Biography of Professor KP Buteyko
Konstantin Pavlovich Buteyko (1923-2003) was born in Ukraine but lived for the majority of his life in Russia. He was a very distinguished physiologist and professor of medicine. As a boy he had a keen interest in machines and how they worked. He enrolled at Kiev Polytechnic Institute to study mechanical engineering. However, when World War II started he joined the army and worked on the frontlines. His experiences from the war culminated in him deciding to study what he described as “the most complicated piece of machinery of all”- the human organism. At the age of 23 he enrolled at the First Medical Institute in Moscow.
During his third year at the institute he was given a clinical assignment that involved monitoring the breathing of very ill patients. He spent hundreds of hours observing patients’ breathing patterns and how deepening (taking in bigger volumes of air) in a patient’s breath increased as they approached death. He soon discovered that he was able to quite accurately forecast how many days or hours remained before a patient died. This determined the area of Buteyko’s future research interest.
In 1952, at the age of 29, he graduated from the institute with distinction and independently continued his studies and experiments with breathing. He asked healthy subjects to breathe deeply for a period of time, and found that they became dizzy and nauseous, developed asphyxiating symptoms such as wheeziness and coughing, and eventually fainted. He also concluded that certain diseases developed as a result of deep (big) breathing. At the time, Buteyko suffered from malignant hypertension (very high blood pressure). A person with malignant hypertension has a blood pressure that’s typically above 180/120. Although rare, affecting only about one percent of people with a history of high blood pressure, malignant hypertension can cause irreversible damage to organs and even death if not treated immediately. The severity of Buteyko’s malignant hypertension was such that in the autumn of 1952, it was thought unlikely that he would live for more than another couple of months.
Buteyko often thought about what was causing his very high blood pressure. He measured his own CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels and noted that they were lower than the physiological norm. He theorized that if he corrected his breathing (and as a result, his CO2 levels) then he might be able to cure himself of his very serious blood pressure problem. He began to experiment on himself. He changed his breathing by reducing the amount of air he breathed in. In doing so, the symptoms he had been experiencing such as headaches, rapid heartbeat, and severe pain in his chest and kidneys began to reduce. However, when he increased the depth (volume) of breathing the symptoms returned. Buteyko concluded that he had found the reason for his disease. He completely healed himself. Having done so, he examined the breathing patterns of patients suffering from asthma, angina and other diseases. They too were hyperventilating (over breathing). By correcting their breathing to normalize their carbon dioxide levels, their attacks stopped but when they returned to their previous breathing pattern their attacks returned.
Dr. Buteyko came to the conclusion that many health issues, which are considered by the medical community to be unique diseases, are actually various symptoms of one disease i.e. hyperventilation (over-breathing) and that these diseases could be cured by reducing one’s breathing. However, he fully realized that this idea was just too simple for other medical doctors to accept. In the anticipation that he would face ridicule and potential incarceration for revealing his discovery, Buteyko had to keep most of his findings secret in order to continue developing his method. He knew that the only way his work could possibly gain credibility was if he could collect substantial scientific data to support his theory.
When knowledge of Buteyko’s accomplishments spread, it made many of his colleagues envious. In fact, it has been reported that a prominent surgeon formed a group of doctors to begin a campaign to sabotage Dr. Buteyko’s work. In 1968, while Buteyko was away on a business trip, someone with an axe broke into his laboratory and destroyed his unique equipment. The members of staff in the laboratory were dismissed and Buteyko’s data was compromised. In addition, it has been reported that Buteyko received multiple death threats intimidating him to stop his work, and that he was once poisoned, and a car crash was arranged to kill him. Somewhat miraculously, Buteyko survived these incidents and bravely continued his work
Following additional research, Buteyko was able to describe the theoretical foundation for his theory. Very briefly, this was as follows: Hyperventilation causes a depletion of carbon dioxide. Low levels of carbon dioxide cause blood vessels to spasm and also cause oxygen starvation in tissues resulting in “defence mechanisms” that had been previously misunderstood and labelled as diseases.
Buteyko intensively researched his theory at the Central and Lenin Medical Libraries. He soon realised that no one in the history of medical science had ever expressed this simple thought. For centuries, people had been instructed to breathe deeply (take big breaths) and no one ever thought to try to reduce breathing. Buteyko had no support from his peers or teachers. He knew that voicing his convictions wouldn’t bring any positive results at that stage. He also knew that he would have to establish an experimental laboratory, gather evidence, develop it, and only then announce the fundamentals of his ideas.
His efforts to set up a laboratory failed due to lack of funding, staff, and equipment. In 1958, he was invited by Professor Meshalkin to join the Institute of Experimental Biology and Medicine at the Siberian Branch of USSR Academy of Science. Two years later, Buteyko achieved his goal of establishing a laboratory of functional diagnostics. The same year, he presented the results of clinical studies conducted between 1958 and 1959, on 200 patients, which showed the relationship between the depth (volume) of breathing and the content of CO2 in the body, vessel spasm and degrees of illness. Colleagues were stunned and rejected the idea of such relationships. However, Meshalkin who chaired the forum understood Buteyko’s perspective and wanted the research continued, so he granted him temporary approval. Over the next decade, Buteyko and his team collected extensive data on basic human functions. 200 medical specialists were trained within the laboratory, most of who suffered from a condition which was successfully treated by Buteyko’s method. These trained specialists were then also treating patients successfully by using the method.
Official statistics show that as of 1 January 1967, more than 1,000 patients suffering from asthma, hypertension, or angina had been successfully treated and had completely recovered. Despite this outcome, Meshalkin refused Buteyko’s request to conduct a trial at the Institute’s clinic. Meshalkin’s attitude resulted in repression and confiscation of Buteyko’s laboratory equipment.
