Book Review: Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor


Breath is jam-packed full of interesting nuggets of information, backed by research and science, about how breathing works, the importance of nasal breathing, and the many health implications that are associated with this one activity that we do anywhere up to 25,000 times per day.


WOW! That’s a pretty big number.


Let’s do the calculation now. Pause for a minute and open the stopwatch app on your phone and count how many breaths you take in a minute. Go on. I’ll wait.


Ok, so how many breaths was it? 20? 12? 6?


Now open up your calculator app and enter that number. Multiply it by 60 and then by 24. Your answer will be the approximate number of breaths you take in a day.


Here’s an example:


12 breaths per minute x 60 minutes x 24 hours per day = 17,280 breaths per day


That’s a lot of breathing! Especially considering that most of the breaths we take are inefficient – i.e. they are too shallow, we take too many, and often we inhale through our mouth and not our nose.


In his book Breath, James Nestor explores the evidence to outline the main factors that contribute to inefficient breathing, including how we breathe, how often we breathe, and the structure of our breathing apparatus, or more precisely, our nose and mouth.


Mouth or nose breathing

James begins by describing an experiment he and fellow breathing expert Anders Olsson participated in to discover the different effects that nasal breathing and mouth breathing have on our physiology.


They first spent 10 days with plugs up their noses, forcing themselves to breathe solely through their mouths. Almost immediately this had health implications. I won’t go into the details, except to say that their rates of snoring and sleep apnea events increased dramatically along with increased blood pressure, feelings of brain fogginess and anxiety. They followed this with 10 days of nasal breathing, and again, this had an almost instant effect on their health with a reversal of many of the conditions that arose from the mouth breathing experiment, along with marked improvements in other areas.


For those of us who spend more time breathing through our mouths, the results of this experiment are a wake-up call. Thankfully there are several strategies that are described in the book that we can use to become better nasal breathers. These include:

  • using mouth tape at night whilst sleeping to promote nasal breathing

  • practising breathing through the nose whilst exercising

  • checking in regularly throughout the day and observing whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth.

Fast…

Another interesting fact that the author shares (and something I wasn’t really aware of) is that a lot of people breathe too fast. This is especially the case for people who have conditions such as asthma and emphysema.


People usually breathe faster because they feel the need to increase the amount of oxygen coming into their body. However, the conundrum is that those faster breaths are not actually getting more oxygen to our body’s cells. Over breathing tends to result in reduced levels of carbon dioxide in the body and carbon dioxide is required for oxygen exchange to take place. So, over breathing in fact reduces the exchange of gases and means oxygen isn’t getting taken where it needs to go.


and slow

Another thing that James explores is the effect of slowing down the breath. Slower, longer breaths means our bodies absorb more in fewer breaths. In addition, a longer exhale means more air leaves the body before a new breath is taken. This improves lung capacity and encourages our diaphragm (one of the main muscles that assists in breathing) to become more effective.


Another benefit of slow breathing is that it calms us down. If you find yourself stressed out during the day, notice how fast you are breathing. Take a minute or two to slow your breathing and focus on your exhale and see what happens. People often say to ‘take a deep breath’ when you are showing signs of stress, but what we actually need to be doing is taking a slow breath in and a longer, slower breath out.


The nose and mouth

The one thing that really interested me about this book was the evidence relating to the evolutionary changes and environmental impacts that have affected our breathing ability.


James outlines how our noses evolved to be our main breathing apparatus. Specific features in the nose assist with ensuring good quality air travels to our lungs. Nasal hairs filter, a mucous lining traps pathogens, turbinates warm the air, and the production of nasal nitric oxide inside the sinuses combines with the air to make it more absorbable by the body.


However, several factors have led to problems in the nose and mouth and that has resulted in humans becoming inefficient breathers. Firstly, over time the size our brain has increased and altered the structure of our face, including that of our nose, jaw and mouth.


On the evolutionary timeline, other structural changes took place when we learnt how to farm. Humans were originally hunters and gatherers and the foods that we ate were hard and fibrous. Because of this, our ancestors used to have to chew for up to four hours a day. That’s a considerable jaw workout. Since the advent of farming, along with advances in cooking technology, and food processing, the food we eat has become so soft that the time we spend chewing has diminished incredibly, to the point where now we barely need to chew our food at all. As a result, our jaws have become weaker and smaller, and our teeth no longer fit in our mouths – leading to crooked teeth. The flow on from this is the requirement for orthodontics and also increased issues with breathing and swallowing.


The Lost Art

Although there is a high proportion of us that have lost the ability to breathe efficiently and effectively, thankfully throughout history, there have always been people across cultures who have explored, practiced and taught better breathing techniques. This is the ‘Lost Art’ that James refers to in his title. In this book, we are introduced to a number of these teachers (some well-known and others more obscure) and their techniques. James give us his insights as he experiments with the various techniques and describes his experiences.


Reading this book has made me become super aware of my breathing and provided me with a solid background in the science behind why we should be doing most of our breathing through the nose. This book provides a number of strategies that can be used immediately and I have been able to apply these in my daily life and am slowly noticing the changes in my health and wellbeing. There are many additional resources provided by the author, including an appendix that provides more details about the breathing methods explored in the book along with detailed notes listing all the references.


If you haven’t read this book yet, put it on your ‘Must Read’ list for 2021! I firmly believe that no matter what kind of breather you are, reading this book will open your mind (and nose) to the possibilities of better breathing and better health.




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