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Breathing is a lost art. James Nestor teaches us how to use our breath for better health with his new book , Breath.
James, welcome to 40+ Fitness.
Thanks a lot for having me.
So today we're going to talk about your book, Breath: the New Science of a Lost Art. And I have to say that in the law, particularly intellect, like the last four or five years, there's been like kind of a reawakening on how important breath and breathwork is.
Oh, I would say . And I was lucky enough to sort of jump into that scene right as things were really just stating in the scientific communities.
And so, yeah. So we're hearing, you know about monks and you talk about it in the book monks that can basically change the, their heart rate. They can change the temperature, they can do that just with breath. There's of course there's Wim Hof, which is, he's just a fascinating individual and again, you get into him in the book, but I think really where I want to go with this conversation is to talk a little bit more about how we can use breath in an everyday sense to just manage our overall health and wellbeing.
Sure. And I think that so many people view breath as something that's binary. It's either about doing it, which is good, which means you're alive, or not doing it, which is very bad word. It means you're dead. But it's the subtleties and the nuances of breathing that are so fascinating to me because there's such a clear reflection of how efficiently our bodies are working, how our minds are functioning, nervous system, organ function, heart rate, mental state, on and on and on. And from what I've found from years of being in this world and researching with these scientists is how we breathe is as important as what we eat, how much we exercise and all that other stuff. It's really a missing pillar of health.
Yeah, it is. It is. You know, as I was, as I was getting into the book and I was thinking, you know, when do I ever actually think about breathing other than one when I can't because I've got, you know, I'm stuffed up or congested or have a cold or flu. I think about breathing a lot. And then when I'm doing meditation and more focused on breath is pretty much the two times that I find myself most focusing on breath. And I guess maybe the third would be when I'm lifting weights or running or doing something like that where how I breathe matters with regards to performance in the South. I don't know if this is everywhere, I guess it is everywhere, but there's this kind of moniker of calling someone a mouth breather. And it's not a nice thing to say to someone, or say about someone calling them a mouth breather. But beyond just the fact that that it's, you know, you're calling them out on something. There is something really, really wrong with breathing out of your mouth. Can you talk about that a little bit?
Sure. And you know that is a derogatory term that people have bandied around and for good reason. Breathing out of your mouth is extremely unhealthy and it will even after a while start affecting how you look, the skeleton ture of your face and it will start affecting how often you snore, whether or not you get sleep apnea. And there's just this laundry list of problems associated with mouth breathing because what happens when we breathe through our mouth is we're taking an unfiltered, unheated and raw air. The SAPs us of moisture irritates the lungs and loosens the soft tissues at the back of the mouth. So the more we mouth breathe, the more we're going to mouth breathe in the future. And mouth breathing has been even associated with neurological disorders, periodontal disease, increased risk of respiratory infection and on and on and on.
There's been several studies looking at the difference of mouth breathing and nasal breathing in animals. And one Japanese study showed that mice who had their noses plugged took twice the amount of time to make their way through a maze. And they've also found in human studies that when we breathe through our mouth, there's a disturbance of oxygen in our prefrontal cortex. So this is the area of the brain that's associated with ADHD. So very clear correlations between how we're breathing in this air, the pathway in which we're breathing it, and how we're functioning. So there's a bunch of other physiological effects to that as well. But it's bad news across the board. And what's even worse news is that about 50% of the population, according to one estimate, says that we are chronic mouth breathers and humans are the only species to really suffer from this affliction.
So if you look at 5,400 different mammals on the planet, they are breathing through their noses. Yeah, dogs are going to be breathing through the mouth, but that's for Thermo regulation. They're not doing it for any other reason. Beyond that, some people have told me, they're like, well, you know, my bulldog breathes through the mouth. My pug breathes through the mouth, but these highly inbred dogs have essentially became, become similar to the way humans have become where we've lost this ability to breathe through our nose. So we have just adapted to breathing through our mouth and it's caused all kinds of problems.
Yeah, and you personally experienced some of these problems by going through this kind of a crazy experiment of of 10 days as a mouth breather. Can you talk about that experiment? Cause that was, that was really interesting and a little bit scary.
