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Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art is a 2020 book by author James Nestor. There is nothing more essential to our health and wellbeing than breathing. We breathe 25,000 times a day, and every breath has an impact on our anxiety levels, blood pressure, and heart rate. This book points out that humans have lost their ability to breathe correctly. Losing this ability has impacted on our physical health and impacted on things like our jaw shape. Nestor tracks down men and women exploring the hidden science behind ancient breathing practices like Pranayama, Sudarshan Kriya, and Tummo. Plus, he puts his own body to the test by volunteering for novel experiments investigating breathing techniques’ impact.
About James Nestor
James Nestor is a journalist who has written for a wide range of publications. As well as writing for multiple magazines, James has also written for top papers like The New York Times. His first book was Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tell Us about Ourselves. This book was a finalist for the 2015 ESPN Award for Literature Sports Writing. Plus, it was also titled Amazon’s best science book for 2014.
Breathe Through Your Nose, Not Your Mouth
Nearly half of all people are chronic mouth breathers and are chronically stressed and exhausted as a result. James Nestor outlines how inhaling through your nose can trigger different body hormones than if you breathe using your mouth. James provides a variety of studies supporting the benefits of breathing through your nose. Specifically, breathing through your nose can lower blood pressure, help maintain a steady heart rate, and even help with memory consolidation. In contrast, mouth breathing is the single biggest predictor of teeth cavities. Hence, breathing through your mouth has a greater impact on the likelihood of teeth cavities than sugar and not brushing your teeth. On top of this, Nestor associates our routinely misaligned jaws with mouth breathing. Out of the 5400 mammal species, humans are the only ones to suffer from routinely misaligned jaws.
In the book, James describes how he put this hypothesis to the test. He decided to complete an experimental piece of research in collaboration with the Sinus Centre at Stanford University. James volunteered himself as the test subject. He wanted to see what would happen to his body if he only breathed through his mouth for a month. Nayak, a professional at the sinus center, measured James’ vitals throughout. Although the experiment was supposed to last a month, James could only last ten days. His blood pressure went up 20 points in the first day.
Additionally, James is not a snorer, but he started snoring 4 hours per night. James also developed sleep apnea. This sleep apnea left his blood oxygen levels at 90%. They should have been between 95 and 100%. These results weren’t coincidental, though; his friend took part in the experiment and had near-identical results.
After just a few hours of nasal breathing again, James Nestor felt normal again. He had more mental clarity, and his physical measures went back to normal. From then on, James decided to tape his mouth while he slept. This small piece of tape would force him to breathe through his nose while sleeping. He could still cough or talk while wearing this small piece of tape, but it encouraged nasal breathing. After just a few days of nasal breathing, while sleeping, James reduced his snoring time from 4 hours per night to just 10 minutes per night. Importantly, James woke up feeling refreshed.
The benefits of nasal breathing are associated with how this breathing purifies, heats, moistens, and pressurizes the air. These changes to the air increase oxygen absorption by approximately 10-15%. Additionally, nasal breathing increases nitric oxide levels by six times. James explains that nitric oxide is associated with better blood circulation. Better blood circulation is associated with having more energy throughout the day. James also encourages you to occasionally make a small noise at the back of your throat when nasal breathing. This practice can give you an extra boost of nitric oxide. Alternatively, you can hum as you exhale during nasal breathing. James explains that humming while exhaling has been associated with a fifteen-fold increase in nitric oxide levels.
Some People Struggle to Breathe Through Their Nose
Many people struggle to breathe through their nose as it is congested. However, there are approaches that you can take to reduce nasal congestion.
- Exhale through your nose
- Pinch your nose shut and hold your breath. Shake your head from left to right to keep your mind off holding your breath, if you are struggling
- Once you have an intense sensation that you have to breathe, you should then take a slow, controlled breath through your nose
- Repeat this exercise until you can easily breathe in and out of your nose
Try and Breathe Less Rather than More
When you take in fewer breaths per minute, you take in more carbon dioxide. Higher levels of carbon dioxide in the body is associated with greater oxygen absorption. Oxygen molecules traveling in red blood cells want to travel to parts of the body with a high concentration of carbon dioxide. When oxygen molecules leave an individual’s bloodstream to move to a tissue cell, a carbon dioxide molecule will leave the cell and move up the bloodstream. James explains that optimal levels of carbon dioxide encourage optimal levels of oxygen absorption.
The easiest way to build up carbon dioxide levels in your body is to breathe lighter and less frequently. The average American takes 18 breaths per minute. Try breathing just six times per minute, as studies have suggested that this can increase carbon dioxide levels by up to 25%.
