Summary : Breath by James Nestor

1. This book is a scientific adventure into the lost art and science of breathing. It explores the transformation that occurs inside our bodies every 3.3 seconds, the time it takes the average person to inhale and exhale.

2. Simply training yourself to breathe through your nose, Douillard reported, could cut total exertion in half and offer huge gains in endurance.

3. Egil P. Harvold’s hideous experiments in the 1970s and 80s would not go over well with PETA or with anyone who has ever really cared for animals. Working from a lab in San Francisco, he gathered a troop of rhesus monkeys and stuffed silicone deep into the nasal cavities of half of them, leaving the other half as they were.

4.The plugged-up monkeys developed the same downward growth pattern, the same narrowing of the dental arch, and gaping mouth. Harvold repeated these experiments, this time keeping animals obstructed for two years. They fared even worse. Along the way, he took a lot of pictures. The photographs are heart-wrenching, not only for the sake of the poor monkeys, but because they also offer such a clear reflection of what happens to our own species: after just a few months, faces grew long, slack-jawed, and glazed over.

5. Mouthbreathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse.

6. Inhaling from the nose has the opposite effect. It forces air against all those flabby tissues at the back of the throat, making the airways wider and breathing easier. After a while, these tissues and muscles get “toned” to stay in this opened and wide position. Nasal breathing begets more nasal breathing.

7. Mouthbreathing was also making me dumber. A recent Japanese study showed that rats who had their nostrils obstructed and were forced to breathe through their mouths developed fewer brain cells and took twice as long to make their way through a maze than nasal-breathing controls. Another Japanese study in humans from 2013 found that mouthbreathing delivered a disturbance of oxygen to the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain associated with ADHD. Nasal breathing had no such effects.

8. The nose is crucial because it clears air, heats it, and moistens it for easier absorption. Most of us know this. But what so many people never consider is the nose’s unexpected role in problems like erectile dysfunction. Or how it can trigger a cavalcade of hormones and chemicals that lower blood pressure and ease digestion. How it responds to the stages of a woman’s menstrual cycle. How it regulates our heart rate, opens the vessels in our toes, and stores memories.2 How the density of your nasal hairs helps determine whether you’ll suffer from asthma.

9. The right and left nasal cavities also worked like an HVAC system, controlling temperature and blood pressure and feeding the brain chemicals to alter our moods, emotions, and sleep states.

10. The right nostril is a gas pedal. When you’re inhaling primarily through this channel, circulation speeds up, your body gets hotter, and cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate all increase. This happens because breathing through the right side of the nose activates the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” mechanism that puts the body in a more elevated state of alertness and readiness. 

11. Breathing through the right nostril will also feed more blood to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, specifically to the prefrontal cortex, which has been associated with logical decisions, language, and computing.

12. Inhaling through the left nostril has the opposite effect: it works as a kind of brake system to the right nostril’s accelerator. The left nostril is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-relax side that lowers blood pressure, cools the body, and reduces anxiety.

13. Left-nostril breathing shifts blood flow to the opposite side of the prefrontal cortex, to the area that influences creative thought and plays a role in the formation of mental abstractions and the production of negative emotions.

14. There are dozens of alternate nostril breathing techniques. I’ve started with the most basic. It involves placing an index finger over the left nostril and then inhaling and exhaling only through the right. I did this two dozen times after each meal today, to heat up my body and aid my digestion. Before meals, and any other time I wanted to relax, I’d switch sides, repeating the same exercise with my left nostril open. To gain focus and balance the body and mind, I followed a technique called surya bheda pranayama, which involves taking one breath into the right nostril, then exhaling through the left for several rounds.

15. Along the banks of the Upper Missouri, he happened upon the civilization of the Mandan, a mysterious tribe whose members stood six feet tall and lived in bubble-shaped houses. Many had luminous blue eyes and snow-white hair.

16. Having never seen a dentist or doctor, the tribal people had teeth that were perfectly straight—“as regular as the keys of a piano,” Catlin noted. Nobody seemed to get sick, and deformities and other chronic health problems appeared rare or nonexistent. The tribes attributed their vigorous health to a medicine, what Catlin called the “great secret of life.” The secret was breathing.

17. “The health benefits of nose breathing are undeniable,” he told me. One of the many benefits is that the sinuses release a huge boost of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells.40 Immune function, weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function can all be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body. (The popular erectile dysfunction drug sildenafil, known by the commercial name Viagra, works by releasing nitric oxide into the bloodstream, which opens the capillaries in the genitals and elsewhere.)

