Book Summary: Breath by James Nestor

A book summary of the key ideas from Breath by James Nestor, along with more detailed book notes and select quotations.

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The Book in a Nutshell

The modern world has lost its ability to breathe correctly, with far-reaching consequences for our health. In Breath, James Nestor reveals the long-forgotten ancient art of breathing, and how it might help us back. Nestor shows how slight adjustments in our breathing have the potential to reverse the damage we are doing, as well as bringing other health benefits. From the importance of nose breathing to the benefits of slow breathing, Nestor reveals that conscious breathing changes can help transform our bodies and minds.

Book Summary: The Key Ideas

#1: The perils of mouth breathing and the benefits of nose breathing. Our nasal passages have become increasingly blocked over the last century and more of us have become mouth breathers. This has brought a range of health issues, from dental through to serious debilitating conditions, like sleep apnea and high blood pressure. Nose breathing, conversely, has the opposite effect on the body, and has been proven to reverse many of these effects.

#2: Lung capacity and the benefits of taking slower and fewer breaths. Lung capacity is highly correlated with length of life. Stretching techniques, as well as slower and fewer breaths, can help improve lung capacity, optimise carbon dioxide balance in the body, and drive other health benefits.

#3: The role of chewing in our health struggle. The rapid of emergence of processed foods, which do not require such extensive chewing, has led to rampant growth in dental problems and breathing obstruction problems, through changes in the shape of our heads. Special retainers can help to undo some of this damage.

#4: Advanced breathing techniques. While slower and fewer breaths can help optimise our parasympathetic nervous system, faster breathing and breath-hold techniques activate our sympathetic nervous system. Research is beginning to highlight how this might offer an alternative way of treating stress-related conditions like anxiety.

Book Notes: The Key Ideas in Detail

The below are more detailed notes on the key ideas from Breath by James Nestor, along with some quotations that caught my eye. These notes do not by any means cover the full breadth of ideas within the book. They are instead intended to serve as an introduction to some of the key ideas, from which to decide whether the book is worth further attention.

Key Idea #1: The Perils of Mouth Breathing and Benefits of Nose Breathing

Nestor takes part in an experiment, pegging his nose for 10 days and only breathing through his mouth. Through both his own experience and the research, Nestor reveals a range of problems associated with mouth breathing. For example, mouth breathing is associated with sleep apnea and high blood pressure. It’s also one of the leading causes of cavities, crooked teeth, bad breath and periodontal disease.

“The body is not designed to process raw air for hours at a time, day or night. There is nothing normal about it.”

Conversely, breathing through the nose has a range of benefits for the human body. Nestor explains that the nose is an often misunderstood organ with a far more important role in our health than many realise.

Breathing through the right nostril is associated with fight or flight and logical thinking. Breathing through the left nostril is associated with creative thinking, lower blood pressure, and negative emotions. Interestingly, one study suggested that schizophrenics have a greater left-nose breathing dominance. When trained to breath through the right nostril, hallucinations reduced.

“The nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds, and weather vane to our emotions.”

Alternate nostril breathing (nadi shodhana) is shown to improve lung function, lower blood pressure and heart rate and reduce sympathetic stress. It involves inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right nostril and then vice versa, usually for 5 to 10 cycles.

Key Idea #2: Lung capacity and the benefits of taking slower and fewer breaths

According to a longitudinal study published in the 1980s, lung capacity is the greatest indicator of life span, ahead of genetics, diet or amount of daily exercise. In other words, larger lungs appear to come with longer lives.

Lung capacity tends to reduce with age, but Nestor explains that stretching exercises (he refers to 5 stretches known as the Five Tibetan Rites) can help increase lung capacity. At the extremes, we see free divers capable of increasing lung capacity by a remarkable extent, but simple approaches like regular walking can also drive marked improvements.

By ensuring we also exhale all the air in pur bodies, exhaling longer, we can also improve lung health and capacity. Extending breaths, through moving the diaphragm up and down more, can get more air out on exhale. Carl Stough championed this idea in the form of a breathing coordination technique.

While it seems counterintuitive, carbon dioxide also plays an important role in processing our oxygen effectively. One way of harnessing this process is through resonant (coherent) breathing. This involves inhaling for 5.5 seconds and exhaling for 5.5 seconds. The result is that we breath 5.5. times per minute. According to Nestor, many have made remarkable health improvements using this method, even just for a few minutes per day.

