James Nestor, the NY Times bestselling author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, suggests that humans are the “worst breathers in the animal kingdom.” Most of us breathe through our mouths, and when we do so, we “short circuit” the systems in our body and our overall energy. Today, James explains why he believes we should train ourselves to go back to nasal breathing. He goes over the benefits we can expect when we do so: from improved sleep and lower blood pressure to improved athletic performance.
Listen to the episode here:
Within the below transcript the bolded text is Hilda.
What if we’ve been breathing all wrong? It may sound funny, but it’s likely that just as we’ve lost our way when it comes to eating and nourishing diet, we may have also lost touch with how to breathe. What do we need to do to breathe the best way to properly oxygenate and energize our bodies? This is Episode 299, and our guest is James Nestor, the New York Times best-selling author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. James explains why he considers humans the worst breathers in the animal kingdom. How we breathe affects every system in the body and we are shortchanging ourselves and our energy by breathing through our mouths instead of our noses. James explains why we should train ourselves to go back to nasal breathing. He reminds us what benefits we can expect when we do so in terms of our overall health and even improved athletic performance.
Thanks a lot for having me.
James, your book jives in my estimation with the Weston A. Price Foundation, and our point of view that there’s something in the past that we need to rediscover. Only, your book doesn’t have to do with nutrition or movement, it has to do with breath. Tell us more.
Our breathing is something that few of us ever recognize or consider, but we get most of our energy through our breath. If you’re doing that inefficiently or dysfunctionally, your body is never ever going to be healthy no matter what you eat or how much you exercise.
How can we breathe incorrectly or inefficiently? Isn’t it something that comes naturally to us?
It’s in the same way that you can eat incorrectly, you can eat bad foods. It is something that comes naturally to a lot of us, but like how many of us have bad habits that aren’t contributing to our health, we have bad habits with our breathing. We can get by with this dysfunctional breathing, but that doesn’t mean we’re healthy. Compensation does not mean health. Many of us are getting by. We’re getting air in, we’re getting air out, but we’re not nourishing our bodies and allowing our bodies to heal and recover and do all that they are designed to do.
Is that why that you say in your book we are the worst breathers in the animal kingdom?
We are by far the worst breathers in the animal kingdom. We have some competition by some species of dogs. If you have a pug or a bulldog, you can notice what terrible breathers they are. They have chronic respiratory problems. We are the human equivalent of those dogs. Our faces have grown so flat. Our nasal apertures are small that many of us suffer from chronic respiratory issues, whether that’s chronic sinusitis, whether that’s asthma, whether that’s wheezing, COPD, on and on.
If I understand you correctly, it’s not just that we’re going to have respiratory issues if we’re not breathing properly, it’s going to affect our entire body.
How you breathe affects every system in your body. The average person breathes about 20,000, 25,000 times a day. If you’re struggling to do that, if you’re wheezing, if you’re using accessory muscles, it’s going to wear your body down. Your body is not going to be able to get that blood, that oxygen, that energy as easily as it should. Your body can compensate, we’re so good at getting by, but we are not truly nourishing our bodies to their true potential.
One of the problems is we’re breathing through our mouth instead of our noses.
Kids are the worse off. They are the most sinful of the breathers because something like 25% to 50% of them breathe through their mouths. If you look at adults sleeping, around 60%, upwards of 70% of us are mouth breathing in our sleep. A lot of us think this is cute, “My husband snores. My wife snores. My husband has sleep apnea.” If you are struggling to do something for 1/3 of your life, if you’re choking on yourself, guess what’s going to happen to the rest of the systems in your body? We’re seeing it, 25% of the population has obstructive sleep apnea. About 50% snores and neurological damage, metabolic issues, on and on a from being not being able to breathe clearly and freely.
James, what got you into this in the first place?
Several years ago, I discovered Nourishing Traditions cookbook. I thought I was eating everything right. I would wake up, eat a bagel with some soy cream cheese on that. For lunch, I’d have a cheese sandwich. For dinner, I’d have soy pasta. I thought that this was the way that people should be eating. This is what the science was telling me until I kept getting more and more sick over and over until the doctor told me, “You should check out this book and check out this research.” It changed my life. I’ve been rocking the bone broth for several years before it got cool.