Yeah. So we know all of these problems that are associated with mouth breathing. We just don't know how quickly they turn on. So no one's really studied this. So I was able to convince, I don't know how, but I was able to do it, the chief of rhinology research at Stanford. I had done a few interviews with him over the past several months and finally hatched this idea. I said, well, why don't we test this when we plug my nose with silicone balls and put some tape over it and we can do data panels, we can do pulmonary function tests, we can look at my cortisol levels on and on and on, 60 different markers and we can compare them to nasal breathing afterwards. So for 10 days, me and another subject, a breathing therapist of all people, a Swedish breathing therapist, one of the best breathers in the world, we made him one of the worst.
And so for, for 10 days, we just breathed through our mouths and tried to live our regular lives. You know, this wasn't so much of a, like a supersize me stunt because what we were doing was placing our bodies into a state that most people have experienced and up to half of us experience regularly. So it's a feeling and you know, a certain level of functioning that we already really know. So you know, it was the data came out and proved everything that the ancients have been saying for thousands and thousands of years. That mouth breathing is just really, really bad news. Both of us started snoring the first night. Snoring increased about 1300%. It got worse and worse until I was snoring four hours throughout the night. We got sleep apnea. We were stressed, we were fatigued. I mean, all of the above. And what was so interesting to me about all this was not the damage afflicted during mouth breathing. It was what happened when we took out these plugs and just breathe through our noses for the next 10 days. All those problems went away. This wasn't just subjective, you know, we were recording everything the whole time, and it was a complete transformation by just changing the channel through which we breathe.
And it was, it was really, really quick. Just, just a matter of a couple of days.
A couple of days, Yeah.
You're suddenly, it's like, I'm feeling horrible. I'm about to die. And then you change over to him to nose breathing actually. And within a day or two, you're well not fully recovered, but you're you feel drastically different. Your life is drastically different. You're sleeping drastic thing, so much better. No snoring or less snoring it down to no snoring. Sleep apnea goes away. So it was reversible.
For sure, you know, we went from snoring up to four hours during our worst state of mouth breathing to snoring within that first night, snoring, seven minutes, and then I wasn't snoring at all a couple of days after. So you realize how malleable and how flexible the body is depending on what, what you, what inputs you give to it. So to us this was just a clarification and context on what the ancients have been saying for literally thousands of years. There's this one quote from the Chinese Tao that's 1200 years old. It says, “the breath inhaled through the mouth is called Nietzsche adverse breath, which is extremely harmful. Be careful to not have the breath inhaled through the mouth.” So people were saying this, you know, over a thousand years ago, and it seems to be mostly lost on modern populations. If you look around, a lot of people are habitually mouth breathing and it's bad news.
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So beyond why mouth breathing is bad, let's talk about why nose breathing is actually good and some things about the nose that make it that way.
Sure. And this is the fun part, right? So once you injure yourself, you can try to rebuild yourself through various means and we simply change the pathway through which we were breathing. So we were no longer breathing through our mouths. We instead put tape on little piece of tape on our mouths to remind us to keep our mouth shut. Obviously we'd open them to eat and to talk on occasion. But for the large part, we were breathing only through our noses. And breathing through the nose, will save you about 40% moisture. So that's one reason, especially while jogging to always breathe through the nose unless you want to be carrying around those silly water bottles, which which nobody wants to do. Also breathing through the nose will increase nitric oxide by six fold. Nitric oxide, and I'm sure a lot of your listeners know what this is, but a quick little recap. It's a molecule that plays an essential role in circulation and delivering oxygen into cells by just breathing through your nose. You can have a massive increase of nitric oxide. They're using nitric oxide now to treat patients with Covid. It's that effective at opening capillaries and increasing oxygenation. And we have a natural supply of this in our nasal passages. All we need to do is breathe through our nose.
And just for the record, Viagra increases nitric oxide. That's why it does what it does. So breathing through the nose.
That's true. That's true. And if you want to hum, if you want to hum, you can increase that nitric oxide at least 15 fold by humming. So that might be something you know you're out on a date. Things are heating up, something you might want to consider doing on the way home.
Okay. I was actually just kind of blown away when you got into the structure, the nose and all of that and how it's, you know, people just think, okay, it's just a like a vent and then taking in the air. But it's not actually just taking in air, it's causing it to do some things like circulate through the air a little bit differently. It's warming it up, it's filtering it, it's doing all those really good things before it gets to our lungs.
