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Multi-System Illnesses. How Breathing Can Make a Difference

Multi-system conditions have been around for some time, but it's Long Covid that's finally bringing them more into mainstream consciousness. Regrettably, increased awareness isn't leading to solutions from the medical world. Health professionals often seem thwarted when there's no pharmaceutical or other medical treatment available for their patients with Long Covid, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (also known as ME) and Fibromyalgia to name just three multi-system conditions that are particularly prevalent in Western societies.

There is no magic bullet for illnesses such as these, too many systems are affected for any pill, potion or surgery to be an effective cure. In fact there is no single remedy of any kind that can eliminate these conditions. There is however one approach that the challenged body is crying out for and that is the restoration of balance. This is why a nutritional overhaul can make a difference, as was the case for me when I experienced Chronic Fatigue. It's why pacing and learning to relax and de-stress can make a difference; it's not at all unusual for driven and ambitious people to be brought to a near or total halt by a fatigue-related condition. It's why supplements may make a difference ..they are never more relevant than when a person experiences nutritional deficiencies which is not unusual in such circumstances. And it's why breathing can make a difference, and not only for the relaxing effects that can be achieved.

It's not a given that a person with an illness has sub-optimal breathing, but it is extremely likely. It's no surprise that the breathing rate of hospitalised patients is measured as one of their 'vital signs', and that an increase in the breathing rate correlates with a decrease in health. It's unfortunate, however, that no time and attention is dedicated to improving breathing patterns probably because, despite the available evidence, little is known about the positive outcomes that can result when breathing is addressed.

There are three main reasons why addressing poor breathing patterns has the potential to affect multiple systems in the body, and thus benefit anyone with a multi-system condition.

The first is perhaps the more obvious of the three. It's oxygenation, proper oxygenation of tissues and organs, which of course, includes the brain. Have you ever experienced brain fog? What was your breathing like? This is not about oxygen in the blood, it's about the oxygen getting to where it's needed to enable optimal functioning as well as healing.

Next, we must consider sleep because sleep can be profoundly affected by our breathing and it's no secret that poor sleep, especially chronic poor sleep, can play a role in illnesses from high blood pressure and heart disease to diabetes and depression. Even if depression is not present, mood and judgement are likely to be affected. For the past 3 decades my sleep has been thoroughly inadequate. Imagine my surprise when breathing re-education gradually led to a change in direction for the first time in 30 years! I'd become used to spiralling ever downwards despite my best efforts. Improvements in my sleep are the most wonderful and unexpected gift.

Similar to sleep is stress which is intimately linked with breathing. It's easy to comprehend this in the case of acute stress where fast breathing, possibly a precursor to a panic attack, is evident. It's much less obvious when the breathing rate is chronically just a little too fast for the body’s needs. It feels normal because it has become normal, albeit not natural. But this is a stressor, a source of subtle but persistent anxiety. We know that stress is involved in up to 90% of health conditions today. The good news is we can ensure our breathing isn't a cause or contributing factor.

Retraining breathing, therefore can be a godsend. Learning to breathe through the nose …pretty much always, to breathe less, to breathe more slowly, to fully engage the breathing muscles with each breath. It changes your physiology, always for the better. Can we go it alone and retrain our own breathing? Yes, it can be done, but it requires motivation and commitment. It requires well-researched knowledge of the most appropriate exercises that will facilitate progress without leading to unnecessary stress or even harm. And re-training your breathing presents you with a potent invitation to accept not just the progress, but also the plateaus and any setbacks that might occur and then to re-engage with it all and keep going. It's certainly possible, but unless it's a thoroughly appealing challenge, it may be wise to let someone help you, someone who can keep you accountable if motivation wanes, or when progress seems to have halted, if doubts that you will ever be well again creep in, and importantly someone who can ensure that the exercises you do are safe for you.

Breathing re-education alone will not resolve Chronic Fatigue, Fibromyalgia or Long Covid, but if breathing is dysfunctional (this can be determined by a simple breathing efficiency test), then retraining it will make a positive difference to you and you will have the tools for life. Why let poor breathing make a challenging situation worse when it can be resolved?

If you wish to contact me, I'm happy to respond to your questions:

If you wish to find an instructor in your area, especially if you prefer to work in person with someone, then the Buteyko Clinic International Instructors page might be useful.

~Annette Henry

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