“Breathe.” It’s the mantra populating Instagram feeds and topping off news anchors’ coverage in an effort to help us all cope with the anxiety that comes with pandemic- and post-election uncertainty.
It’s good advice, as research shows breathing is linked to a range of health benefits far and beyond simply keeping us alive.
But it’s not that simple, journalist James Nestor writes in the book, “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” which was released in May. There are, in fact, ways to breathe that promote healing, and ways to breathe that breed disease.
“There are as many ways to breathe as there are foods to eat,” one freediving instructor who’s held her breath for more than eight minutes told Nestor. “And each way we breathe will affect our bodies in different ways.”
The book details the history of how humans became bad at breathing, a bad habit Nestor links to everything from autoimmune diseases, dental issues, and even spinal deformities.
Along the way, he shares his own journey of rediscovering breath, and subsequently health, after falling into a mental rut marked by the stress of his job and deteriorating house and a physical rut marked by wheezing, sleep apnea, and pneumonia.
“No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are —none of it will matter unless we’re breathing correctly,” Nestor writes.
Here are four of his takeaways on how to breathe better right now.
Keep your mouth shut to lower your blood pressure
As a part of a Stanford experiment, Nestor exclusively breathed through his mouth for 20 days. Researchers found the forced habit destroyed markers of health, making, for example, his blood pressure skyrocket, his sleep apnea worsen, and a sinus infection develop.
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Not to mention, he felt awful. “The nagging fatigue, irritation, testiness, and anxiety,” Nestor writes. “The horrid breath and constant bathroom breaks. The spaciness, stares, and stomachaches. It was awful.”
He says the body is able to breathe through the mouth as a backup mechanism, not as the default.
Once Nestor was allowed to breathe through his nose again, his blood pressure dropped, his heart rate normalized, he stopped snoring, and his bacterial infection cleared up. He also improved his athletic performance by 10%, based on tests on a stationary bike.
Focus more on the exhale
When we’re told to breathe, we usually take that as instruction to breathe in. But it’s breathing out that allows our lungs and bodies to take advantage of that inhale.
The exhale, in turn, is the difference between “operating at peak efficiency and just getting along,” the late Carl Stough, a choral conductor and breathing specialist, wrote in the 1960s.
“Most of us engage only a fraction of our total lung capacity with each breath, requiring us to do more and get less,” Nestor writes.
To correct this habit, focus on extending your exhale, including by moving your diaphragm up and down, before launching into your next inhale.
Chew for at least an hour a day
Needing braces and dental surgeries are relatively modern phenomena due in large part to the soft, processed foods we eat, Nestor writes. Cavemen and women had strong jaws and straight teeth because they were forced to chew.
“Your diet should consist of the rougher, rawer, and heartier foods our great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmothers ate,” he says. “The kinds of foods that required an hour or two a day of hard chewing.”
When you’re not chewing, Nestor adds, keep your lips together with your teeth slightly touching and the tongue toward the roof of your mouth.
He says he treats breath work like a good stretch: something to do to recalibrate normal after a long period sitting or feeling stressed.
“It requires no batteries, Wi-Fi, headgear, or smartphones,” Nestor writes. “It costs nothing, takes little time and effort, and you can do it wherever you are, whenever you need.”
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