Asthma. The very mention of the word can make you feel like you have a boa constrictor wrapped around your chest. If you have asthma, chances are that when you feel that squeezing, suffocating feeling of an attack, you take deep breaths—gasping for air—but this is actually wrong. Or maybe you have heard that taking deep, slow and paced breaths is the right way to go. But the latest research shows that there really is a much better way to catch your breath.
WHEN LESS IS MORE
In an attempt to catch their breaths, asthmatics gulp air and breathe too rapidly during an attack. It’s a natural reaction, but this can cause a decrease in the body’s level of carbon dioxide (CO2), resulting in hyperventilation and its characteristic symptoms of dizziness, breathlessness and pins and needles. The lungs become hyper-reactive, stuffy and dry, making the asthma attack far worse and scarier than it needs to be.
Now consider this: Shallow breathing does the opposite…it increases CO2 levels. Knowing this and knowing that shallow breathing helps people with panic disorder (who also tend to hyperventilate), researchers from Southern Methodist University in Dallas decided to test the effectiveness of a shallow-breathing technique, successfully used in people with panic disorder, in adults with asthma.
They randomly assigned 120 asthma sufferers to receive either a standard breathing therapy called slow-breathing and awareness training (SLOW) or a therapy called capnometry-assisted respiratory training (CART). SLOW teaches asthmatics to take slow, full breaths through awareness and control of their respiratory rate (the number of breaths they take per minute). CART also trains its users to control their respiratory rate but encourages shallow breathing and control of CO2 levels through use of a device called a capnometer. The capnometer provides feedback about CO2 levels so that a person can practice how to breathe to prevent CO2 from dipping too low.
The study participants practiced their therapies for four weeks on their own and with respiratory therapists and used their asthma medications as needed. The researchers monitored asthma attacks, need for medication and various aspects of respiratory function during this time and for six months’ follow-up—and patients kept journals of the impact of SLOW or CART therapy on their asthma.
The results? Whereas both techniques resulted in an 81% improvement in lung function, the CART group was in better shape six months down the road than the other group. Their airways had become more widened and their CO2 levels were more normalized than those of patients practicing SLOW, and that difference remained consistent throughout further follow-up. Patients practicing CART also coped better when under the stress of an acute asthma attack because they felt more in control of their symptoms and what exactly was happening in their bodies during attacks.
LEARNING TO BREATHE
If you have (or know someone who has) asthma and are unfamiliar with breath retraining therapies, such as SLOW and CART, it’s a good idea to ask your doctor for a referral to a respiratory therapist—especially someone who knows about CART. These therapies are not a substitute for asthma medication, but they clearly work as add-ons and can help you improve lung function so that you can possibly rely less on medication. As for which therapy is better for long-term improvement, this study, at least, points to CART.