It was something in reading that book and understanding that this stuff doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s not about getting fourteen different supplements and vitamins to ensure you have the right minerals in your body, the right nutrition. It’s about eating right. What a simple thing, but so few of us eat right like so few of us breathe right. Along those lines, I started exploring a bit of Weston Price’s research, but I didn’t know what to do with this story. As a science journalist, I filed away all this stuff into a file cabinet until that file cabinet got big enough. I thought, “Maybe there’s a book in here.” When I started looking at human skulls, how they’ve changed in the past 300, 400 years, I thought, “Why doesn’t anyone know about this?”
That’s an interesting point. It’s one place in which what you’ve concluded differs from what we see Dr. Price is concluding. In other words, Dr. Price, after studying these isolated indigenous people groups all around the world, noticing that they had varied diets, but they were in excellent health. He also noticed that subsequent generations and those who departed from their traditional diets suffered from a lot of maladies. One thing he noticed was that the face became narrower over time because he understood it was a lack of the nutrient rich diet that the mother had. In other words, if the mother ate better, then the baby was better off, and their face was rounder and healthier. You said something about chewing in your book that caught me by surprise. Tell us about that.
Dr. Price with what he had available at that time with his measurements, with his research that he did, he did as good of a job as he could have possibly done. Twenty thousand dairy samples, 15,000 slides, he went to 12 different countries over the course of 10 years. This guy was a real scientist within the system. He wasn’t a fringe guy. He was the founder of the research, part of the National Dental Association, which later became the ADA. That’s interesting in and of itself. One thing that he was a little myopic towards was the stress and the exercise needed to grow that mouth. We know that Activator X or K2, we know that we need this spectrum of vitamins to grow bones, otherwise there’s going to be too much accumulation of calcium in our arteries.
What is less known or less acknowledged is you also need to direct those vitamins and minerals to those stem cells and to build the bones. You do that through masticatory stress. Scientists have been talking about this for over 100 years, even before Price came around, you need to chew, and you need to breastfeed because that pulls the face out. About 40% of how we look and how our airways are formed is epigenetic. It is determined by the environmental inputs. That chewing stress starts at birth, with breastfeeding. There have been various studies looking at kids who have been breastfed versus those who have been bottle-fed. Those who have been breastfed often look different. They often need less braces or orthodontics, and they will have less sleep apnea and snoring later on in life because their faces have been able to grow outward to have that wide, healthy look.
I’m going to invite people to look at your book and dive into that a bit deeper. What I loved about what you did, James is not only did you study this intellectually, but you experienced what it is like to breathe mostly through the mouth. You also experienced the time of breathing almost exclusively through the nose. Tell us what you learned when you did that.
The big problem with our faces growing too narrow and our teeth growing too crooked is we have too small of a mouth, that’s why the teeth are growing crooked. It’s not the teeth’s fault. If the teeth were given a large enough playing field, they would grow in straight, but our mouths are so small. With the smaller mouth means a smaller airway. There’s another problem with that is the upper palate tends to grow up instead of outward. It can impede the airflow in the sinuses, in the nose, which makes us mouth breathers. If you look at society right now, 25% to 50% of us are habitual mouth breathers. Many chronic issues have been associated with that, but what we didn’t know was how quickly those problems came on. Did they come on after a decade? Did they come on after several years?
There had been monkey studies, but no human studies. I started working with the Chief of Rhinology Research down at Stanford, a guy named Dr. Jayakar Nayak. We were talking about all this over several long lunches, talking about all the wonders of the nose. I said, “You’re at Stanford. Why don’t you study this, do a little experiment?” He thought doing so it would be unethical because he knew of all the problems associated with mouth breathing. I volunteered and I got a breathing therapist from Sweden to volunteer. We did a 20-day study, 10 days mouth breathing, 10 days nasal breathing, recording every imaginable metric that was available.
Even if the results had not been recorded scientifically with all this data, how did you feel? What was the difference in how you felt?