However, in January 1968, the Minister of Health, academician Petrovsky, paid a visit to Buteyko’s clinic. He told him if he was able to successfully treat at least 80% of the patients given to him, he would make a recommendation for the immediate adoption of the method into standard medical practice in Russia. (In Russia, an academician is a full member of an academy that has a strong influence on national scientific life. Academicians have privileges and administrative responsibilities for funding allocation and research priorities). Petrovsky also promised Buteyko a 50 bed clinic for the continuation of his clinical work. The only condition was that the patients who participated in the trial had to be the most serious and most difficult cases that weren’t otherwise treatable by conventional methods of medicine. 44 of the 46 of the patients (i.e. 95%) who participated in the trial were officially recognised as cured. The other 2 of the 46 had a smaller positive effect. However with further treatment they too were relieved of their illnesses.
The results of the trial were monitored by the Health ministry and sent to Health Minister Petrovsky. They were not seen by either Buteyko or anyone in the Siberian Branch of the Academy of Science. Minister Petrovsky dishonestly advised Lavrentiev the chairman of the Siberian Branch that the trial had failed and that only 2 of the 46 patients had been cured. This was the basis for closing Buteyko’s laboratory. On 14 August 1968, all the scientists were dismissed without any offers of alternative employment and all the laboratory’s equipment was confiscated.
Against the odds, the Buteyko method has survived. The original team of medical practitioners continued to treat patients with the method. Their continued success forced the government to reconsider the method. In April 1980, the second official trial was conducted at the First Moscow Institute of Paediatric Diseases at the direction of the Government Committee for Science and Technology of the Soviet Ministry of the USSR. This study confirmed the findings of the first trial in that it had a 100% success rate. These results were officially recognised.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Professor Buteyko trained numerous doctors and breathing instructors to teach and apply the method. The method was brought to Australia in 1990 by Kyle Alberts, a businessman. While visiting Russia, Alberts had an angina attack that, to his amazement, was successfully treated with the Buteyko method. Following this, Alberts sponsored two Russian Buteyko teachers to come to Sydney. One teacher left and the other, Alexander (Sasha) Stalmatsky stayed and began to teach the method.
Following extensive media coverage and public pressure, 5 years after Stalmatsky started teaching the method, a formal study was conducted in Brisbane. 39 subjects were randomized to a Buteyko group and a control group. The control group was taught a general asthma education programme and physiotherapy exercises. The Buteyko Method group significantly reduced bronchodilator use (by 96%), steroid medication use (by 49%), asthma symptoms (by 80%), and reported significant improvement in quality of life. No improvement was recorded in the control group. Since that time, the method has been investigated by a significant number of other successful clinical trials and comprehensive reviews in various countries.
The first westerners to learn and teach the method were from Australia, the UK, New Zealand, and the Netherlands. Alexander Stalmatsky taught thousands of people in Australia and later the UK. Many of his students later became Buteyko practitioners. It is reported that the Buteyko technique has been successfully taught to more than one million citizens of Russia and the surrounding independent republics. Professor Buteyko made at least one trip to New Zealand and to Australia late in his life to support the Western teachers. His method had gradually begun to be recognized not only in Russia, but also in other countries. He was invited to England to treat Prince Charles, who was suffering from allergies. Buteyko and his wife Ludmila successfully treated the Prince.
The efforts that Buteyko had to make to have his discovery recognised in Russia indicated a very strong opposition on the part of the medical community to accept an innovation that wasn’t pharmaceutically based and challenged long standing, strongly held beliefs. The slow acceptance of the method in other countries is a consequence of this and additional obstacles. The additional obstacles include the fact that unlike pharmaceutical companies, the advocates of the Buteyko method do not have large budgets or the business expertise required to successfully market the method and gain widespread acceptance by the medical community. Another obstacle is what is known as the ‘not invented here syndrome’ (NIHS). This can manifest itself as an unwillingness to adopt an idea or product because it originates from another culture.
Professor Buteyko died in 2003 at the age of 80. At that time, the usual lifespan for men in Russia was between 50 and 60 years. Living until he was 80 years old was despite the damage caused by several attempts on his life, including one in 1998, when he was the victim of a street assault at the age of 75. Another attempt on his life occurred one winter night in Siberia, while he was walking home. Professor Buteyko was brutally attacked by three men who beat him with heavy metal bars. When they thought he was dead, they threw his body into the snow. When he was found, doctors were astonished to find that he was still alive. However, they said his chance of surviving was very slim. He lived and worked for another 5 years, though his health was greatly damaged. The day before he died, he asked his wife Ludmila to take him to a hospital. She was surprised, given that he was feeling well, but followed her husband’s request. The doctors who examined him concluded that there was nothing wrong. In fact, they reportedly told Ludmila that she should expect her husband to live for another 10 to 20 years. However, Professor Buteyko died the following day. Why? Ludmila’s answer to this question was:
“By that time, he did everything he could to offer the people of this planet the valuable knowledge that could save the lives of many as well as the life of the whole civilization. Unfortunately, his offer was not fully accepted due to a reluctance to change, to go beyond the comfort of stereotypical thinking. He respected this choice; however, felt that his mission on Earth was complete.” (Source: page 57 of the book ‘Breathe to Heal’).
The above brief biography is adapted from material sourced from the following:
- The book ‘Breathe to Heal: Break Free from Asthma’ by Yakovleva. S; Buteyko, KP; and Novozhilov, AE (published by Breathing Center LLC)
- The book ‘Normal Breathing: The Key to Vital Health’ by Dr. Artour Rakhimov
- The book ‘Dr. Buteyko Lecture at Moscow State University 1969’ by Dr. Artour Rakhimov
- The writings of Peter Kolb, Biomedical Engineer
- The Buteyko Center (USA) website
- The Buteyko Clinic International website