I’ve enjoyed reading through James Nestor’s book “Breath - The new science of a lost art,” and I tried out some of the exercises he points to, such as Tummo, which increases breathing to deliver a brief shock therapy to the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems that regulate breathing, thus temporarily resetting to a more appropriate balance between the two. He describes numerous useful breathing therapies that have been discovered, forgotten, and then rediscovered over the past 3000 years by different cultural and religious traditions, and in the past 300 years by more modern medical and scientific insights. Nestor: “Breathing is a key input. From what I’ve learned in the past decade, that 30 pounds of air that passes through our lungs every day and that 1.7 pounds of oxygen our cells consume is as important as what we eat or how much we exercise. Breathing is a missing pillar of health.”
The epilogue to his book provides a very concise list of breathing instructions that can serve as preventative maintenance to assist in maintaining balance in the body so that milder problems don’t blossom into more serious health issues and might restore balance when it is lost. Here is Nestor’s list, with an assist from ChatGPT 4 condensations of the book’s text that I have tweaked where appropriate. The condensations are amazing. They cut through the folksy personal reader-friendly stuff to give the basic facts presented.
In a nutshell, this is what we’ve learned:
SHUT YOUR MOUTH
A 20-day study found that chronic mouth breathing has significant negative effects on health, including increased stress hormones, risk of sinus infections, high blood pressure, and reduced heart rate variability. Participants experienced persistent nocturnal suffocation, snoring, and sleep apnea, potentially leading to hypertension, metabolic and cognitive problems. Although some measurements remained unchanged, the overall impact was negative, with participants experiencing fatigue, irritation, anxiety, and other discomforts. The human body has evolved to breathe through both the nose and mouth for a reason, and chronic mouth breathing is not a normal or healthy behavior.
BREATHE THROUGH YOUR NOSE
Upon switching back to nasal breathing, participants experienced improved health, with normalized blood pressure, carbon dioxide levels, and heart rates. Snoring reduced dramatically and nasal infections cleared up. Nasal breathing also enhanced physical performance on a stationary bike. The positive outcomes of nasal breathing inspired further research into the effects of sleep tape on snoring and sleep apnea. The experience emphasized the importance of nasal breathing for overall well-being and debunked misconceptions about chronic allergies, congestion, and sleep issues being natural parts of life.
Carl Stough spent a half century reminding his students of how to get all the air out of our bodies so that we could take more in. He emphasized the importance of proper exhalation to improve various aspects of health and performance. By training individuals to exhale longer and more fully, he enabled emphysema patients to recover significantly, opera singers to improve their voices, asthmatics to prevent attacks, and Olympic sprinters to win gold medals. Practicing full exhalations and engaging more of the lung capacity can enhance breathing efficiency, leading to better overall performance and well-being.
Ancient skeletons and pre-Industrial Age skulls exhibit large sinus cavities, strong jaws, and straight teeth, attributed to extensive chewing. Unlike other bones, facial bones can continue to grow and remodel throughout life, allowing for improvements in breathing ability at any age. To achieve this, incorporate rougher, raw, and heartier foods into your diet, similar to what our ancestors consumed, which require more chewing effort. Practicing proper mouth posture with lips together, teeth slightly touching, and tongue on the roof of the mouth is also important.
BREATHE MORE, ON OCCASION
While over breathing can be harmful, practicing controlled, heavy breathing for short, intense periods, such as in Tummo, Sudarshan Kriya, and vigorous pranayamas, can be therapeutic. These techniques intentionally stress the body to reset its normal functions and improve overall well-being. Conscious heavy breathing helps us gain control over our autonomic nervous systems and bodies, transforming us from passive passengers to active pilots of our own health.
HOLD YOUR BREATH
Dr. Donald Klein's research on chemoreceptor flexibility, carbon dioxide, and anxieties inspired further investigation into the connections between the amygdalae, breathing, and anxiety. The amygdalae, which govern perceptions of fear and emotions, also control aspects of breathing, and communication between chemoreceptors and the amygdalae is crucial. People with anxiety may suffer from connection issues between these areas, causing them to unintentionally hold their breath and ultimately panic. As a result, their bodies may adapt by over breathing to maintain low carbon dioxide levels. This suggests that anxiety might not be a psychological problem, but rather a natural reaction to an emergency in the body. Further research is needed to test this theory, which could explain why slow and steady breathing therapy is effective for panic, anxiety, and other fear-based conditions.
HOW WE BREATHE MATTERS
The perfect breath, according to the author, involves inhaling for 5.5 seconds and exhaling for 5.5 seconds, resulting in 5.5 breaths per minute and a total of about 5.5 liters of air. Practicing this perfect breathing promotes peak efficiency in the body. Many devices and apps are being developed to help people breathe at this optimal rate. However, the simplest approach requires no technology or equipment and can be practiced anywhere, anytime. This technique has been used by our ancestors for thousands of years, and the author uses it as a way to return to normalcy after periods of stress or inactivity.
An appendix to Nestor's book describes several different breathing techniques (such as alternative nostril breathing) and an extended bibliography available at James Nestor's website offers video and audio tutorial for numerous breathing techniques.