Breath: The New Science of a Lost Artby James Nestor
There is nothing more essential to our health and well-being than breathing. We take air in, let it out, and repeat this process twenty-five thousand times a day. Journalist James Nestor reveals that humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences. In this fascinating “scientific adventure,” Nestor travels the world to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
He tracks down men and women exploring the ancient wisdom and cutting-edge science behind breathing practices like pranayama, Buteyko, Tummo, and Sudarshan Kriya. Suffering from chronic breathing and respiratory health issues, Nestor trials some of these breathing techniques with incredible results. He discovers that breathing techniques can optimize our energy levels, balance our mood, improve sleep, and halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune diseases. He is an inspiration to those of us who want to improve our lives—one breath at a time.
The Worst Breathers in the Animal Kingdom
“Strangely, sadly, the same adaptations that would allow our ancestors to outwit, outmanoeuvre, and outlive other animals—a mastery of fire and processing food, an enormous brain, and the ability to communicate in a vast range of sounds—would obstruct our mouths and throats and make it much harder for us to breathe.”
The industrial revolution had an appalling impact on our ability to breathe via our diet. The modern suburban diet often consists of bottle-feeding followed by commercial baby foods, then processed foods like white bread, canned vegetables, microwave meals, and confectionery. The lack of chewing associated with such a soft diet stunts bone development in the dental arches and sinus cavity.
Our underdeveloped nasal cavity obstructs and inhibits airflow. This leads to chronic nasal congestion, infections, respiratory problems, snoring, and sleep apnea. Gradually, the obstructions worsen and we are left with no other option than to breathe through our mouth. Forty percent of today’s population suffers from chronic nasal obstruction and half of us are habitual mouthbreathers.
“Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward (collapse), creating less overall space and making breathing more difficult.”
James Nestor spent ten days testing the effects of mouth breathing on the body. After only 24 hours, his snoring and sleep apnea events increased dramatically. His blood pressure quickly rose to stage 1 hypertension, a condition that can cause heart attacks and strokes. His pulse rate increased, his body temperature decreased, and his heart rate variability suggested a state of stress. On top of all of this, his mental clarity hit rock bottom. After 10 days, Nestor had developed stage 2 hypertension and was waking up constantly with an unquenchable thirst. He was suffering from obstructive sleep apnea which can lead to heart failure and depression.
Inhaling from the nose is healthier. It forces air against the tissues at the back of the throat, making airways wider and breathing easier. Nasal breathing can lead to a reduction in allergies, respiratory problems, high blood pressure, depression, and headaches.
“The right and left nasal cavities also worked like an HVAC system, controlling temperature and blood pressure and feeding the brain chemicals to alter our moods, emotions, and sleep states.”
Breathing through the mouth does not use the nasal cavities, causing them to atrophy and become obstructed. Breathing through the nose tones the tissues and muscles of your airways and improves lung function. As well as warming and filtering air, the nose can trigger hormones that ease digestion, regulate heart rate, and assist in storing memories.
The right nostril is a gas pedal activating the sympathetic nervous system, putting the body in a state of alertness and readiness. Inhaling through this nostril causes circulation to speed up, the body to get hotter, and cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate to increase. Inhaling through the left nostril works as a kind of brake system as it is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system. This is the rest-and-relax side. It lowers temperature and blood pressure, cools the body, and reduces anxiety.
Actions to take
“The key to breathing, lung expansion, and the long life that came with it was in the transformative power of a full exhalation.”
Several long-term landmark studies revealed that the greatest indicator of life span was not genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity. The smaller and less efficient lungs became, the quicker subjects got sick and died. With reduced lung capacity we are forced to breathe faster and harder, which leads to chronic problems like high blood pressure, immune disorders, and anxiety. Lung capacity can be increased by an astounding 30 to 40 percent by using breathing techniques.
In addition, a typical adult engages as little as 10 percent of the range of the diaphragm when breathing. This overburdens the heart, elevates blood pressure, and causes circulatory problems. Exhaling slowly and letting out more air so that a little more air can get in, builds up respiratory muscles, increases the range of the diaphragm, and enlarges lung capacity.
Actions to take
“What many of these doctors found, was that the best way to prevent many chronic health problems, improve athletic performance, and extend longevity was to focus on how we breathed.”
Although we have 100 times more carbon dioxide in our bodies than oxygen, most of us need even more of it to function properly. If we increase this gas in our bodies, it will sharpen our minds, burn fat, increase aerobic endurance and, in some cases, heal disease. To do this, we need to learn how to inhale and exhale slowly.
Big, heavy, or panicked breaths are bad for us as they deplete our bodies of carbon dioxide. This reduces blood flow to muscles, tissues, and organs, and we feel light-headed, cramp up, get a headache, or even blackout. By inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth three times slower than the average American (turning those 18 breaths a minute into six) carbon dioxide levels will gradually rise from an unhealthy range to a medically normal range, whilst oxygen remains stable. Blood pressure and heart rate will both drop.
Actions to take
“We’ve become conditioned to breathe too much, just as we’ve been conditioned to eat too much.”
What’s considered medically normal today is anywhere between a dozen and 20 breaths a minute. Most of us are actually breathing too much! Sadly, up to a quarter of the modern population suffers from more serious chronic over-breathing. Overbreathing increases stress and has severe effects on lung function, constricts airways, and impacts cellular function by increasing inflammation. The fix is to breathe less. With some effort and training, respiratory efficiency (the body breathes less but can do more) can become an unconscious habit.
