Breathing lessons

Many asthma sufferers would like to reduce their dependence on their inhalers. Vicky Frost looks at the 'natural' options - from herbs to breathing exercises

There are 5.2 million people in the UK currently receiving treatment for asthma - which makes for a lot of inhalers lurking in bathroom cabinets. Inhalers, the most common treatment for asthma, come in two types: preventers, which are taken daily to control inflammation in the airways long-term and usually contain low-dose steroids; and reliever inhalers, which instantly relax the muscles if something triggers symptoms. Most asthmatics agree it's no big deal having to take them. And yes, it's great that they work.

But as with anyone with a long-term reliance on drugs, many asthmatics would like to reduce their reliance on inhalers without increasing the likelihood of a potentially dangerous attack. "Lots of people are very keen to know what they can do about their asthma other than take drugs to control it," says Dr Mike Thomas, a GP and senior research fellow for the charity Asthma UK.
There's a large amount of information out there about "natural" treatments, from avoiding cow's milk to eating more shiitake mushrooms. But as Thomas warns: "There's a fairly low amount of evidence for many of these things because lots of the research is based on drug treatments. It's basically much harder to fund non-drug research - but that has been increasing in the last 10 years, so the evidence is growing."

So what are the alternatives, and how effective are they?

Breathing exercises
Buteyko is the best known of these - and proponents claim it can be beneficial to asthmatics (and those with emphysema or bronchitis). You normally attend a workshop, maybe over a couple of days, but it isn't available on the NHS. So is it worth it? "Quite a lot of people do breathe abnormally," says Thomas. "We think breathing is instinctive, but it's very complex and needs coordination of many muscle groups."
Quiet breathing - ie, when you are at rest - should come from the diaphragm, with little movement of the chest. But some people will breathe largely from their chests. "If people can be encouraged to use quiet natural diaphragmatic breathing, this may lead to improvements in their asthma control," says Thomas. "There are some extravagant claims made about Buteyko, but good-quality studies do show that it can help people, and mean they are less reliant on their reliever - although there's no evidence that it can cure asthma. Breathing normally is probably why it works." But Buteyko isn't the only breathing exercise regime that might help. "It could be the same with yoga - and there are some people who say that singing is very helpful," says Thomas.
A recent study published in the journal Thorax also showed success in controlling asthma with the Papworth technique - a series of breathing and relaxation exercises which may reduce symptoms by as much as a third. The technique encourages breathing from the abdomen, using the diaphragm, rather than taking rapid, shallow breaths.
And if singing, bending or breathing methods don't appeal? Try asking your GP for a referral to an NHS physiotherapist. Some are trained to work with people with respiratory conditions.

Source - Guardian