The new science and the lost art of breathing

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Covid-19 has been a wake up call for all us, especially those who have trouble breathing. As we don masks and worry about anyone breathing too close, what do we know about the science of breathing and why does how we breathe matter so much? KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with author James Nestor about his book “ Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art .

Breathing is the body’s only autonomic function we can actually control — but the majority of us rarely do. Bad breathing habits have exacerbated a range of chronic ailments from hypertension, asthma and fatigue. 

Nestor explains that the breath has long been a focal point for cultural and religious practices — particularly by the Greeks and Buddhists, Hindus, and some Native Americans — and says that over the centuries, controlling the breath was discovered to not only deepen spiritual connections but also have profound and extraordinary impacts over our bodies. 

Nestor wearing a breathing mask at Stanford. Photo courtesy of James Nestor.

The following interview excerpts  have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.  

KCRW: This story really starts with your own health; what happened to you and why did you get interested in this subject? 

James Nestor: “ It started several years ago, I was eating right and exercising but kept having chronic respiratory problems — bronchitis — which was turning into mild pneumonia year after year. My doctor suggested a breathing class. A week after the introductory course, I remember taking a seat in class, crossing my legs and breathing in this very rhythmic pattern, nothing special. All of a sudden, sweat just started pouring out of me, my hair was sopping wet, my T-shirt soaked, it was unlike anything I'd ever experienced. Other people asked whether I was okay but I felt great. 

So I checked with my doctor, told her about this very weird experience and she said that I must have had a fever, or the room was too hot, or was wearing too many clothes but none of those things were true. She had no idea. So as a science journalist, I just sort of sort of filed it away until years later, when I met freedivers.  They were able to give context to the real power of breathing, how it could not only elicit extreme heat in the body, but how you could use it to actually heal yourself and do some other miraculous things.

I learned later, it is completely common but not one could understand it or provide me with a good enough answer. My father in law's a pulmonologist, my brother in law's an ER doctor they just said it sounded weird. Since I've talked to other people who have had the same exact experience, it's a bit hard to explain beyond the fact that I was just sitting in a room, closing my eyes and breathing in a certain way, which is somewhat hypnotic and giving yourself over to it. And then without even knowing that it was happening being covered with sweat and the kind of sweat from running a marathon but another kind of sweat. 

So what I came to understand was that building heat in the body through breath is something that has been done for thousands of years and it's been studied by Harvard researchers. It gave me as a journalist, a little more comfort that this wasn't too far out there and that it was being studied.

Two thousand years ago early Buddhists used a system of breathing to heat their bodies. People recounted stories from trips to Tibet where monks were able to sit out in the snow, overnight and melt a circle around themselves and then go back into the monastery and be perfectly fine. No one truly believed these stories until Herbert Benson, of Harvard Medical School, went out to Dharamsala in the 1980s and found monks who did exactly that. They could raise the temperature in their fingers by 17 degrees, they could dry wet sheets in a cold room with just their body heat. So much had been written about this but we didn't have the measurements to prove it. So that’s what was so fascinating about this topic is having this modern medical technology be able to really peer into what happens to the body when we breathe in different ways.

KCRW: How do scientists explain tummo breathing and the fact that somebody can sit in the middle of a snowy field and melt the snow around them?

Nestor: The quick answer is they still don't exactly know. So they're still mysteries to the breath and the body, which I think is fantastic. It really frustrates the researchers but here’s what we know. The monks practice a soft breathing method, more based on mental focus and breathing in this pace pattern, moving your stomach as you breathe in extending it than contracting it with each breath. Just by breathing in this way these monks were able to decrease their metabolism by 60%, which is the lowest number anyone has ever seen. 

Then there's this other side of tummo — the Wim Hof method that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, purposely causing stress in your body but it does the same thing. Wim can sit in ice for two hours, breathed in a certain way and his core temperature didn't go down, he didn't get hypothermia and didn't get frostbite. And scientists are still scratching their head saying, How is this possible? 

KCRW: You have said that humans are kind of becoming really bad at breathing. Why is that? 

Nestor: “When I first heard this from a scientist, I didn't believe it but then I looked at the data. A quarter of the population suffers from sleep apnea, half of us snore. 10% of Americans have asthma. 10% have COPD and the rest of us have some sort of breathing dysfunction, the list goes on.  It seems because we’re alive and we seem to be breathing just fine. But being alive is different from being healthy and really prospering. 