I try to stay out of the subjective sphere here because I get annoyed when people are making claims on how they feel before and after, especially as a science journalist, I want to be as objective as possible. I will tell you, I felt awful, terrible, fatigued, dry mouth, annoyed at everything. The data confirmed this in spades. I went from not snoring at all the first night of mouth breathing, to snoring an hour and a half. A few days later, I was snoring for four hours, and Anders Olsson, the other subject was snoring even worse than me, from 0 to 4 hours. How many people are talking about how the pathway through which we breathe air affects snoring and some forms of sleep apnea? I don’t hear it too often. It was shocking how quickly it came on.
We can look at more of the data. You’ve said that mouth breathing is associated with a host of issues. Let’s talk about some solutions. What are some ways in which we can train ourselves to begin breathing more through our noses?
That’s the easiest thing in the world. You sit up straight and shut your mouth, as mothers for generations have said. Easier said than done for a lot of people. Everyone’s different, there’s no blanket prescription that’s going to fix everyone. Some people need surgical interventions because their noses are so messed up. Most of us need to use our noses more. This is a ‘use it or lose it’ organ. We’re conditioned to be breathing through our mouth. The more we do that, the less we can use our noses, so this becomes the default. We are not designed to be that way. When you look at any other animal in the wild, look at a cheetah running at 50 miles per hour, it’s nasal breathing. Look at a horse, it’s nasal breathing. Our physiology, our anatomy is designed for nasal breathing.
The first thing that I did after I took a CAT scan and Nayak was looking at, he’s like, “You’re a complete mess.” I had broken my nose three times, deviated septum, everything else that most people have, but I focused on nasal breathing. For me personally, it was transformative. My nose opened up. I have no congestion now. I’m not saying what worked for me is going to work for everyone, of course not, but this has been documented time and time again. Dr. Ann Kearney down at Stanford had told me the exact same thing. She was a mouth breather until she started breathing through her nose, and it tends to open up. That’s the first thing. Easier said than done, but one thing that helps is a teeny piece of tape, with a light adhesive, you can place that on your lips during the day and you’d get used to nasal breathing that way, and then you can use it at night. My personal experience was that has stopped me from mouth breathing at night. That’s why there are many different gizmos out there on Amazon now.
James, if the air, one way or another, it gets into our system, what difference does it make if it travels through the nasal passages or not?
The nose has 30 different functions. When we take air in through it, it slows the air down for one, it humidifies it, it moistens it, it pressurizes it and it conditions it so that by the time it reaches our lungs, our lungs can better absorb that oxygen. We get 20% more oxygen breathing through the nose than we do through the mouth. Our nose is our first line of defense against pathogens, pollution, bacteria and viruses. There are many structures in the nose, including nitric oxide, along with hair and cilia and all of that to help keep this stuff out. When you’re breathing through the mouth, you might as well have your lungs as an external organ, flop them around wherever you are, because they are exposed to allergens and everything else in your environment. Nasal breathing is vital for our health.
It reminds me of how at the foundation here, we recommend that people eat fermented foods because it predigests some of the vegetables and such that we’d like to eat that have anti-nutrients on them. The nose, in a way, is making our oxygen more bioavailable. It’s predigesting our air.
It does, it’s important because it also slows air down. You think, “I want more air. I want more oxygen.” You get more by allowing this air to slow down and be pressurized so you can get more O2 with fewer breaths, which means less wear and tear on your body.
When I read your book, I was convinced and started to do more nose breathing even during rigorous athletic activity. What I do when I’m jogging or running with my dog, I try to only breathe through my nose for a portion of the time. It is so hard. I feel like I’m running out of breath. What’s happening when that happens and how do I get around it?
Breaking habits can take weeks or months, especially with the nose. The best way of getting around it is to do exactly what you’re doing to slowly acclimate yourself to it. A lot of people, Westerners, were super gung-ho, they say, “I’m going all the way. I’m only going to breathe through my nose, go into this softly, let the body adapt softly.” Different people will respond to different things, but people can start by inhaling through the nose a bit and exhaling through the mouth, if that’s easier for you, and then slowly making those inhales and exhales through the mouth. There has been so much science and research that has looked into athletic performance and recovery and nasal breathing. Especially when you’re competing, when you’re working out, you want to be running efficiently so why would you want to be expending more energy to get less. Mark my words, this is already happening. In the next several years, athletic training is going to be focused on breathing. It was several years ago, and now it’s coming back in a big way.
