Breath by James Nestor
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Short Summary

No matter what you eat, how much you exercise, how resilient your genes are, how skinny or young or wise you are—none of it will matter unless you’re breathing correctly.

Favorite Quote

The perfect breath is this: Breathe in for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 liters of air.

Book Notes

Breathing in different patterns can influence your body weight and overall health. How you breathe affects the size and function of your lungs. Breathing allows you to hack into your nervous system, control your immune response, and restore health. Changing how you breathe will help you live longer.

Many modern maladies—asthma, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, psoriasis, and more—can be reduced or reversed simply by changing the way we inhale and exhale.

In a single breath, more molecules of air will pass through your nose than all the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches—trillions and trillions of them. These little bits of air come from a few feet or several yards away. What directs this rambling path are turbinates, six maze-like bones (three on each side) that begin at the opening of your nostrils and end just below your eyes.

Working together, the different areas of the turbinates will heat, clean, slow, and pressurize air so that the lungs can extract more oxygen with each breath. This is why nasal breathing is far more healthy and efficient than breathing through the mouth.

Dr. Mark Burhenne studied the links between mouthbreathing and sleep for decades and had written a book on the subject. He told me that mouthbreathing contributed to periodontal disease and bad breath, and was the number one cause of cavities, even more damaging than sugar consumption, bad diet, or poor hygiene. (This belief had been echoed by other dentists for a hundred years, and was endorsed by Catlin too.) Burhenne also found that mouthbreathing was both a cause of and a contributor to snoring and sleep apnea. He recommended his patients tape their mouths shut at night.

“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. Immune function, weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function can all be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body. 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.

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.

Many of these doctors found, and Olsson would discover much later, that the best way to prevent many chronic health problems, improve athletic performance, and extend longevity was to focus on how we breathed, specifically to balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body. To do this, we’d need to learn how to inhale and exhale slowly.

There’s nothing controversial about this process of respiration and the role of carbon dioxide in gas exchange. It’s basic biochemistry. What’s less acknowledged is the role carbon dioxide plays in weight loss. That carbon dioxide in every exhale has weight, and we exhale more weight than we inhale. And the way the body loses weight isn’t through profusely sweating or “burning it off.” We lose weight through exhaled breath.

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.

Just a few moments of heavy breathing above metabolic needs could cause reduced blood flow to muscles, tissues, and organs. We’d feel light-headed, cramp up, get a headache, or even black out. If these tissues were denied consistent blood flow for long enough, they’d break down.

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. I realized then that breathing was like rowing a boat: taking a zillion short and stilted strokes will get you where you’re going, but they pale in comparison to the efficiency and speed of fewer, longer strokes.

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. The results were profound, even when practiced for just five to ten minutes a day.

In many ways, this resonant breathing offered the same benefits as meditation for people who didn’t want to meditate. Or yoga for people who didn’t like to get off the couch. It offered the healing touch of prayer for people who weren’t religious.

One thing that every medical or freelance pulmonaut I’ve talked to over the past several years has agreed on is that, just as we’ve become a culture of overeaters, we’ve also become a culture of overbreathers. Most of us breathe too much, and up to a quarter of the modern population suffers from more serious chronic overbreathing.

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.

Unlike other bones in the body, the bone that makes up the center of the face, called the maxilla, is made of a membrane bone that’s highly plastic. The maxilla can remodel and grow more dense into our 70s, and likely longer. “You, me, whoever—we can grow bone at any age,” Belfor told me. All we need are stem cells. And the way we produce and signal stem cells to build more maxilla bone in the face is by engaging the masseter—by clamping down on the back molars over and over. Chewing. The more we gnaw, the more stem cells release, the more bone density and growth we’ll trigger, the younger we’ll look and the better we’ll breathe.

Our noses and mouths are not predetermined at birth, childhood, or even in adulthood. We can reverse the clock on much of the damage that’s been done in the past few hundred years by force of will, with nothing more than proper posture, hard chewing, and perhaps some mewing.

Breathing, as it happens, is more than just a biochemical or physical act; it’s more than just moving the diaphragm downward and sucking in air to feed hungry cells and remove wastes. The tens of billions of molecules we bring into our bodies with every breath also serve a more subtle, but equally important role. They influence nearly every internal organ, telling them when to turn on and off. They affect heart rate, digestion, moods, attitudes; when we feel aroused, and when we feel nauseated. Breathing is a power switch to a vast network called the autonomic nervous system.

Men, mainly in their 20s, who’d suddenly been diagnosed with arthritis and psoriasis or depression, who, weeks after practicing heavy breathing, no longer suffered any symptoms. Twenty thousand others in Hof’s community exchange blood work data and other metrics of their transformations online. The before-and-after results confirmed their claims. Some of these people were reducing inflammatory markers (C-reactive protein) 40-fold within just a few weeks.

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. 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.

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.

The best way to keep tissues in the body healthy is to mimic the reactions that evolved in early aerobic life on Earth—specifically, to flood our bodies with a constant presence of that “strong electron acceptor”: oxygen. Breathing slow, less, and through the nose balances the levels of respiratory gases in the body and sends the maximum amount of oxygen to the maximum amount of tissues so that our cells have the maximum amount of electron reactivity.

While some of us may be genetically predisposed toward one disease or another, that doesn’t mean we’re predestined to get these conditions. Genes can be turned off just as they can be turned on. What switches them are inputs in the environment. Improving diet and exercise and removing toxins and stressors from the home and workplace have a profound and lasting effect on the prevention and treatment of the majority of modern, chronic diseases.

As basic as this sounds, full exhalations are seldom practiced. Most of us engage only a small fraction of our total lung capacity with each breath, requiring us to do more and get less. One of the first steps in healthy breathing is to extend these breaths, to move the diaphragm up and down a bit more, and to get air out of us before taking a new one in.

Read more on Amazon:

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art