What’s happened to the human family face and the human mouth specifically, is that it's been shrinking. We've been here for millions of years and constantly changing but that change happens very slowly. But what’s happened to our mouths has happened very fast. In the past around 300, 400 years, it’s so bad that our teeth no longer fit in our mouth. They grow crooked, we have teeth yanked out, and it's so common now that no one really asks why do humans have crooked teeth? Animals have perfectly straight teeth, our ancestors had perfectly straight teeth, but 90% of us have crooked teeth because our mouths are too small.  A problem with having a mouth too small for your face, is that you have a smaller airway, which is one of the main reasons that we have so many of these chronic breathing problems. We're having trouble just getting air in and out of ourselves. It’s just wild but it's true.”

Nestor undergoing a nasal endoscopy at Stanford. Photo courtesy of James Nestor.

KCRW: Why are our mouths and nasal passages getting smaller? 

Nestor: “When our food switched from wild, whole foods that required a ton of chewing; our ancestors used to chew for about four hours a day, so when you're chewing that much, you were building bone mass, building musculature in the face and building a wider mouth. With the advent of industrialized foods; white flour, white rice, canned foods, everythings soft. Even healthy foods, smoothies, avocados, yogurt all this stuff is soft, and humans did not evolve eating soft foods and because of that our mouths have shrunk. 

Science and data show there are some other elements like oral posture, like in very polluted environments, adenoids and tonsils can become inflamed, and you start breathing from your mouth, which also causes damage and will actually change the skeletal picture of your face when you're young.

The breastfed infants will have less of a chance of having snoring and sleep apnea because when you're breastfed, that requires a tremendous amount of effort and it helps push the face outward and build a larger airway. And when kids are young, perhaps four and five, they should start chewing food to get away from having everything processed, chewing has so many benefits. One of the main benefits is it can change the way your face looks and it can change your airways. in adulthood. 

In my case I had extractions, braces, headgear, breathing problems but there are ways to improve our airways. Over the course of a year I had CAT scans, before and after to see how an adult could improve his airways and found that I opened mine up about 15 to 20%, which is an enormous amount. I'm breathing so much better now than I ever have been able to. I did this by doing oral pharyngeal exercises , the tongue is a  powerful muscle and if you work it out you can help tone the airway, open up the airway. There's a clear foundation of science on that and I did it through chewing and through expanding the upper palate of my mouth.”

KCRW:  You write a lot about the importance of primarily breathing through our noses. How important is that? 

Nestor: ”If you look back in the literature from ancient Hindus to ancient Chinese literature, there are seven books on the Dao, that talk about breathing and specifically all the benefits of nasal breathing. Once again this is one of those fascinating things that modern Sciences has really shown, what the ancients knew was to be 100%. 

When you breathe through the nose, you are pressurizing the air, humidifying it and  filtering it. So by the time that air gets to your lungs, it is conditioned and can be absorbed so much more easily. The lungs almost can be seen as an external organ, because they're exposed to your entire environment. If you live in a city like I do, you don't want them to be exposed to everything. You want the breath you take in to be very filtered and that's what the nose does. If you breathe through your mouth, you get none of those benefits. So just by breathing through the nose, there’s an increase of about 20% more oxygen than the equivalent mouth breaths, which is a huge amount throughout the day.

This has to do with the pressure and the amount of time it takes for air to go in and out. The more time you have, the more time your lungs have to extract oxygen. And it also has to do with this amazing molecule called nitric oxide, which plays an essential role in vasodilation and gas exchange. We make six times more nitric oxide in our noses than we do breathing through our mouth.

There are now about 14 different studies using nitric oxide to treat patients with COVID. because it has such an amazing effect. It interacts directly with pathogens and with viruses. Louis Ignarro who won the Nobel Prize in the ‘90s believes that just breathing through the nose we can help defend ourselves from viruses and perhaps even COVID - that's not my opinion, that's his opinion. Nitric oxide is the molecule that is released when someone takes Viagra, so it is a fantastic vasodilator that has profound circulatory effects on our bodies.”




Andrea Brody