There is an old joke. Question: How do you live long? Answer: Just keep breathing.
Joke aside, when was the last time you gave any thought to breathing?
Are you breathing too much? Too little? Just enough?
Are you breathing the right way?
Are you breathing optimally?
What kind of impact breath can have on your health?
Can you cure chronic diseases by breathing in a certain way?
Can you cause chronic diseases by NOT breathing in a proper way?
Being a student of yoga and meditation, I have been quite aware of breath and different ways of breathing and subjectively feeling differently when breathing certain way. And I am always curious about finding other methods of breathing.
So, when I picked up James Nestor’s book: The New Science of Lost Art, I thought I might learn a few more distinctions about breathing. I was blown away by how much I did not know about breathing and how big an impact breathing can have on our health.
Nestor describes how the ancient wisdom of breathing, has been discovered and rediscovered over time by people he calls Pulmonauts, i.e., the breath explorers. He beautiful weaves this ancient wisdom with explanations we now know through science along with his personal exploration and experiences.
The book is well worth the read. I definitely learned a lot.
Here are some nuggets that I picked up from this book:
- Keep Your Mouth Shut – especially When Sleeping. As Nestor explains:
“During the deepest, most restful stages of sleep, the pituitary gland, a pea-size ball at the base of the brain, secretes hormones that control the release of adrenaline, endorphins, growth hormone, and other substances, including vasopressin, which communicates with cells to store more water. This is how animals can sleep through the night without feeling thirsty or needing to relieve themselves.
But if the body has inadequate time in deep sleep, as it does when it experiences chronic sleep apnea, vasopressin won’t be secreted normally. The kidneys will release water, which triggers the need to urinate and signals to our brains that we should consume more liquid. We get thirsty, and we need to pee more. A lack of vasopressin explains not only my own irritable bladder but the constant, seemingly unquenchable thirst I have every night.”
So, here is an interesting vicious circle: if you are not getting enough deep sleep, you would wake up more often due to inadequate vasopressin. And, if you wake up more often, you are probably not getting enough deep sleep.
Simple Solution: Tape you mouth shut when you are sleeping. Really!! It is that simple. And watch how you sleep and all biomarkers that good sleep brings improve. It may even improve or eliminate sleep apnea. From his own experience of trial and error, Nestor recommends 3M Nexcare Durapore “durable cloth” tape, to tape your mouth shut. It works great, I can vouch for it.
2. You Can Use Breathing to Activate Parasympathetic or Sympathetic nervous System: As Nestor explains:
“The right nostril is a gas pedal. When you’re inhaling primarily through this channel, circulation speeds up, your body gets hotter, and cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate all increase. This happens because breathing through the right side of the nose activates the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” mechanism that puts the body in a more elevated state of alertness and readiness.
The left nostril is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-relax side that lowers blood pressure, cools the body, and reduces anxiety.”
Now how cool is that!
3. Carbon Dioxide is Even More Important Than Oxygen: I am sure you are saying, ”What?!” – just like I did when I read about this. When you take a slow inhale followed by a very slow exhale or when you just slow down your breathing, if you feel calm settle over you that is due to increasing carbon content in your blood and tissues. If you are hyperventilating, it is the opposite – that is when you need to breath inside a paper bag to calm yourself down.
This is also how our bodies determine how fast and often we breathe, not by the amount of oxygen, but by the level of carbon dioxide.
Simple Tip: Take long exhales and slow down your breathing. Basically, breathe but breathe less.
4. Optimal Breath: “It turns 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.” This is the pattern of chanting of Om, rosary, chanting of common Buddhist mantras and many other ancient rituals.
5. Secret to Youthful Face is Chewing: “What?!”, you say again. This was definitely new one for me. Here is verbatim from Nestor’s book:
‘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.’
Simple Tip: Find excuses to chew with back molar as often as you can. There you go – 32 chews per bite that mom told us is validated by science now.
6. Hold your Breath to Eliminate Anxiety and Fear:
“…All this suggests that for the past hundred years psychologists may have been treating chronic fears, and all the anxieties that come with them, in the wrong way. Fears weren’t just a mental problem, and they couldn’t be treated by simply getting patients to think differently. Fears and anxiety had a physical manifestation, too. They could be generated from outside the amygdalae, from within a more ancient part of the reptilian brain.
Eighteen percent of Americans suffer from some form of anxiety or panic, with these numbers rising every year. Perhaps the best step in treating them, and hundreds of millions of others around the world, was by first conditioning the central chemoreceptors and the rest of the brain to become more flexible to carbon dioxide levels. By teaching anxious people the art of holding their breath.”
Simple Tip: To calm your anxiety don’t just take a deep breath, HOLD your breath.
Bottom Line: The book has a lot more to offer, but here are some nuggets in summary:
- Tape you mouth shut when you are sleeping. Really!! It will improve your sleep and give you all benefits that good sleep does
- You can trigger sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems by simply breathing through your right nose or left nose
- Take long exhales and slow down your breathing. Basically, breathe but breathe less.
- Optimal breath is: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute.
- Find excuses to chew with back molar as often as you can.
- To calm your anxiety don’t just take a deep breath, HOLD your breath.
What do you think?
Have you explored different ways of breathing?
What worked or not worked for you?
What benefits or difficulties have you faced due to proper or improper breathing?
I and the readers of this blog would love to hear from you and learn from you.
Please click on Comment to leave your comments or question so others can benefit from your input.
Michael Jansen Jr. said:
Interesting article as usual. I do some Kumbaka, Holding the breath in on the in stroking out on the out stroke. Changing nostrils. It’s supposed to be the ultimate pranayama. I notice it’s especially effective when I’m walking through the pesticide aisle at Home Depot. I can just push the air out of my lungs and hold without too much problem for a half a minute or so. Otherwise, you have to take a breath and hold and then you’re holding the toxins inside of you while you are walking through the aisle. The hold on the out stroke is a little bit challenging at first because the body just doesn’t want to do it.
Holding breath on the out-breath when you don’t wish to inhale the surrounding air is very interesting idea.
Thanks for sharing Michael.