For sure. I mean this is a natural filter. It's our first line of defense against pathogens and bacteria. So nitric oxide will attack a lot of that stuff. But so will the natural filter of our noses. And if you would open a human nose up, it's pretty amazing to look at. You can find this on the internet or in an anatomy book, but it looks just like a conch shell because, and that's where it gets its name, nasal conchae. So, and it's designed that way. The same way that seashells are designed to keep invaders out. So we also have that function in our nose. What I found, what was so ironic is you look at the national institutes of health and there are 17 different departments investigating everything from skin to lungs to the heart, the brain on and on. But none of them are looking at the functions of the nose, the importance of the nose in health and in longevity.
So beyond that filtering, the nose also adjust our levels of stress. It can calm us down, it can get us amped up and that is determined by which nostril you're breathing through. So the nose is covered with this erectile tissue, which is the same erectile tissue in our genitals and it responds to the same inputs. So whenever we get excited in one area, the nose will respond as well. And what happens throughout the day, every 30 minutes to about every four hours, the pathway through which air comes in through your nose, either your right nostril or your left nostril is going to switch. So one nostril is going to gently close and the other is going to gently open up. And one of the reasons it does this, some of this is theoretical, but a lot of it has been checked out and verified by scientists. Is that when we breathe through the right nostril, we heat the body up so the heart rate increases. We get a little drip of cortisol, blood pressure increases as well. And if we switch that pathway to the left nostril, the body cools down, heart rate decreases, blood pressure decreases, the heart lowers, heart rate lowers. So you can use this throughout the day depending on what you're doing. There's a whole school in yoga that studies this and that practices these alternate nostril breathing. But you don't need to do that because your body naturally does this. And it adjusts throughout the day and throughout the night.
So we know that our body brings in oxygen and then basically expels carbon dioxide. That's kind of the cycle of what's happening here. One of the interesting things that I got from your book was that, it's not about the amount of oxygen that we take in that matters. It's about the amount of carbon dioxide we have in our blood. It needs to get out that actually keeps that thing working well. And if we don't have the carbon dioxide we're not gonna use the oxygen we're breathing in. So breathing slow and breathing less can actually work to our benefit. Can you get into that?
For sure. And this is something that's been misinterpreted and still is today is for a healthy body. And that is for somebody who has about 95% or higher of oxygen in your bloodstream in any one time. You don't need more oxygen, so you have plenty of oxygen in your body. What you need is a way of offloading that oxygen efficiently into your cells and tissues and muscles. And that's what carbon dioxide helps us do. So carbon dioxide is, you know, in a lot of circles, considered a very bad thing. It's the stuff that plumes out of coal plants and it's heating up the planet. And all that's true, but for your body, it's essential to have the right balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen so it can work at peak efficiency. And often when we breathe too much, we are off gassing too much carbon dioxide.
So our bodies enter into an alkaline state, which makes it harder for oxygen to enter into these tissues and muscles and do what our body naturally wants us to do. So when you see people at the gym or jogging or wherever, when they're breathing through the mouth and they're thinking they're getting, getting a good workout, they're actually doing the opposite so they're not burning any more fat. They're making their body work harder to do less. So for the vast majority of people, breathing less is going to give you more oxygen and it's going to do that by your carbon dioxide levels balanced. Now there's extremes to this, right? Somebody with covid or pneumonia or emphysema doesn't get enough oxygen in their bloodstream. They need oxygen. If they're below 90 especially if they're in the eighties but again, for healthy people having extra oxygen isn't going to do anything, which is why I find it so ironic with these oxygen bars.
They have these people, Oh we're going to help you out. You're healthy, we're going to make you feel even better. It's not doing anything. What you need to do is allow your body to do what it naturally wants to do. You can breathe slowly and get much more benefit from doing that. You can also save a lot more money.
So in, in some of the breathing that you talked about, you actually talked about the breathing rate of 5.5 per minute being kind of a sweet spot.
Yeah. So these researchers about 20 years ago were looking at different prayers. They were looking at Catholic prayers, the rosary, the Ave Maria, they were looking at the Buddhist chant, Om mani padme hum, The Kundalini Chant on Sa ta na ma. And they found that to vocalize each of these, it takes about five to six seconds and then there's about five to six seconds to inhale.
So you're inhaling for about five to six seconds, you're exhaling for about five to six seconds. So they got a bunch of subjects and they hook them up to all these sensors and they looked at what was happening to their brains and bodies when they breathe this way. And they found that blood flow increased in the brain. Circulation increased and the body entered a state of coherence. Where the heart, nervous system and everything else were coordinated at peak efficiency. So this really lessened the burden on the heart and allowed us to do more again with less. Just by breathing in this way. And they hypothesized that the healing effects of prayer were probably real, but it had more to do with how we were breathing than what we were saying. And since this discovery, I guess you could call it, various scientists and researchers and psychiatrists have used this breathing pattern in their patients with depression, anxiety, and even for to purge toxins from the lungs and with 9 to 11 survivors.
