Breath: The Secret We Forgot



We breathe in so many ways. Huge gulps of air, the icy cold burning our lungs. Shallow panic. The heavy breathing of passion, first rhythmic then faster, faster, like a car rolling downhill without brakes. The daze of hyperdistraction, answering email after email, and forgetting, for long stretches, to breathe at all.

That shallow, erratic breath in front of a screen has become such a problem that somebody gave it a name: email apnea. Shallow breathing starves us of air; gulps through the mouth come in cold and unfiltered, and our lungs hate us for it. We breathe in many ways—and most of them are wrong.

In Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, James Nestor manages to make that point while laughing at himself, taping his lips shut, mouth-breathing for two weeks and watching all health indicators plummet, then traveling the world to talk to the gurus of respiration. A fun and instructive read, it should not be skimmed: I was excitedly breathing in as deeply as I could, only to reach the next chapter and find that we need less air, more carbon dioxide, so I began breathing more slowly, exhaling as much as possible. . . . and turned the page to find practitioners of tummo (developed by ancient Tibetan monks, the word means “inner fire”) sucking in as much air as possible and blowing it out rapidly over and over. . . .

Breath must be read carefully.

For years I emailed my mother articles about “Deep Breathing to Calm Your Nerves” or “Counting Your Breath to Fall Asleep Peacefully,” because her breathing seemed so shallow. She thanked me warmly for each peppy little guide and kept breathing in that same rapid, nervous way. Eventually, her heart stopped working right, and it turned out her lungs were long-scarred and rigid, forcing her heart to work too hard. Now I wonder if she was extra anxious those last years because she was starved for air. No matter how much her daughter nagged, she could not draw enough into those poor lungs.

Did she realize this, or had her body just picked up the pace of respiration on its own? She could have dismissed my urgings as an old phobia; as a kid, I was so afraid of running out of air as a kid that I kept breaking off to gulp more, which rendered my speech so staccato that my kindergarten teacher wanted to send me to stuttering school. Yet another part of life that should have happened naturally, except that I managed to overthink it. To this day I tug turtlenecks out of shape so they cannot strangle me. In musty, airless, crammed-full antique shops, I last four minutes, max.

Maybe because I sympathize with air hunger, slurs about mouth-breathers always sounded mean to me, an easily grabbed insult when a bully needed an excuse. But as it turns out, breathing through the mouth does lessen mental clarity. Breathing through the nose, on the other hand, is ordained and perfect: “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.” Why, when winded, I instinctively switch to breathing through my mouth—the less efficient mode—I do not know.

The ancients knew to prefer the nose. A Taoist text in the eighth century called the nose the “heavenly door” and warned that if air were taken in through the mouth, “breath would be in danger and illness would set in.” Genesis 2:7 described how “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul.” In Catholicism, the third person of God is the Holy Spirit, which in Greek is pneuma, which means breath.

These allusions sound poetic and mystical until I read about First Nations whose members had perfectly straight teeth and virtually no illness or chronic health problems. They knew that mouth breathing weakened the body, deformed the face, and caused stress and disease. Mothers gently shut their babies’ mouths as soon as they finished breast-feeding, and at night parents would watch over the little ones and close their mouth if it dropped open. In summer they were dressed loosely so they did not overheat and begin to pant. All of which could sound sweetly superstitious, except that breathing through the mouth raises blood pressure, pulse rate, and stress hormones; lowers oxygen saturation; and can cause throat and ear infections, snoring, and apnea. (Nestor went from snoring hardly ever to snoring four hours a night when he switched to mouth-only breathing. “I developed sleep apnea,” he told Terry Gross. “My stress levels were off the charts. My nervous system was a mess. . . .  I felt awful.”)

I feel a grudging new respect for my little nose. But how fast to breathe through it, how deeply, for how long? Drowning in this fascinating survey of breathwork, I finally, and with some relief, reach a summary that ignores all those confusing possibilities. At rest, we should ideally take in 5.5 liters of air per minute, which translates to 5.5 breaths per minute, taken with 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. That, says Nestor, is the perfect breath. And the numbers have such perfect symmetry that I believe him.

For days now, I have been counting under my breath, finding that rhythm. Next I intend to stock up on taffy and raw carrots, because one reason a lot of us get stuffy noses is that hundreds of years ago, when we switched to a farmed, then processed diet, our mouths shrank, our jaws receded, our nostrils narrowed, and we wound up with scrunched sinus cavities and a proneness to allergy and sinus problems. Alas, it is probably too late for the carrots to help. Also, allergies are an immune response to stuff in the air or food, and I suspect all the toxins the Industrial Revolution pumped out have a lot more to do with them than narrowed noses. I also hesitate when Nestor mentions a connection between ADHD and kids who snore or suffer sleep apnea—and then I find studies that suggest a definite link between sleep disturbance and ADHD symptoms. The less quality sleep, the more severe the symptoms.

Having a husband who has ADHD and straps on one of those gurgly CPAP machines every night, I am intrigued. Why on earth would sleep disturbance cause symptoms of ADHD? A dentist offers a reason: “When we’re chronically breathing through our mouth, our brain stem basically is interpreting that as a threat. And it stimulates the release of cortisol,” which can overstimulate the brain, decreasing sleep quality and exhausting the reserves needed to concentrate and focus.

Breathing used to seem so . . . basic. In an old joke, a long-married couple take turns listing irritations until finally the husband blurts, “It’s that breathing. In and out, in and out. . . . ”

That breathing, life’s make-or-break secret.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.