Book Review: “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by James Nestor

Cover of “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by James Nestor

“Breath” is one of my favorite health books of the year. It has more genuinely new ideas in it for healthful living than any book I’ve read in a long time.

For example:

  • Breathing in different patterns can influence our body weight and overall health.
  • How we breathe affects the size and function of our lungs.
  • Chronic mouth-breathing can make us less attractive, reshaping our faces to have receding chins, smaller mouths, elongated faces and saggy eye bags.
  • These facial changes have reduced the size of our airways, and are one reason why we snore so much.
  • The modern western diet of convenience foods is causing our crooked teeth, misaligned jaws, overbites and underbites.
  • Certain breathing techniques can stop a panic attack before it happens.
  • Most of us breathe too much. We need more carbon dioxide (yes really).

As the title suggests, many of the breathing recommendations in this book are not new ideas; but they are newly discovered or newly validated by modern science. As Nestor says, “They were created, documented, forgotten, and discovered in another culture at another time, then forgotten again.”

Nestor calls today’s researchers on the science of breathing “pulmonauts.” The field attracts many independent researchers and laymen who experiment on themselves and teach others their theories outside of mainstream academia.

One pulmonaut you may have heard of is Wim Hof, AKA “The Iceman,” famous for being able to tolerate extreme cold. Hof claims that the breathing technique he teaches, called “The Method,” can help practitioners control their physiology and willpower,

“The Method” has similarities to “Holotropic Breathwork,” a New Age-y breathing technique invented by psychologists Stanislav and Christina Grof in the 1970’s that is said to cause altered states of consciousness.

These trendy techniques have much in common with practices from ancient traditions little known in the West such as Tummo, Sudarshan Kriya, and vigorous pranayamas. These examples suggest there is validity to using the breath as a tool for health, beyond its moment-to-moment role in keeping us alive.

How Breathing Through Your Mouth Leads to Crooked Teeth, and Worse

The book reveals that crooked teeth are a relatively modern affliction. Researchers including the author have found that skulls just a few hundred years older than us have larger sinuses and mouths than people of today. That it turns led to straight teeth; our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparents, and their ancestors, had straight teeth without the benefit of dentists or orthodontia.

The reason, Nestor explains, is that the modern diet of processed convenience foods is softer than diets of whole, fresh foods, which required more chewing. Our softer diets have led to weaker jaw muscles and receding chins, which pulls the face down.

Mouth-breathing exacerbates this effect. In accordance with the “use-it-or-lose-it” principle, breathing through the mouth causes nasal passages to weaken and shrink.

Nestor excoriates mouth-breathing. It bypasses the structures of the nose, such as the turbinates, which are “there for a reason,” including to warm and purify the air before it enters your lungs. Nose-breathing also releases important hormones and other chemicals that control functions throughout your body.

Also, mouth-breathing is shown to raise blood pressure and heart rate. Studies prove that training yourself to breathe through your nose versus your mouth can increase endurance and cut total exertion in half.

In addition, mouth-breathing makes you lose 40% more water when you sleep, and paradoxically, you will need to urinate more. This is because the lighter sleep that comes with mouth-breathing (due to the resulting apnea and snoring) prevents the stage of deepest sleep that allows your pituitary gland to tell your kidneys not to release water.

Other research connects mouth-breathing with bed-wetting, ADD, diabetes, mood disorders, cancer and other health problems. Who knew?

It turns out that even fully grown adults have malleable face bones, and we can change our facial anatomy with how we eat and breathe. There are also oral appliances that can help enlarge airways, improve our facial structures and help us breathe normally through our noses.

Nestor is such an advocate of nose-breathing that he recommends sleeping with one’s mouth taped shut (assuming no nasal congestion, of course).

How Your Nostril Cycles Work

Another revelation in this book is that our nostrils alternate in being relatively clear and relatively congested, every 30 minutes to four hours. We’re not certain how or why this happens. But we do know that the right nostril is like a gas pedal, and the left nostril is like a brake.

When you’re inhaling primarily through your right nostril, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and circulation speeds up, while body temperature, cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate all increase.

When you’re inhaling primarily through the left nostril, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated, and blood pressure, body temperature, and anxiety are reduced.

Harnessing this information for health benefits is just beginning. However, there is a yoga practice based on alternate nostril breathing, which shows once again that the ancients had wisdom that science is only beginning to appreciate.

How to Exhale Your Fat

Where do you think your fat goes when you lose weight? If you’re like me, I thought I “burned” it somehow; my cells annihilated it. Guess where it really goes?

For every ten pounds of fat you lose, eight and a half pounds come out through the lungs when we exhale. Most of it is carbon dioxide, with a little water vapor mixed in. The rest is sweated or urinated out. As Nestor says, “The lungs are the weight-regulating system of the body.”

Proper breathing, especially thoroughly exhaling, can’t hurt, and may help support weight loss.

How to Breathe Less to Live Longer

Another interesting idea in this book is that it’s healthiest to breathe less. Slower breathing means a slower heart rate, and the longest-lived animals in the world are those with the slowest heart rates.

Nestor quotes yoga teacher B.K.S. Iyenger: “The yogi’s life is not measured by the number of his days, but the number of his breaths.”

Science has found that the most efficient, optimum breathing rate is 5.5 breathes per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales.

It so happens that it takes about 5.5 breathes to recite a Buddhist mantra; the Latin rosary; the Catholic Ave Maria prayer cycle; and important Hindu, Taoist, and Native American prayers. These rituals may have developed to help force the body into an ideal breathing state, and this in turn may provide some of their benefits.

Whenever you have some downtime, try practicing this breathing at this “5.5” slower rate with the stopwatch function on your phone.

Summing it Up

There are many other suggestions in this book, and they are all simple and free, using only your own breath and body.

“Breath” has convinced me that proper breathing must take its place alongside eating well, exercising and getting enough sleep, as pillars of optimum health.

Enjoy this read!

Here’s my review of “The Future of Nutrition,” by T. Colin Campbell.

Read about “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” by James Nestor.

Read my review of Jillian Michaels’ latest book, “6 Keys: Unlock Your Genetic Potential for Ageless Strength, Health and Beauty.”

Vicki Spellman

Vicki Spellman is a certified Holistic Nutritionist (AFPA) and Senior VP at a large healthcare communications firm.

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