Breath, part 2
In which I learn just how critical the right way to breathe really is
“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. As they make their way toward you, they’ll twist and spool like the stars in a van Gogh sky, and they’ll keep twisting and spooling and scrolling as they pass into you, traveling at a clip of about five miles per hour.”
This passage, from the third chapter of James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, sums up the essence of the book, and why the author wants to help people learn how to breathe better — breath really is life, as ancient texts from the Tao to the book of Genesis attest. “To breathe is to absorb ourselves in what surrounds us, to take in little bits of life, understand them, and give pieces of ourselves back out,” he writes. “Respiration is, at its core, reciprocation.”
I suppose I knew this, and always have, at some level. (Like you, no doubt, I recall biology classes in school, when we learned how all this works.) But I don’t think I fully appreciated how big a difference it can make to our health when we breathe properly, vs. when we don’t.
I simply haven’t been conscious of how I breathe. Like, at all. I’ve simply gone through the motions of each day being focused on whatever tasks I have at hand — getting the kids up and ready for school, booting up my laptop to check my emails for work, sitting for extended periods of time in meetings, etc. — without even once thinking of the difference I might make on how I feel, if only I could breathe better.
Last week, we discussed the difference between nose and mouth breathing, and why mouth breathing has become the bane of our existence for the past couple hundred years. It contributes to all kinds of health issues, ranging from snoring and sleep apnea to hypertension, depression and headaches.
To prove it to himself and understand exactly why this happens, Nestor subjected himself to a test: he agreed to have his nasal cavities plugged for 10 days and breathe only through his mouth. When he slept, worked, ate, and exercised, he followed the guidelines set by the scientists studying him.
The result? His snoring increased by nearly 5,000 percent; he began suffering from sleep apnea, and he kept waking in the night because he was incredibly thirsty. Mouthbreathing, it turns out, causes the body to lose 40 percent more water than breathing through the nose.
It was also affecting how his brain worked:
“Mouthbreathing was also making me dumber,” he writes, pointing to a Japanese study that showed lab rats who had their nostrils obstructed and were forced to breathe only through their mouths developed fewer brain cells, and took longer to make their way through a maze. He added: “Nasal breathing had no such effects.”
Like you, as I read the book I’ve been wondering, why is this such a crisis now? Humans have been evolving on earth for millions of years — wouldn’t you think we should be able to breathe better today than we did before we started walking upright?
As Nestor shows, that’s an assumption I had completely wrong. Evolution doesn’t necessarily mean progress; it means change. And the ways our bodies change over time don’t necessarily have to help us adapt to our environment. Evolution is change for change’s sake; some changes help us, others hurt.
That means prehistoric humans had an advantage over us thanks to the way their heads were designed. Their longer, snout-like faces meant their nasal passages never became congested the way ours do, and their diets of mostly raw (and some cooked) foods meant they worked out their facial muscles and bones much more than we do.
I’m summing up a lot of science in only a couple of paragraphs here, but Nestor adds that our behavior also contributes in a big way:
“Mouthbreathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less space and making breathing more difficult. Mouthbreathing begets more mouthbreathing.
Inhaling from the nose has the opposite effect. It forces air against all those flabby tissues at the back of the throat, making the airways wider and breathing easier. After a while, these tissues and muscles get “toned” to stay in this open and wide position. Nasal breathing begets more nasal breathing.”
Hearing this, of course it’s easy to think it’s hopeless. That we’re doomed to breathe however comes naturally to us, and there’s nothing we can do to change that fact.
But a story of a 7-year-old girl named Gigi changed Nestor’s mind about that.
We can change how we breathe
It’s easy to lose hope when you read this book, as Nestor recounts the stories of scientists who’ve studied breathing for decades, but whose findings never seem to pierce public consciousness in a way that changes our behavior.
That’s not what Dr. Marianna Evans believes, however. In her mission to help her patients today, the Philadelphia-based orthodontist and dental researcher has been studying the skulls of ancient humans at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to learn how our heads (and respiratory passages) have changed over time.
In a visit with Nestor, she showed him images of the ancient skulls in comparison with the photograph of a 7-year-old girl she called “Gigi.” (Not her real name, of course.) Gigi showed just about every symptom of what ails our breathing in today’s world:
“Her teeth jutted from the top of her gums, outward, inward, and in all directions. There were dark circles under her eyes; her lips were chapped and open as if she was sucking on an imaginary popsicle. She suffered from chronic snoring, sinusitis, and asthma. She’d just started developing allergies to foods, dust, and pets.”
None of this was because she was neglected or mistreated, Evans added. In fact, she’d been well-loved and cared for, with what we think of as a healthy diet, all her immunizations, and plenty of exercise. And yet, she still suffered from all these problems. “I see patients like this all day,” Evans told Nestor.
Skipping forward to a photo taken two years later, Gigi looks transformed:
“… in this shot there were no dark circles, none of the sallow skin or drooping lids. Her teeth were straight and her face was broad and glowing. She was nasal breathing again and no longer snored. Her allergies and other respiratory problems had all but disappeared.”
How did she experience such a transformation? We’ll talk about that next week, as I’ve probably already written enough for today! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too, either in the comments or in a reply back.
In the meantime, I hope you have a wonderful Monday 🏃♀️
A few great reads
How James Clear Is Writing His Next Book. If you’ve ever read Atomic Habits, or subscribe to his well-known newsletter 3-2-1, then you know who James Clear is — the author who’s shown us all how much the power of habit can influence our fitness and our lives. (I wrote about him last year here.) He’s been at work on his latest book for a while now, and this deep dive into how he approaches his work is well worth a read, especially how he chooses to focus on:
“You don’t want to have to convince people that they should care about your idea. It’s much better to be convincing them that you have the best book or product on an idea they already care about. I don’t know how to fast-forward this process. You just need time.”
How Much Exercise Do We Need to Live Longer? I’m fascinated with how the science evolves on exactly how much exercise we need to live the longest, healthiest lives possible. A new study cited in the New York Times suggests that 7,000 to 8,000 steps a day might be the “goldilocks” amount we need — and that perhaps we don’t need as much as the vaunted 10,000 steps per day.
“But at 10,000 steps, the benefits leveled off. ‘There was a point of diminishing returns,’ said [one researcher in the study]. People taking more than 10,000 steps per day, even plenty more, rarely outlived those taking at least 7,000.”
Introducing Donna Tartt. This Vanity Fair profile of the author of The Goldfinch and The Secret History is from way back — all the way back in 1992, actually — but I stumbled across it only recently, and it’s one of my favorite articles ever, on anyone. I’m a big fan of her writing, and if you are too, then you’ll love this conversation with her.
“Donna Tartt seems, in many ways, a figure from another decade: a small, hard-drinking, southern writer, a Catholic convert, witheringly smart, with an occluded past, sadness among the magnolias. Wasn’t that Flannery? Or Carson? Or Truman, or Tennessee? Surely not a figure from the post-MTV generation. Yet here she is, not yet thirty, coming out of obscurity in Greenwich Village — where she lives with a cockatiel, Horace, and a pug, Pongo (and no television) — into supernova-hood, weighing in among the serious contenders.”
Words to run by
“It has become a common feeling, I believe, as we have watched our heroes falling over the years, that our own small stone of activism, which might not seem to measure up to the rugged boulders of heroism we have so admired, is a paltry offering toward the building of an edifice of hope. Many who believe this choose to withhold their offerings out of shame. This is the tragedy of the world. For we can do nothing substantial toward changing our course on the planet, a destructive one, without rousing ourselves, individual by individual, and bringing our small, imperfect stones to the pile.”