Breathing less is not the same as breathing slowly. The optimum breathing rate is 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales at 5.5 breaths per minute. But even if we practice this slow breathing rate, we could still be taking in twice the air we need. The optimum amount of air we should take in, at rest per minute, is 5.5 liters. The key to optimum breathing, and all the health, endurance, and longevity benefits that come with it, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales with a smaller volume.
Actions to take
“As I write this, because of chewing and some widening of my palate, I am breathing more easily and freely than I ever remember.”
Our ancient ancestors chewed for hours a day, making their mouths and teeth grow wide and strong. Ninety-five percent of the modern diet is soft and hardly requires chewing. Thus, our mouths underdevelop, obstructing airways and contributing to respiratory problems and congestion.
The earliest orthodontics devices were used to widen the mouth and open airways, and teeth naturally straightened because they had enough room. Nowadays dentists extract teeth then push back the remaining teeth with braces, making a too-small mouth smaller, and breathing problems worse. For most of us, the solution involves expanding the too-small mouth by maintaining the correct head, neck, and oral posture; chewing more (on high fiber food or hard chewing gum); and breathing through the nose. For those who require further help, mouth-expanding devices have proven to be profoundly effective.
Actions to take
The potent techniques in Part 3 may take a long time to master. They require concerted effort and can be uncomfortable, but they offer extra rewards. Some involve breathing quickly for a very long time, others require breathing very slowly for even longer, and a few entail not breathing at all for a few minutes. Pulmonary medicine has many scary names for what these more extreme techniques can do to the body and mind: respiratory acidosis, alkalosis, hypocapnia, sympathetic nervous system overload, and extreme apnea.
Under normal circumstances, these conditions are considered damaging and would require medical care. But something else happens when we practice these techniques willingly, when we consciously push our bodies into these states for a few minutes, hours, or a day. In some cases, they can radically transform lives.
More, on Occasion
“Men, mainly in their 20s, who’d suddenly been diagnosed with arthritis and psoriasis or depression...weeks after practicing heavy breathing, no longer suffered any symptoms.”
Our breathing influences heart rate, digestion, moods, and attitudes via the autonomic nervous system. This system has two sections: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The parasympathetic stimulates relaxation and restoration. The deeper we breathe in, and the longer we softly exhale, the more slowly the heartbeats and the calmer we become. When we take short, hasty breaths the other section—the sympathetic—sends stimulating signals to get ready for action. Your heart rate increases and adrenaline kicks in.
A potent extreme breathing technique called Tummo (Tibetan for “inner fire”) hacks the autonomic nervous system with life-changing results. It is used by elite professionals and athletes to boost performance and by everyone who wants to get a worn-out nervous system back on track and keep it there.
Actions to take
“All this suggests that for the past hundred years psychologists may have been treating chronic fears, and all the anxieties that come with them, in the wrong way.”
Hold your breath. Gradually you’ll become nervous, paranoid, irritable, then start to panic, and your lungs will ache. When we’re breathing too slowly and carbon dioxide levels rise, the central chemoreceptors send alarm signals to the brain, telling us to breathe faster and more deeply. When we’re breathing too quickly, they direct the body to breathe slowly to increase carbon dioxide levels.
Chemoreceptor flexibility is part of what distinguishes good athletes from great ones. The elite have trained their chemoreceptors to withstand extreme fluctuations in carbon dioxide, without panic. Our mental health relies on chemoreceptor flexibility as well. Millions around the world suffer from anxiety. Some experts believe that the best step in treating them is to condition the central chemoreceptors and the rest of the brain to become more flexible to carbon dioxide levels. That is, by teaching anxious people the art of holding their breath, breathing more slowly and less frequently, and increasing carbon dioxide levels. These exercises can reverse dizziness, shortness of breath, feelings of suffocation, panic attacks, and build resilience.
Fast, Slow, and Not at All
“The monks should be dead, or at least suffering from extreme hypothermia. However, in this very relaxed state, they’re able to increase body temperature by double digits and stay steaming hot in sub-zero temperatures for hours.”
Prana translates to “life force” or “vital energy.” The more prana something has, the more alive it is. Infusing the body with prana is simple: just breathe. However ancient yogis spent thousands of years honing pranayama techniques, specifically to control this energy and distribute it throughout the body. These processes may take years to master. Some people can move their brain waves from hyperactive beta waves to calming alpha waves and then to delta waves. Some can shift the prana or blood flow and control not only the beat and pulse strength of their hearts (increasing and decreasing it at will) but also the flow of sweat on their foreheads and the temperature of body parts.
The most powerful technique James Nestor learned, and one of the most involved and difficult, is intended to build prana in the body and focus the mind. Sudarshan Kriya consists of four phases: om chants, breath restriction, paced breathing, and, finally, 40 minutes of very heavy breathing. Learning it requires a qualified instructor.
Epilogue: A Last Gasp
“Like all Eastern medicines, breathing techniques are best suited to serve as preventative maintenance, a way to retain balance in the body so that milder problems don’t blossom into more serious health issues.”
James Nestor spent a decade of research and self-experimentation before writing this book. He learned that modern medicine is often efficient at cutting out and stitching up parts of the body in emergencies, but sadly deficient at treating milder, chronic systemic maladies such as asthma, headaches, stress, and the autoimmune issues that most of the modern population contends with.
Nine out of ten of the top killers, such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, are lifestyle diseases. This means they are caused by our food, water, and the dwellings we live and work in. Improving diet and exercise and removing toxins and stressors from the home and workplace would have a profound and lasting effect on the prevention and treatment of the majority of modern, chronic diseases. Breathing is also a key input, and the benefits of becoming aware of your breathing, and practicing breathing techniques are vast and at times unfathomable.