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Coffee, running or breathing exercises- what’s best for asthma?

Looking at the most recent Australian Asthma Council Guidelines on complementary medicine I noticed that coffee is given a 2 star rating, that means its top of the list for all complementary medicines for asthma. The only other therapy with a 2 star rating is aerobic exercise. Breathing retraining gets just one star which might give the impression (to those who don’t understand the whole story) that coffee is better for asthmatics than learning to breathe properly. 

In the UK, the 2016 guidelines of the British Thoracic Society put breathing exercises, specifically the Buteyko and Papworth Methods, at the top of their list of effective complementary therapies, with an A rating . Breathing exercises were also ranked highest for complementary medicine treatments in Australian Asthma Council Guidelines in 2006 but this most recent publication (2014) has seen coffee rated higher, with breathing exercises dropping.  

These guidelines are meant to inform doctors about how to best advise patients about managing their asthma but if taken at face value and interpreted simplistically they could lead to some doctors giving their patients misleading advice.

The research tells us that it takes 3 cups of coffee a day to have a positive impact on asthma. I do love my coffee but even for me, 3 cups is over my comfort limit. My stomach and nerves don’t feel so good on that much coffee. Also coffee does tend to deplete the body’s stores of nutrients like magnesium that are known to improve asthma. So to my way of thinking coffee might show good results in research trials and help some asthmatics breathe more easily at times but it’s not a long term solution with deep curing and restorative properties. 

Increased aerobic fitness on the other hand makes most people feel good and fundamentally improves health so  it’s great to hear that research evidence shows that it specifically helps to improve asthma. So on in general, encouraging people with asthma to get more exercise is a really good thing. However many asthmatics have experienced exercise induced asthma. They know that hard breathing, especially of cold dry air can make the lungs irritated and inflamed. Some research suggests that up to 25% of elite athletes develop exercise related bronchoconstriction. In my experience asthmatics who want to get fitter have to learn to breathe properly first. They need to learn to exercise with mostly nasal and diaphragmatic breathing and to control tendencies to hyperventilate.  

And now to the topic of breathing retraining exercises, are they really less beneficial then coffee?  Well, it depends… on which breathing exercises we are talking about and how they are taught. The recent British Thoracic society guidelines give quite extensive recommendations around breathing retraining for asthma.  They say that they should involve at least 5 hours of training, be provided by a trained therapist and that they should be part of integrated medical care.  Similar recommendations are made by a report published by the by US Govt. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.  They say that breathing retraining for asthma is most likely to work if it is targeted and sufficiently intensive to achieve necessary changes.

Australia was once at the forefront of research into breathing therapy for asthma. However, we have dropped the ball. Most doctors do not recommend breathing exercises for asthma and there are few trained breathing therapists.

Over the last few years Ive been working hard on developing an integrative breathing therapy program that is in line with research findings about what works best. It includes techniques from Buteyko, respiratory therapy and breathing biofeedback.   I’ve been mostly working with patients individually but am now starting to run group programs. These involve one weekly class for 5 weeks.

I have a couple of group workshops for children and one for adults coming up this November.

Here are some links for info and bookings.

Adults Integrative Breathing Therapy Workshop in Mona Vale


Healthy Breathing Healthy Child Workshops in Mona Vale and Neutral Bay


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