So it's free, it's easy. Anyone can do it and the effects or they feel great, you know? And it's backed up by science. So I try to breathe in this way as often as possible. Sometimes I have timers around and even when I'm working out, if I'm at a gym on a stationary bike and I'm really huffing and puffing, I try to slow my breathing to about six or seven breaths per minute, which sounds like how are we possibly getting enough oxygen to support yourself? But I've worn a pulse oximeter and found that my oxygen level did not waver when I was breathing this slowly. So that's a way of really, if you're nervous, you're not getting enough oxygen that you're breathing too slowly. Try to get a pulse ox. You can get these things for for 20 bucks and try it out if you're geeky like me.
But I was really blown away by this because I had always learned that the more you breathe, the more oxygen you're going to gain. You need that oxygen to go further and to work out harder and that's complete BS. You don't, you need to breathe inline with your metabolic needs, which for the vast majority of us is to breathe more slowly.
Yeah. Because we're going to bring in enough oxygen into our lungs with that breath to be able to go for another minute or two. Actually, if we wanted to hold our breath, there's a guy he married the volleyball player, Gabrielle, and his name's Laird. He was a surfer. Yeah, he's got this protocol where they actually work out underwater, you know, they're lifting weights and running under water so they're not breathing, you know once, maybe a minute and you know, well, from what I've heard, it's pretty amazing stuff, performance in movements you can get when you start training your body to work that way. So a little different thing out there, but we don't have to breathe every two seconds just to make sure we have oxygen. We can, we can go with less.
Yeah. And that protocol has been around for 70 years that Laird is using. So you know, scientists have known this for a long time. We have known about carbon dioxide benefits in the body for a hundred years. Some prominent scientists, Christian Boar discovered this and then Yen Del Henderson at Yale was a big promoter of the use of carbon dioxide, both in tanks and in our own bodies to allow us to function efficiently. He said this is something that's completely ignored by the medical community. What's ironic is they were doing these tests in the 1910s, 1920s and arguing that more people need to get hip to what's going on with these gases and to know the real benefits. And then today you still have a lot of misinformation and a lot of ignorance as far as how oxygen and carbon dioxide are used in human metabolism. And so it was fascinating to go through all of these medical stories and articles and studies and to see these things played out over again and again and again. People keep discovering the stuff and then disappears. They discover it and it disappears. So what Laire is doing and as part of a long tradition of conditioning the body to use more efficiently. And we do that by breathing less.
I define wellness as being the healthiest fittest and happiest you can be. What are three strategies or tactics to get and stay well?
I would argue that breathing is at the core of this. Along with eating well and exercising. So I've thrown in sleeping. You know, this isn't the most original list you've ever heard I'm sure.
Well you started with breathing, that's a little bit more original than most, but yeah.
I guess, but if you look at the Holy triumvirate of wellness, a longevity of feeling good every day, it's those three things. But breathing has to be considered in there. Because I've met so many people who are triathletes who go to the gym every day who eat, you know, only a keto diet or vegan diet, whatever. But they are not paying attention to their breathing. They have sleep apnea, they snore at night. They say, Oh, this is just this natural. Everyone I know snores. Everyone I know is sleep apnea, but it's not. You have to get control of that before, in my opinion, before you really double down on your food and your exercise. You have to be looking at how you're breathing because we breathe 25,000 times a day. And if you're doing that wrong, you're going to be injuring your body just a little bit, with each breath, so you need to get that right and then you can build upon that foundation and really sharing in good health after that.
Well thank you James. The book is awesome. You know, you're not just giving us information, you're actually walking us through the story of you finding a lot of this stuff. So it was a really cool read. I really enjoyed it. If someone wanted to learn more about you or learn more about the book, Breathe, where would you like for me to send them?
My website and all the links to the book are there as well. There are 550 scientific references with some videos and photos and a bunch of other stuff to support what sounds like a bunch of pseudoscience. It's all real stuff, people. And all the data's up there on my website at mrjamesnester.com.
And you can go to 40plusfitnesspodcast.com/437 and I'll be sure to have the links there. So James, thank you so much for being a part of 40+ Fitness.
Thanks a lot for having me. Really enjoyed it.
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