I have a friend who puts the mouth tape on, and he runs miles like that. I’m like, “How is he doing it?” As you said, take your time, acclimate, you can get there.
A lot of it does come down to habit. This was a terrible transition for me. I was a mouth breather at night. Every single night I would go to sleep with this huge bottle of water. I thought this was normal. Every few hours I’d wake up, take a hit from it, go back to sleep. This is not normal. Also, breathing through the mouth at night and the daytime will increase the acidity in the mouth and make you much more susceptible to cavities and periodontal disease because you’re drawing your mouth out all the time. For athletic performance, what works for one person may not work for the other. We do know that nasal breathing is far superior for many ways. No matter how you get there, be it mouth tape, be it force of will.
Some people use Breathe Right strips, they lift the nose up to open up the nostrils or mute inserts, which allow about 30% more air into the nostrils. It’s ironic because all of these little gizmos are making us the way we were before industrialization. Our nostrils were fine 500 years ago, and now they’re too small and collapsed, but those are great training wheels. I’ve used them. They work wonderfully. I’ve found that after a couple of weeks, I didn’t need them because I was acclimated to proper nasal breathing.
I feel like many of us walk around, not realizing that we’re mouth breathing. In other words, the majority of the population is doing this but they’re not even aware of it.
Next time you’re out and about and people are running by, and if they’re not wearing mask, you can even hear them from 12 feet away. I have spied one jogger in my neighborhood who was nasal breathing. Everybody is mouth breathing all the time. At rest, it’s less so. Some of this also depends on where you are. If you’re in a place with a lot of allergens or pollution, the nose gets stuffed up. People default to mouth breathing, but right now in the midst of a respiratory pandemic, it is so imperative that you breathe through your nose, including when you have that mask over you. You have to keep breathing through your nose. That’s one thing that I see people. All the time, I can hear them breathing because they feel that they’re not getting enough air, which is complete garbage. That’s a psychological problem. It’s not a physiological problem. Nasal breathing is something we forgotten, and we’ve suffered the consequences because of that.
Thank you for shedding light on that. Let’s go back to that concept you said about breathing less. I know you had one whole chapter about breathing less, and then you had another chapter about breathing more, both of these from time to time. What do you mean?
It was confusing to me when I was first researching this book and getting these books on pranayama and yoga. There are 400 different breathing techniques. Some are fast. You’re holding your breath. You’re not holding your breath. I was like, “What are we supposed to do?” At the center of the book, what I was trying to do is establish a foundation for breathing that can benefit everybody. It doesn’t matter if you’re an asthmatic, if you’re an ultra-marathoner, everyone should be breathing this way. That is through the nose breathing slowly, to breathing lightly, breathing deeply. When I say breathing less, what I’m saying here is that you should be breathing within your metabolic needs, which for the vast majority of us is breathing less than we are now, just like the vast majority of us would benefit from eating less food.
The point of that is to train yourself to breathe less because that is normal breathing. In all of that foundation is normal breathing. When it comes to breathing more, once you’ve established that foundation, then you can use breath to do a whole bunch of things. You can use it to heal yourself of chronic illnesses. That sounds crazy. You check out my website and see the people who’ve done this. You can also use it to heat your body up when you’re cold. This has been studied by Harvard, all over the world, using your breathing to do this. That incorporates faster breaths, breath-holding for short amounts of time. That is the more advanced stuff. First of all, you need that foundation.
I’m looking to apply it. I’m going to Wisconsin. I’m going to jump into a frozen lake. I will be doing some of this breathing ahead of time. You mentioned yoga. I have seen some people do the technique you also mentioned in your book, inhaling through the left, then plugging that nostril, exhaling through the right. What does that do?
