15 Sep 2020

You're breathing all wrong - James Nestor

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 15 September 2020

Every day, we do something 25,000 times and mostly, we do it wrong. We breathe in and out badly, says journalist James Nestor.

After suffering constant respiratory problems, he went in search of solutions.

He says what he learned can help transform health. Nestor shares those lessons in his new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.

“You have to focus on the amount of breaths you are taking per minute and the volume of breath you are taking per minute.

James Nestor's Office

James Nestor's Office Photo: James Nestor

“What the vast majority of us are doing is we are breathing too many breaths, we’re breathing too often and too much air,” Nestor told Jesse Mulligan.

Mouth breathing afflicts up to half the population, and is particularly bad for us, he says.

“Mouth breathing can cause all kinds of neurological damage, respiratory damage, it can even cause some metabolic problems.”

Nestor and a friend volunteered for an experiment at Stanford University to measure the impact of mouth breathing.

“We knew it wasn’t going to be fun, but we didn’t know it was going to be a bad as it was. Within a few hours my blood pressure shot up about 20 points.

That night I start snoring and I had not snored before.”

About four days in to the experiment he was snoring through half the night and had developed sleep apnea symptoms, he says.

“We were fascinated that just shifting the passageway through which you breathe air can cause such rapid and immediate damage to your body.”

The nose, he says, is the “silent warrior, the gatekeeper of our bodies.”

“When your breath through the nose you are forcing the air through this maze and as it goes through this maze that air is treated, it’s heated, it is humidified and it’s conditioned so that by the time it gets to our lungs our lungs can better absorb it more efficiently.

“So, nasal breathing alone will give us about 20 percent more oxygen than equivalent breaths through the mouth.”

So why are we breathing wrong? How can a species evolve a trait that is so detrimental to its health?

Evolution works both ways, Nestor says.

“Life can change for the better or the worse and if you look at the human species we are changing in so many ways that are deleterious to our health. And our breathing is taking one of the biggest hits.”

Our mouths are too small, he says. Something that started to manifest in the human population about 400 years ago. And a small mouth makes it more difficult to breather properly.

“Around 300 to 400 years ago, when industrialised foods swept the world and we stopped chewing our mouths grew immediately too small, so within a couple of generations people were having crooked teeth and they had never had crooked teeth before.”

Although his book is based in science, conscious breathing has been around in the culture for thousands of years.

“In some ways it’s been lost from our modern culture, but the science has been validated time and time again.”

Being aware of our breathing is the first step, he says.

“The most important thing when it comes to breathing is to become aware of it. We’re lucky enough that breathing just runs in the background like a software programme.

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Photo: Penguin Books

“When we do think about it and take control of it we can take control of so many other functions in our bodies.”

Breathing through the nose, breathing less and breathing more slowly actually delivers more oxygen, he says.

“That seems so counter intuitive, but it is 100 percent true.”

We should aim to take four to six breaths a minute, Nestor says.

“That has been found to be the perfect breath, the most efficient breath for your body.

“Anything in that range of 5 to 6 seconds in; 5 to 6 seconds out is a very balancing breath.”

Humming is also beneficial, he says.

“By humming you increase your nitric oxide by about 15-fold.

Nitric oxide is a molecule produced throughout the body, but we produce a profusion of it in our sinus cavities.”

It is the same molecule released when people take Viagra.

“Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, it improves circulation throughout the body.”

And it has other uses, he says.

“It also turns out that nitric oxide is one of the first lines of defence for our body

“It interacts directly with bacteria with viruses and pathogens to kill them before they enter in to our bodies.”

The path to better breathing takes time, he says. And focussing on it a few times a day is a food first step.

“Obviously, it’s better to breathe well all the time but it’s all about baby steps.”

Learning to breathe less is learning to breathe right, he says.

“You’re not breathing less air, you’re breathing the right amount of air, we are reconditioning us to breath the way we were designed to breathe.”