18. Nasal breathing alone can boost nitric oxide sixfold, which is one of the reasons we can absorb about 18 percent more oxygen than by just breathing through the mouth.

19. Mouth taping, Burhenne said, helped a five-year-old patient of his overcome ADHD, a condition directly attributed to breathing difficulties during sleep.

20. After much trial and error, I settled on 3M Nexcare Durapore “durable cloth” tape, an all-purpose surgical tape with a gentle adhesive. It was comfortable, had no chemical scent, and didn’t leave residue. In the three nights since I started using this tape, I went from snoring four hours to only ten minutes. I’d been warned by Burhenne that sleep tape won’t do anything to help treat sleep apnea. My experience suggested otherwise. As my snoring disappeared, so did apnea. I’d suffered up to two dozen apnea events in the mouthbreathing phase, but last night had zero.

21. In the 1980s, researchers with the Framingham Study, a 70-year longitudinal research program focused on heart disease, attempted to find out if lung size really did correlate to longevity. They gathered two decades of data from 5,200 subjects, crunched the numbers, and discovered that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity.

22. Moderate exercise like walking or cycling has been shown to boost lung size by up to 15 percent.

23. And the way the body loses weight isn’t through profusely sweating or “burning it off.”6 We lose weight through exhaled breath.

24. For every ten pounds of fat lost in our bodies, eight and a half pounds of it comes out through the lungs; most of it is carbon dioxide mixed with a bit of water vapor. The rest is sweated or urinated out. This is a fact that most doctors, nutritionists, and other medical professionals have historically gotten wrong. The lungs are the weight-regulating system of the body.

25. It turns out that when breathing at a normal rate, our lungs will absorb only about a quarter of the available oxygen in the air. The majority of that oxygen is exhaled back out. By taking longer breaths, we allow our lungs to soak up more in fewer breaths.

26. It turned out that the most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked in to a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute.

27. Gerbarg and Brown would write books and publish several scientific articles about the restorative power of the slow breathing, which would become known as “resonant breathing” or Coherent Breathing. The technique required no real effort, time, or thoughtfulness.24 And we could do it anywhere, at any time. “It’s totally private,” wrote Gerbarg. “Nobody knows you’re doing it.”

28. To be clear, breathing less is not the same as breathing slowly. Average adult lungs can hold about four to six liters of air. Which means that, even if we practice slow breathing at 5.5 breaths per minute, we could still be easily taking in twice the air we need. 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.

29. How many breaths we took per minute was less important to Buteyko, as long as we were breathing no more than about six liters per minute at rest.

30. According to several sources, Buteyko was once invited to England to meet with Prince Charles, who was suffering from breathing difficulties brought on by allergies. Buteyko helped the prince, and he helped heal upward of 80 percent of his patients suffering from hypertension, arthritis, and other ailments.

31. Meanwhile, the Papworth Method, a breathing-less technique developed in an English hospital in the 1960s, was also shown to cut asthma symptoms by a third.

32. Breathing is a power switch to a vast network called the autonomic nervous system. There are two sections of this system, and they serve opposite functions.

33. The first, called the parasympathetic nervous system, stimulates relaxation and restoration.

34. The lungs are covered with nerves that extend to both sides of the autonomic nervous system, and many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic system are located in the lower lobes, which is one reason long and slow breaths are so relaxing.

35. The deeper and more softly we breathe in, and the longer we exhale, the more slowly the heart beats and the calmer we become.

36. The second half of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic, has an opposite role.6 It sends stimulating signals to our organs, telling them to get ready for action. A profusion of the nerves to this system are spread out at the top of the lungs. When we take short, hasty breaths, the molecules of air switch on the sympathetic nerves. These work like 911 calls. The more messages the system gets, the bigger the emergency.

37. Naropa harnessed the power of his breath to keep himself from freezing to death. The practice became known as Tummo, the Tibetan word for “inner fire.” Tummo was dangerous. If used incorrectly, it could elicit intense surges of energy, which could cause serious mental harm.

38. To some researchers, it’s no coincidence that eight of the top ten most common cancers affect organs cut off from normal blood flow during extended states of stress.

39. At one point, they injected his arm with an endotoxin, a component of E.coli. Exposure to the bacteria usually induces vomiting, headaches, fever, and other flulike symptoms. Hof took the E. coli into his veins and then breathed a few dozen Tummo breaths, willing his body to fight it off. He showed no sign of fever, no nausea. A few minutes later, he rose from the chair and got a cup of coffee.