There’s a whole school of yoga called Nadi Shodhana that incorporates alternate nostril breathing. I’m sure a lot of people have done this in yoga class, but you don’t need to put on your yoga tights and do this. We’re all breathing all the time, so you can do it anytime you want. They’ve found in various studies that breathing through the left nostril calms the body down, blood pressure decreases, heart rate decreases, it mellows you out. Inhaling through the right nostril has the opposite effect. It increases heat in the body, heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up. Indians were saying this more than 1,000 years ago, but now we have instruments to measure it objectively. What we found is so much of what they were saying is 100% correct.
What kind of breathing do you do? You’re breathing through the nose, but how many of these techniques do you incorporate into your daily life?
People think that since I wrote this book, I’m now the best breather in the world, cruising around in a headdress, but I’m not at all. I’m a science journalist who went into this and tried to be as objective as I possibly could to understand the science and the art of this practice. That’s not to say I didn’t pick up a few tricks along the way. Of course, I did. When you’ve talked to someone who’s 70 years old and suffered from asthma for 60 years of her life and manage to now not suffer from any symptoms of asthma by training herself to breathe properly, you get affected by that. I do some Kundalini breathing maybe 3 or 4 times a week. I’m always breathing through my nose. I’m aware of my breathing at all times. I pull out of my pocket different breathing for different situations. If I’m surfing or if I’m exercising, I become conscious of my breathing and not to over breathe and not to breathe through my mouth, which will make it harder for your body to get oxygen. You want to be doing the opposite even in high endurance states.
It seems like there’s been a resurgence of interest in breathwork these days. What do you attribute that to?
I attribute it to us being a reactionary species. Only when we lose something, do we get interested in it. So much of this has been tied to COVID, a respiratory pandemic that is robbing us of the ability to breathe, so breathwork has become front and center in a lot of people’s minds. It’s about time. It had been front and center for the ancient Hindus, for the ancient Chinese, for the Greeks, for many other cultures, and Westerners, for the most part, have forgotten about it. We viewed our breathing as this thing that ran in the background. It didn’t matter how we breathe, but the science is showing us otherwise right now for sure.
Breathing essentially is a wise tradition, isn’t it?
Yes, the wisest of all traditions.
I wanted to ask you a couple more things. One is that it doesn’t matter what we eat or how we exercise, if we’re not breathing properly, our lives are going to be tremendously affected. You stand by that.
This is something that I had heard from respiratory therapists, neurologists, rhinologists, from many different experts in the field. I’m not saying that breathing is going to do everything for everyone in the same way that I wouldn’t say nutrition is going to do everything for everyone or exercise is going to do everything for everyone. It is part of that foundation of health that so many of us have forgotten about. We’ve gotten the word on nutrition, or at least a lot of us have, and we’ve gotten the word on exercise, but breathing has not been part of that conversation even though it plays an equal, if not more influential role on our overall health.
I’m thinking of a little stool right now. It seems like that would be the third leg of it. You’ve got nutrition and you have movement, and why not make breathing the main part of the stool that you sit on as the foundation of your health?
If we had a four-legged stool, you might want to put sleep in there as well, but to me, healthy sleep begins with healthy breathing. You can’t have it without healthy breathing.
Thank you for all of this. This is great food for thought, or maybe I should say breath for thought. I want to now pose to you the question I often pose at the end. James, if the reader could do one thing to improve their health, what would you recommend that they do?
Become aware of your breathing. We go throughout the day aware of what we’re eating or how we’re sitting or how we’re feeling, but we’re not aware of our breathing. How we breathe can affect how we’re feeling, our neurological function and how we digest food. It goes on and on. This is such a subtle thing. It’s such an easy thing and it’s free, which means anyone anywhere can take advantage of this and reap the benefits of it.
James, thanks again for your time. This has been a great conversation.
Thanks a lot for having me.
About James Nestor
James Nestor has written for Outside, Scientific American, The Atlantic, Dwell, The New York Times, and many other publications.
His latest book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, was released on May 26, 2020 by Riverhead/Penguin Random House and was an instant New York Times bestseller.
Nestor has appeared on dozens of national television shows, including ABC’s Nightline and CBS’s Morning News, and on NPR.
He lives and breathes in San Francisco.