Another important approach is simply training our bodies to breathe less. Buteyko’s breathing technique, known as Voluntary Elimination of Deep Breathing, encapsulates this idea. The Buteyko technique involves practicing breathing less and has had remarkable effects for many asthmatics, reducing the number of asthma attacks and in some cases, eliminating issues entirely.

“The key to optimum breathing, and all the health, endurance and longevity benefits that come with it, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales in a smaller volume. To breathe, but to breathe less.”

The causes are unknown exactly, but one possible cause is the role of blood pH. When we breathe slower and hold in more carbon dioxide, blood acidity level increases, restoring pH level to an optimal state for cellular function.  The opposite is true for overbreathing, which makes blood PH more alkaline. While the kidneys compensate by “buffering”, over time this can deplete the body of essential minerals and weaken bones.

“Nature functions in orders of magnitude. Mammals with the lowest resting heart rates live the longest. And it’s no coincidence that these are consistently the same mammals that breathe the slowest.”

Key Idea #3: The Role of Chewing

Evolution doesn’t necessarily mean progress; it means change. The evidence of human evolution points to significant changes in the human skull, and in particular, our teeth. We are the only animal in the animal kingdom with crooked teeth. And it didn’t use to be this way.

Through the rapid industrialisation of farmed foods, we’ve have undergone rapid morphological changes to the human head. Advances in milling, processing and packaging made our foods mushy and soft by comparison to the past. Our highly processed diets lack the fibre and wide spectrum of vitamins and minerals. The results stunted our growth, but also stunted the shapes of our mouths and jaws. This has resulted not just in rampant growth in dental disease and crooked teeth and jaws, but in breathing obstruction.

Weston Price conducted research in the 1930s, meticulously documenting dental health in populations around the world. A common theme emerged: in societies with diets predominated with processed foods, citizens suffered up to ten times more cavities, crooked teeth, obstructed airways and overall poorer health. The conclusion was that the cause was lack of all essential vitamins.

But Price was only partially correct. Lack of vitamins might explain cavities and bone weakness, but it didn’t explain the changes in mouth shape. Instead, the cause was lack of chewing.

There are countless people who have gone through surgeries in an attempt to correct obstructions caused by changes in mouth and jaw shape, often exacerbating the situation and resulting in lifelong debilitating conditions.

Research shows that it is possible to correct the shape of our mouths through mouth retainers, among other inventions. Even in adulthood, research is beginning to suggest that we can regrow bone, reshape or mouths and alleviate breathing obstruction.

Key Idea #4: Advanced Breathing Techniques

Breathing is a power switch to the autonomic nervous system, which has two parts:

  1. Parasympathetic nervous system: drives relaxation and restoration, pumps feel-good hormones around our bloodstream, like serotonin and oxytocin. Long and slow breathing ensures molecules of breath reach the parasympathetic nerves.
  2. Sympathetic nervous system: plays the opposite role, sending stimulating signals to organs. Short quick breaths can switch on these nerves.

An ancient Tibetan breathing technique called Inner Fire Meditation (or Tummo) aims to trigger the sympathetic nervous system for an extended period. Tibetans historically used this technique to survive harsh winter mountain conditions. By activating the sympathetic nervous system, Tummo-style breathing heats up the body. Many elite athletes now commonly use this technique before competition.

The science for the benefits of this technique seems to centre on the control of the vagus nerve. Slow breathing gently opens up the vagal network and fast breathing  shoves us into a stress state. The key point, Nestor argues, is that conscious breathing techniques can teach us to control the vagus nerve in a world where we are perpetually in a kind of semi-state of stress, rather than one extreme or the other.

An alternative approach involves breath holding. As Nestor explains, while the amygdalae are central to the brain’s processing of fear, unlike almost all other fears and phobias, our fear from the feeling of not being able to breathe does not require functional amygdalae.

Our sense of need to breathe (and the fear that can come with it when deprived) is activated by neurons called chemoreceptors. Chemoreceptors essentially send signals to the brain in reaction to carbon dioxide levels that tell our lungs to breathe faster. This process has become highly adaptable to different environments, but our chemoreceptor flexibility varies from person to person. Nestor suggests that we might benefit from addressing pervasive anxiety issues in society by first focusing on chemoreceptor flexibility.

Carbon dioxide therapy, which was used during the early 1900s, is again becoming an area of research interest for this reason. There are several compelling research studies that suggest carbon dioxide therapy can help ameliorate anxiety.

You can buy the book here or you can find more of our book notes here. For more interesting health/science reads, check out Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer and Lifespan by David Sinclair.

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