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THE HEALTHY SKEPTIC

Slow your breathing, fix your blood pressure -- maybe

February 05, 2007|Chris Woolston | Special to The Times

Can the RESPeRATE breathing system really lower blood pressure?

CHARLES S., LAVERNE

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The product: RESPeRATE looks like the subject line of a junk e-mail, but it's actually the name of a medical device designed to lower blood pressure by slowing down breathing. Sold over the Internet and in some doctors' offices for about $300, it has two basic parts: a belt that senses a person's breathing rate and a Walkman-like player seemingly stuck on the Hearing Test Channel. Users breathe in time with a series of tones that become progressively slower and further apart. The goal is to slow breathing to less than 10 breaths per minute, a pace that's just this side of hibernation. Breathing that slowly is actually hard work, says David Anderson a cardiovascular researcher with the National Institute on Aging who has tried RESPeRATE. "It feels more like exercise than relaxation," he says.

The claims: InterCure, the company that manufactures RESPeRATE, claims the device is a "breakthrough" that can dramatically lower blood pressure without side effects. "It's a whole new category of treatment," says Judy Chodirker, InterCure's manager of scientific affairs.

According to Chodirker, slow breathing relaxes muscles surrounding blood vessels, allowing blood to flow more freely. Patients who use the device 15 minutes a day, four days a week can supposedly achieve lasting drops in blood pressure in four to six weeks. Citing several small studies, most involving their own researchers, InterCure claims some patients can cut an astounding 36 points from their systolic pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) and 20 points from their diastolic. The average reduction: a more modest 14/8.

Bottom line: Without a doubt, sitting still and breathing slowly can lower blood pressure. But so can sitting on the couch and watching SportsCenter. The real question: Can RESPeRATE's results last? Anderson's answer is maybe. "It might be an advance," he says. "I'm hopeful, but you have to be cautious."

He recently started his own clinical trial on people with borderline high blood pressure. The study is ongoing, but results so far have fallen a little short of the company's claims. Unofficially, Anderson says his subjects have been achieving lasting reductions of about 5 points. That's still a significant improvement, he says, and it's possible that people with higher blood pressure would see larger drops.

Although InterCure says its product is "clinically proven," the studies so far have shortcomings, says Dr. Samuel Mann, a hypertension expert at the Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. "There's something fishy about every one," he says.

For instance, an InterCure-funded study published in 2001 found that RESPeRATE reduced blood pressure by 15/10 in eight weeks. That's a big drop, but Mann notes that researchers measured pressure in a doctor's office, a place where nerves can throw blood pressure readings off kilter, potentially inflating the magnitude of changes. Home measurements are more accurate and realistic, he says. He also notes that the control group -- who merely listened to quiet music -- enjoyed a nearly-as-impressive 11/6 drop.

Doctors and patients desperately need a new approach to hypertension, says Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a cardiologist with the Cleveland Clinic. He says RESPeRATE certainly has positive qualities: It's safe, it doesn't cause side effects and just about anyone can use it. (The company suggests that people with chronic breathing troubles consult a doctor first.) The one thing missing: how well it works. "I want to believe there's something there," Bhatt says. "It could very well work, but I'd like to see more evidence before recommending it."

Is there a product or popular health claim you'd like the Healthy Skeptic to examine? E-mail health@latimes.com.

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