Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor was a great but alarming read! Learning about how many of our “normal” lifestyle, medical and dental practices are hurting us was unsettling. From lack of chewing due to eating soft, processed foods to pulling permanent teeth in our already too small mouths, we are going through a period of dysevolution. This means that we are passing down traits that are detrimental to our health.
“A typical adult engages as little as 10 percent of the range of the diaphragm when breathing, which overburdens the heart, elevates blood pressure, and causes a rash of circulatory problems,” Nestor wrote. Before I discovered yoga and meditation, I never paid much attention to my breathing. Since it happened automatically, I felt like I was naturally a pro at it. I never thought twice about gasping mouthfuls of air while I ran and I certainly never considered that I could possibly need a daily breathing practice. I thought the shallow breaths I took into my chest were normal and how we are supposed to breathe. I thought being out of breath and panting like a dog was normal when we run. All the years I spent in childhood playing sports should have prepared me but breathing techniques were never discussed. Now that I’ve been practicing yoga and mediation for several years, I’m so grateful to have finally learned how to breathe!
Nestor participated in an experiment where he plugged his nose and only breathed through his mouth. The results of the damage caused by that 10 day mouthbreathing period was terrifying. Nestor wrote, “Every 3.3 seconds another blast of unfiltered, unmoistened, and unheated air enters through my mouth – drying my tongue, irritating my throat, and pissing off my lungs. And I’ve got 175,000 more breaths to go.” We aren’t meant to breath constantly through our mouths. The health implications were seen immediately. Nestor and the other participant had a rise in blood pressure and stress hormones, the beginnings of a sinus infection and they also saw a collapse in the soft tissue in the throat, leading to snoring and bouts of sleep apnea. In only 10 days of breathing through the mouth!
Nestor stated, “The nose is crucial because it clears air, heats it, and moistens it for easier absorption.” After the 10 day mouthbreathing period of the experiment, Nestor removed the nose plugs and began breathing through the nose again. His health immediately improved. His blood pressure dropped and heart rate normalized. His snoring and sleep apnea even stopped after just two days of nose breathing. His ability to perform athletically also improved with nasal breathing and his sinus infection went away on it’s own. The biggest point the book makes again and again is that breathing through the nose is so important!
Nestor consulted a doctor studying the link between mouthbreathing and sleep apnea and was told, “Mouthbreathing contributed to periodontal diseases and bad breath, and was the number one cause of cavities, even more damaging than sugar consumption, bad diet, or poor hygiene.” He also found that, “Removing teeth and pushing remaining teeth backward only made a too-small mouth smaller.” I had all of my permanent teeth by the second grade. Before I could get braces later that Summer, I had to have four permanent teeth pulled, one on each side. Then years later, there was no room for my wisdom teeth and they had to be surgically removed because they were impacted and pushing my teeth. I often feel like my tongue is too big for my mouth and it’s because it is. My mouth should be bigger but evolution (or dysevolution really) and our eating and dental practices (among other things) have caused my mouth to be too small. Thinking about the eight permanent teeth I’ve had pulled now makes me cringe after reading this book.
Nestor talked about the importance of our sense of smell. “It’s the most intimate connection to our surroundings.” I agree. I depend heavily on my sense of smell to determine what I can eat. After a lifetime of Crohn’s disease, I have learned to listen to the signals my body sends me. When I smell something that is too spicy or too sweet, I receive a flood of signals warning me not to eat it. Listening to these signals has kept me safe and in remission for over a decade.
The improvements discussed in the emphysema and asthma cases is so promising. Nestor covered many ailments in the book that were improved by proper breathing. “The internal organs are malleable, and we can change them at nearly any time,” he said.
In 2009 I started having a constant cough. I was first told I had Swine Flu and given Tamiflu. I didn’t improve. They said it must be a respiratory infection and prescribed more antibiotics. I still didn’t get any better and after two rounds of antibiotics, I was having a Crohn’s flare. I went to a different doctor and explained what had happened. She hardly looked at me and said, “I think you have asthma.” I said, “No, ma’am.” Then I made the biggest mistake I could have possibly made in this entire ordeal. I let her talk me into trying a steroid inhaler. All of a sudden, I was wheezing and felt a bad rattle in my chest. For the first time, I felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. And this persisted for a long time. To this day I have never regained my original lung function. I breathe much better now that I know how to breathe but I still have a mild cough. I’ve discussed this cough with other doctors over the years and all they want to do is give me more steroids. I have zero interest in that.
In March 2020, we thought we had dodged a bullet by going into lockdown right away. About a week and a half into a strict quarantine, my boyfriend and I both lost our sense of smell. I was immediately terrified. Not only is my sense of smell important to my health, as stated above, but now I had an autoimmune disease and some unknown virus. Luckily we didn’t get very sick and our sense of smell came back. We weren’t even sick enough to be tested but we have had some long-haul symptoms. My boyfriend has developed a significant cough and for over a year, I had a strange pain around my heart when I would breathe in deeply. Fortunately, after getting vaccinated, this issue went away for me. I’m hoping a more consistent breathing practice will help my boyfriend.
The benefits of proper breathing is extensive. The physical benefits are only one aspect of it. Breathing properly can have tremendous benefits on your mental health as well. “Breathing is a power switch to a vast network called the autonomic nervous system,” Nestor wrote. Short, quick breaths trigger the sympathetic nervous system which tells the body to get ready! While slow, long breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system which tell the body to relax and restore. Nestor mentioned that the sympathetic nervous system redirects blood away from less vital organs like the stomach and bladder. I wonder if constantly being in a state of fight or flight during my childhood caused me to develop chronic digestive issues.
Nestor discusses several breathing techniques throughout the book and provides an appendix section called, Breathing Methods, with brief instructions on each technique. Some I’ve done before and the others I can’t wait to try! If you’re not interested in a specific technique and just want to breathe better now, here is Nestor’s claim, “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.”
Whether you decide to start a traditional breathing practice or just work on lengthening your breaths and breathing through the nose, I hope we can all experience better health through better breathing. I highly recommend this insightful book and also James Nestor’s various podcast interviews!
Rating: 5/5 Stars
If this book sparks your interest, join my online book club! We read and discuss many life-changing books.