from an allergic reaction to blooming plants when I went hiking.
I kept at my breathing practice, and gradually, most of that stopped. The transformation was subtle. Over time, I noticed I was able to nuzzle the stray cat I had taken in, with my full face in her fur, without thinking about it. Before, I had to shower and put on a fresh set of clothes after holding her. Then last December, my family adopted two rescue dogs!
When I talk to breathing-retraining clients I don’t mention much about overcoming allergies because I was taught that it takes years to become non-reactive for these particular symptoms, and most people don’t have the patience for that. But I am so satisfied now with the changes in my life that I’m coming out and want to encourage others who are interested to just start and not be discouraged because it takes time.
Also, I’ve noticed many people sniffling at dog parks, my new hangout. It turns out a lot of people with allergies get pets anyway, often for the sake of their kids or a partner, and just suffer through it! This information needs to get more exposure!
How Poor Breathing Habits Contribute To Allergies
An allergy is generally defined as an adverse reaction of the immune system to a substance most people would find harmless, whether it’s pollen, animal dander or food.
The late Dr. Konstantin Buteyko, who synthesized the breathing-normalization regimen known as The Buteyko Breathing Technique, attributed the abnormal immune reaction to a rogue release of histamine that can occur when someone is hyperventilating. Histamine is a chemical neurotransmitter released to protect the body against a foreign invader.
The release of histamine can be caused by almost any allergen. Examples include inhalant allergens (ragweed pollen, dust mites, cat dander), drugs (penicillin, sulfa, aspirin), stinging insect venom, and foods (egg, wheat, milk, fish, etc.)
Allergens stimulate antibodies as a preventive force, causing one or more of the following symptoms while increasing inflammation that helps deliver white blood cells to the site and stimulating fluid secretion to wash the invader out:
- Eyes itch, burn, or become watery
- Nose itches, sneezes, and produces more mucus
- Skin itches, develops rashes or hives
- Sinuses become congested and cause headaches
- Lungs wheeze or have spasms
- Stomach experiences cramps and diarrhea
Dr. Buteyko attributed the release of histamine to hyperventilation interfering with normal metabolism.
Hyperventilation, which can also be called over-breathing, often occurs when someone is habitually mouth-breathing. Our nostrils are small, but they are the perfect size to inhale just the amount of air we need to function well. The problem with habitual over-breathing is not that too much Oxygen is inhaled, but that excessive Carbon-Dioxide produced in the body is exhaled and lost in the large out-breaths. Over-breathing sets up an adverse health situation as clear as over-eating.
Because Dr. Buteyko considered the cause of allergies to be over-breathing and the subsequent Oxygen-Carbon Dioxide imbalance, he advised patients to stop paying so much attention to avoiding triggers and concentrate on normalizing their breathing pattern instead.
To recap, according to Buteyko, allergies occur when:
- You are breathing too much, particularly exhaling too much Carbon Dioxide, leading to low CO2 levels in the blood.
- Your body produces too much histamine as a reaction to the low CO2 levels.
- Over-breathing also leads to erratic activity of enzymes, causing less effective breakdown of histamine and histamine-promoting substances in foods or pollen.
- Higher overall histamine levels and less effective breakdown of histamine leads to occasional excessive histamine levels and allergic reactions.
Buteyko started his research in the 1950s, right before many of the health impacts of industrial globalization were known. Add the sedentary internet lifestyle that emerged in the ’80s, and it’s clear that human activity patterns have radically shifted in a very short period of time. Allergies and asthma have skyrocketed worldwide. (I’ve heard Dr. Rosalba Courtney, a breathing specialist in Australia, say that all the new cases cannot be attributed simply to poor breathing alone, and she mentioned a plethora of additional potential modern causes, including possibly genetically-modified food, pollution and current child-rearing practices.)
Despite that, it’s clear that however someone’s allergies start, congestion more often than not initiates mouth-breathing and a cycle of over-breathing that can lead to a whole host of related symptoms that breathing retraining can help.
The Way Out: Healthy Breathing Habits Reduce Symptoms
Over-breathers are advised to go on an air diet, just like over-eaters start food diets.
The medical community has estimated the healthy breathing norm at approximately 5 liters of air per minute. Research has shown that people with chronic respiratory symptoms can be breathing two to three times that amount.
The fastest way to reduce breathing is to use the nose rather than the mouth for all activities, even and especially during exercise, and practice breathing slightly less for 10 minutes here and there during the day.
The idea behind breathing retraining is that since breathing is an autonomic activity — done 20,000-30,000 times a day whether you’re thinking about it or not — if you introduce a change consciously you will eventually start breathing that way on autopilot.
Like many activities, the instructions are simple but doing it regularly is not easy. It’s best to join with a partner or a coach who can observe you breathing and offer suggestions for correction. Check our website for information on classes and private coaching.
How Long Does It Take?
Breathing educators acknowledge the process of normalizing the breathing pattern seems to have a slower effect on relieving allergies than reducing asthma symptoms or anxiousness.
Breathing has biochemical, biomechanical and psychophysiological dimensions. The untimely release of histamine associated with allergy symptoms is surely biochemical — and may requires a consistent, longer-term shift in behavior.
In addition to bringing in Oxygen, another function of breathing is to help maintain the correct pH levels in the body, for optimal acid/alkaline balance. A number of the chemical reactions that sustain the processes of life are dependent on there being adequate levels of C02. If an imbalance occurs between the levels of Oxygen and Carbon Dioxide, much becomes disturbed.
While changing posture or emotional response can noticeably affect breathing pattern very fast, biochemical change requires systematic, day-by-day effort to re-pattern the metabolic set point in the respiratory center at the brain stem to increase CO2 tolerance.
When I took my breathing-educator training, I was told I might notice a gradual reduction of allergies over years. What happens is that as we build more resilience, relaxation and correct breathing habits, it takes more and more of a trigger to set off an allergic response.
Breathing retraining builds respiratory strength over days and weeks of progressively breathing more and more correctly. Resetting the respiratory set point doesn’t happen overnight.