Asthma is rising in Ireland at an alarming rate. A startling new
drug-free method claims to be a cure, writes Sophie Gorman
Asthma grabs its victims by the chest, cramps their breathing passages so tightly that each little sip of air is precious, makes them gasp and wheeze through smothering mucus. Every year the number of people who can take the act of breathing for granted is declining, as the number of asthma sufferers soars.
Drug treatment is only moderately successful and many sufferers, including children, find themselves on ever larger doses of Ventolin, with diminishing relief.
Now, however, there is a new asthma treatment which flies directly in the face of all accepted methods of treatment. It is based on the extraordinary idea that asthmatics actually suffer from an excess of oxygen rather than a lack of it.
The theory comes from the Soviet Academy of Science, where they discovered that asthmatics were taking in too much oxygen and breathing out too much carbon dioxide. The treatment method teaches asthmatics to keep their mouths shut after breathing and to hold their nose to stop them from getting another `fix' of oxygen for as long as possible. (*See footnote)
Patented by a Ukranian research clinician, Konstantin Buteyko, in the 1960s, the theory claims that asthmatics are essentially overloaded with oxygen. Rather than having breathlessness from a lack of oxygen as is the accepted explanation, he believes that at times of stress they intake too much oxygen before breathing out too much carbon dioxide. In prolonged periods of stress, deeper breathing becomes an unconscious, continuous habit and a physiological pattern.
If his beliefs are correct, this hyperventilation reduces the body's carbon dioxide and an imbalance is subsequently created. A certain amount of carbon dioxide in the body is essential. Low levels mean its smooth muscle tissue reacts with spasms, creating problems in the sinuses, lungs, heart and so on.
However, although this may appear a welcome natural solution to this ongoing problem, one must pause to wonder whether or not Butekyo is only grasping, or even gasping, at straws. One of the basic reasons this theory has not received much promotion or support on these shores, according to the administrator for Asthma Society of Ireland, Oran O'Muire, is the rather critical ``lack of concrete scientific evidence.''
``Up till now all these seemingly miracle tales of people throwing away their inhalers forever have all been of an anecdotal level. It would appear to make sense up to a point and then they have taken a huge leap to a popular conclusion, which is speculation and scientifically unacceptable. Any research in progress is still in long-term development and it is important not to ease off on currently accepted preventive treatment in the hope of something in the pipeline.
``These practises are absolutely contrary to everything that has preceded it and therefore should be viewed with some scepticism until it receives a sufficient level of validated support.
According to O'Muire, one of the principal fears with the recent promotion of the Buteyko method by such high-profile sources as BBC's QED series is that in the transition period while you are changing from the conventional preventive inhaler to the new method, you leave yourself very vulnerable to inflamed asthma attacks.
``The body is not as quick as the mind to readjust to this different approach and cannot adapt instantly. It points in the face of all previous treatment, and therefore we are understandably wary about backing it in anyway.''
His queries as to its authenticity are supported by similar queries from the National Asthma Campaign in Britain, where the method has apparently already been successfully used. A Glaswegian doctor claims to have successfully introduced it into his treatment of 34 asthma sufferers. As a direct result he alleges that he has saved ?10,000 a year on the prescription cost of drugs and inhalers.
The Irish are more likely to suffer from asthma than almost anywhere else in the world. A 56-country study found that only Australia, New Zealand and Britain matched the frightening figures for these islands. A staggering 250,000 people are affected by it in Ireland, half of which are children. Their resistance is lower because their immune systems are now less developed for fighting diseases compared with 30 or 40 years ago.
These figures break down to reveal that 5pc of adults and 15pc of teenagers and young children in Ireland endure this breathing sickness. Three-quarters of all asthma attacks are dealt with by a GP; the remainder being of such a severe level as to require some hospital attention. And between 130 and 140 of these Irish sufferers actually die from fatal asthma attacks every year.
One of the enduring difficulties is that sufferers are notoriously subjective in their reaction to treatment, as asthma does fall into something of a grey medical area. Doctors have now reached a level of confidence in their ability to actually identify the principal triggers behind asthma.
Certain environmental conditions including cigarette smoke, air pollution, house dust and thunder storms have been highlighted as the causes for the victim's airways to become swollen and blocked in an allergic reaction. However, doctors are still at a loss as to what the underlying cause is or why the number of sufferers has literally quadrupled since the early 80s.
But Buteyko's solution to simply retrain your breathing to cure your asthma arrives at a time when there has been much talk of pills to replace inhalers and a vaccine is even being developed by British scientists which they hope will be available in a mere three years.
``Research into asthma is at an exciting stage,'' agreed O'Mhuire. ``But while we cannot dismiss new concepts such as Buteyko's, by the very fact that it would take us in an entirely different direction from where all previous research and developments have led ensures a certain level of cynicism.''
FOOTNOTE: Professor Buteyko's theory, in fact, has nothing to do with "too much oxygen".
It describes an undiagnosed condition of chronic," hidden" hyperventilation resulting in the excessive
loss of Carbon Dioxide. This note is not part of the published article. (Peter Kolb).