Symmetrical Inhales and Exhales Produces Maximum Benefit
“They discovered that the optimum amount of air we should take in at rest per minute is 5.5 liters. The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath.”– James Nestor
James has tried a wide range of different breathing techniques over the years. Often the best technique will depend on whether you are exercising, relaxing, or trying to sleep. Although James accepts that he has not found a magic formula, there are some techniques he has found to be more effective. One of these is symmetrical breathing. James recommends inhaling for 5.5 seconds, then exhaling for 5.5 seconds through the nose. This translates to about 5.5 breaths a minute. These breathing patterns are very similar to those used during religious chants, such as in Buddhism. Plus, James cites references that support the health benefits of this type of breathing. For example, it helps heartbeats to be more consistent.
Exhaling Slowly Can Help You Relax
“But what was even more stunning was what breathing like this did to the subjects. Whenever they followed this slow breathing pattern, blood flow to the brain increased and the systems in the body entered a state of coherence, when the functions of heart, circulation, and nervous system are coordinated to peak efficiency. The moment the subjects returned to spontaneous breathing or talking, their hearts would beat a little more erratically, and the integration of these systems would slowly fall apart. A few more slow and relaxed breaths, and it would return again.”– James Nestor
If you measure your heart when inhaling, you will find your heart speeds up. Then, as you exhale, your heart rate will slow down. Exhaling is a parasympathetic response that is essential for conserving energy. Parasympathetic responses slow down the body’s automatic response systems. As you inhale, your diaphragm lowers and pulls blood into the thoracic cavity. As you exhale, the blood flows back through the body and calms your mental state.
We tend to breathe quickly when we are anxious or stressed. James outlines that this type of breathing is not efficient. When we breathe quickly, our lungs are only absorbing approximately one-quarter of the oxygen from our breaths. Then, the rest of the oxygen (and carbon dioxide) is exhaled.
Our Lungs Can Be Strengthened Like Muscles
Many people believe that the lungs they are born with cannot be changed. However, this is far from the truth. For example, free drivers have much greater lung capacity than the average person. Herbert Nitsch is a perfect example of this. Herbert has a lung capacity of 14 liters, which is more than double that of the average male. He was not born with large lungs; instead, he trained them through freediving. He improved his lungs’ capacity by exercising his lungs like a muscle. To improve your lungs’ capacity, you should be aiming to partake in moderate exercise like walking or cycling consistently. Plus, occasionally doing some exercise that gets you breathing deeper and your heart rate up. James explains how making these small changes can boost your lung size by up to fifteen percent. Plus, aiming to breathe deeply will also help your lungs increase in capacity.
“People with panic or obsessive-compulsive disorders constantly have low carbon dioxide levels and a much greater fear of holding their breath. To avoid another attack, they breathe far too much and eventually become hypersensitized to carbon dioxide and panic if they sense a rise in this gas. They are anxious because they’re overbreathing. Overbreathing because they’re anxious.”– James Nestor
Shallow breathing and short breaths are our bread and butter. Our ancestors survived by breathing this way, and we still breathe this way today. However, this does not mean that they are optimal. Shallow breathing will limit the range of our diaphragms and lung capacity. For example, the average adult only engages 10 percent of their diaphragm. This breathing leads to poor posture and respiratory problems. Plus, it can overwork your heart and keep you in a constant state of low-grade stress and anxiety. Anxiety can encourage shallow breathing. Then, shallow breathing can encourage feelings of anxiety. Hence, utilizing belly breathing can help retrain you to breathe more deeply.
‘Taking a Deep Breath’ Isn’t Just a Saying
James encourages readers to picture themselves in a boat. If you take lots of short and shallow strokes, you will get by, but you won’t maximize your efficiency. Instead, deep and long strokes will help you reach your destination faster and with less strain. You want to make things as easy as possible for your body. Therefore, taking deep and long breaths will be more efficient and less tiring for your lungs.
Breathe Less to Live Longer
James Nestor points out to readers that the longest living animals have the lowest heart rates. Crucially, this low heart rate is associated with a lower respiration rate. Hence, the animals that breathe the least are living the longest. All across the animal kingdom, breathing and life span are in proportion. Elephants are some of the longest living animals and they only take four to five breaths per minute. Similarly, alligators only take one breath per minute. In comparison, dogs, cats, and mice take many more breaths per minute. Subsequently, they live much shorter lives than elephants and alligators. Humans sit somewhere in between elephants/alligators and cats/dogs for both breath rate and lifespan.
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