40. This practice of heavy breathing along with regular cold exposure was later discovered to release the stress hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine on command. The burst of adrenaline gave heavy breathers energy and released a battery of immune cells programmed to heal wounds, fight off pathogens and infection.31 The huge spike in cortisol helped downgrade short-term inflammatory immune responses, while a squirt of norepinephrine redirected blood flow from the skin, stomach, and reproductive organs to muscles, the brain, and other areas essential in stressful situations.

41. Tummo heated the body and opened up the brain’s pharmacy, flooding the bloodstream with self-produced opioids, dopamine, and serotonin.

42. Here’s the information: To practice Wim Hof’s breathing method, start by finding a quiet place and lying flat on your back with a pillow under your head. Relax the shoulders, chest, and legs. Take a very deep breath into the pit of your stomach and let it back out just as quickly. Keep breathing this way for 30 cycles. If possible, breathe through the nose; if the nose feels obstructed, try pursed lips. Each breath should look like a wave, with the inhale inflating the stomach, then the chest. You should exhale all the air out in the same order.

43. At the end of 30 breaths, exhale to the natural conclusion, leaving about a quarter of the air left in the lungs, then hold that breath for as long as possible. Once you’ve reached your breathhold limit, take one huge inhale and hold it another 15 seconds. Very gently, move that fresh breath of air around the chest and to the shoulders, then exhale and start the heavy breathing again. Repeat the whole pattern three or four rounds and add in some cold exposure (cold shower, ice bath, naked snow angels) a few times a week.

44. This flip-flopping—breathing all-out, then not at all, getting really cold and then hot again—is the key to Tummo’s magic. It forces the body into high stress one minute, a state of extreme relaxation the next. Carbon dioxide levels in the blood crash, then they build back up. Tissues become oxygen deficient and then flooded again. The body becomes more adaptable and flexible and learns that all these physiological responses can come under our control. Conscious heavy breathing, McGee told me, allows us to bend so that we don’t get broken.

45. McGee repeatedly told me, as he told all his students, to never, ever practice Tummo while driving, walking, or in “any other environment where you might get hurt if you pass out.” And never practice it if you might have a heart condition or are pregnant.

46. Several years ago, when I was early in my research, I’d heard about a practice called Holotropic Breathwork created by a Czech psychiatrist named Stanislav Grof.39 The main focus wasn’t to reboot the autonomic nervous system or heal the body; it was to rewire the mind.

47. It took some doing. Holotropic Breathwork often included a journey through “the dark night of the soul,” where patients would experience a “painful confrontation” with themselves.

48. If they got through all that, mystical visions, spiritual awakenings, psychological breakthroughs, out-of-body experiences, and, sometimes, what Grof called a “mini life-death-rebirth” could follow.

49. All the while, blends of 30 percent carbon dioxide and 70 percent oxygen became a go-to treatment for anxiety, epilepsy, and even schizophrenia.

50. For the past few months, as part as his NIH research, Feinstein has brought in patients suffering with anxiety and panic to this lab and given them a few hits of carbon dioxide. So far, he tells me, the results have been promising. Sure, the gas elicited a panic attack in most patients, but this is all part of the baptism-by-fire process. After that initial bout of discomfort, many patients report feeling relaxed for hours, even days.

51. As I breathe a little faster, go a little deeper, the names of all the techniques I’ve explored over the past ten years all come back in a rush:

  • Pranayama. 
  • Buteyko. 
  • Coherent Breathing. 
  • Hypoventilation. 
  • Breathing Coordination. 
  • Holotropic Breathwork. 
  • Adhama. 
  • Madhyama. 
  • Uttama. 
  • Kêvala. 
  • Embryonic Breath. 
  • Harmonizing Breath. 
  • The Breath by the Master Great Nothing. 
  • Tummo. 
  • Sudarshan Kriya.

52. A European study of 86 obese women showed hypoxia training led to a “significant decrease in waist circumference” and significant reduction in fat over controls. (More available oxygen in the cells meant that more fat could be burned more efficiently.

53. In the late 1950s, Wolpe was looking for alternative treatments for free-floating anxiety, a form of stress for which there is no specific cause, which today affects about 10 million Americans. He was floored by how quickly and effectively carbon dioxide worked. Between two and five inhalations of a 50/50 mixture of carbon dioxide and oxygen, Wolpe found, was enough to lower the baseline level of anxiety in his patients from 60 (debilitating) to zero. No other treatment came close.