You Are Probably Breathing Wrong

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art is a 2020 bestseller by James Nestor. This book is a fascinating and informative read and that’s from someone who has studied breathing and its connection to health for decades! We breathe 25,000 times/day and with each breath, we send signals to our body that can result in health and well-being or dis-ease.   I will do my best to summarize a few of his findings from extensive study, self-experimentation and interviews with “pulmonauts” from around the world.  (Photo credit: Max van den Oetelaar)

How we breathe is as important as what we eat, how much we exercise, whatever genes we inherit. It’s that vital. – James Nestor

  1. Breath through your nose:  This was the biggest and most important takeaway for me. Breathing through your mouth triggers hormones that stimulate the stress response. That’s not all,  Nestor links mouth breathing to dental cavities, blood pressure, sleep apnea, and mood. The book describes how he participated in a self-experiment in collaboration with the Sinus Center at Stanford University.  He plugged his nose for 30 days and measured various markers of health. At the end of the 30 days, his health deteriorated greatly and he felt horrible. All of that reversed when he unplugged his nose. The benefits of nose breathing are related to how this kind of breathing moistens and purifies the air coming in. This leads to greater oxygenation of the blood and increase in nitric oxide which is associated with better blood circulation.  I have been trying to breath only through my nose when exercising and it has improved my recovery and also gives me more energy to exercise longer.  Try it!
  2. The book outlines many breathing techniques but he suggests the ideal breath is symmetrical – inhale to a count of 5.5 and exhale to a count of 5.5. This slows down the breath and creates a coherent rhythm in your heart.
  3. A longer exhale is relaxing!  This has been known for a long time. You can notice that when you inhale the heart speeds up a bit and slows down with the exhale. When the exhale is longer than the inhale, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in and that calms your mind and body. This breathing creates coherence between all systems of the body. Shallow, faster breathing is linked to anxiety.
  4. You can strengthen and improve your capacity to breathe. There are exercises that will improve your lungs’ capacity. There are deep sea free-divers that can hold their breath for around 10 minutes! Over time shallow breathing decreases the range of the diaphragm and limits our lung capacity. Posture also has an effect on the use of the diaphragm, breathing and the nervous system as Donna Byrne from Pilates Central in Evanston teaches.

The book explores many topics and varieties of breathing and I invite you to read this fascinating book to learn more. His website has breathing tutorial videos and videos from experts.

The breath is a common thread in what ails the earth and humans, from the fires on the West Coast to COVID-19.  Maybe what will heal both begins with the breath. With breath awareness, human beings can learn to slow down, become more present to themselves, others and the world around them.  Do yourself a favor and take a break after you read this and just take 5 slow, deep breaths, focusing on extending your exhale. Notice throughout the day, are you breathing through your mouth?  Are you breathing fast and shallow?  Slow down and breathe.

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