Are we breathing properly? Ideas from a breath-taking book

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

DECEMBER 6 — If you, like me, think that breathing is primarily and simply about taking in oxygen (O2) and discarding carbon-dioxide (CO2) then, oh boy, you really need to read this book.

It’s one of the nominees for the 2021 Royal Society Science Book Prize, an annual award for the top science non-fiction books of the previous year.

By a cute coincidence, I happened to start reading it after I started on episode one of Chris Hemsworth’s Limitless TV series, which briefly recommended breathing techniques to help deal with stress.

Anyway, this book — Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor — was an eye-opener.

Sure I had seen the odd kung fu movie where the monks or masters displayed stellar breathing and of course who hasn’t watched Incredible Hulk (2008) where a MMA and Jiu Jitsu champion Rickson Gracie taught Bruce Banner how to breathe as a means of controlling his anger.

But I never imagined that — according to Nestor — I had been breathing “wrongly” and “poorly” my whole life!.

In this sense, Nestor’s book does not just share “profound” information (eg, “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.”) it’s also very practical.

So here are some insights which were entirely new to me before I read the book (see note 1):

1. Breathing is best done via the NOSE, not the mouth

The nose has a lot of “equipment” (turbinates, nasal erectile tissues, etc.) which help to both extract more oxygen per breath and release nitric oxide which impacts everything from immunity, to weight, circulation, and mood to sexual function.

Also, nose-breathing fights sleep apnoea and snoring (which is a, uh, bad thing it seems).

Nestor discusses some research done with native tribes from Missouri whose kids are taught how to breathe through the nose from young.

The Native Americans attribute these qualities to breath “breath inhaled through the nose kept the body strong, made the face beautiful, and prevented disease.”

Note: I found many references to exhaling via the mouth throughout the book s o my guess is that nose-breathing is focused more on inhalation.

2. EXHALING is more important than inhaling

In the Hemsworth TV series, the breath guru taught him “box-breathing.” You can Google it but the thing which stood out for me (even before I read the book) was Hemsworth was asked to exhale longer than he inhaled.

What was up with that? The TV series didn’t explain but the book does. Something to do with how exhalation is the process whereby oxygen is transported to the rest of your body i.e. it is exhalation which constitutes the “nurturing” or “building” part of breathing. Inhalation is simply the taking in of O2.

Apparently, if we can train our diaphragm to rise and fall in greater capacity, it does wonders:

“A typical adult engages as little as 10 per cent of the range of the diaphragm when breathing, which overburdens the heart, elevates blood pressure, and causes a rash of circulatory problems. Extending those breaths to 50 to 70 per cent of the diaphragm’s capacity will ease cardiovascular stress and allow the body to work more efficiently. For this reason, the diaphragm is sometimes referred to as ‘the second heart,’ because it not only beats to its own rhythm but also affects the rate and strength of the heartbeat.” (Bolded emphasis added.)

As I understand, he’s saying that powerful breathing requires intentional and controlled breathing through the belly and the diaphragm. We must treat this “second heart” the way a body-builder treats his muscles; it must be nurtured, trained and utilised towards a purpose.

3. SLOW breathing is good breathing

This principle combines with the next one in that it prioritises CO2 over O2. Yes, fancy that.

I didn’t know that CO2 was important for providing the equilibrium which ensures sufficient amounts of O2 (more below), and also to dilate blood vessels so more O2-rich blood can flow. So, whilst our body doesn’t “use” CO2 the way it uses O2, it 100 per cent “needs” CO2 just as urgently.

Fast and panicky kinds of breathing purges CO2 which in turn leads to poorer blood flow to our organs, muscles, tissues, etc.

Note that “soft” breathing is also important because if you breathe too aggressively you risk damaging alveoli and tissues — we’re not steam engines.

So how slow is slow enough? Nestor recommends “5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same pattern of the rosary.”

He also makes a (breath-taking?) point about how breathing slowly corresponds to many forms of prayer among the world religions:

“Japanese, African, Hawaiian, Native American, Buddhist, Taoist, Christian — these cultures and religions all had somehow developed the same prayer techniques, requiring the same breathing patterns (all requiring about 5.5 to 6 seconds to inhale and exhale). And they all likely benefited from the same calming effect.”

In his book 'Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art', author James Nestor talks about how breathing less increases the amount of CO2 in our blood. — AFP pic
In his book 'Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art', author James Nestor talks about how breathing less increases the amount of CO2 in our blood. — AFP pic

In his book 'Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art', author James Nestor talks about how breathing less increases the amount of CO2 in our blood. — AFP pic

4. Breathing LESS helps

This was quite a shocker, especially to someone like me who , over the past few years, had developed the habit of gulping in tonnes of air (during workouts, after a bout of over-eating, etc). But Nestor talks about modern culture as a culture of over-breathers and how we need the “respiratory equivalent of fasting.”

Alright, sure, but what did all this mean?

Nestor talks about how breathing less INCREASES the amount of CO2 in our blood and this is necessary because too little CO2 in our body means that O2 molecules are unable to get to our vital internal body parts.

The analogy used in the book is that CO2 is like the divorce lawyer which helps separate O2 molecules from the hemoglobin molecules; if there are too FEW lawyers then, alas, there will be fewer O2 released to our cells.

This principle — that more CO2 equates to greater health — aligns well with the 3rd principle that exhalation is key because when we inhale less and exhale more that raises CO2 levels which in turn gets more O2 circulating through our insides.

Another argument for breathing less (and thus raising CO2 levels) is that CO2 is needed to maintain a certain level of acidity in our bodies:

“When we breathe too much, we expel too much carbon dioxide, and our blood pH rises to become more alkaline; when we breathe slower and hold in more carbon dioxide, pH lowers and blood becomes more acidic. Almost all cellular functions in the body take place at a blood pH of 7.4, our sweet spot between alkaline and acid.”

All the above is available in the first section of the book, what I consider the more practical portion.

In the second section Nestor discusses some “advanced” breathing methods. These include breathing crazy-hard to induce quasi-psychedelic life-changing experiences and/or produce temporary stress so your body can handle stress in the future and inhaling carbon-dioxide to simulate panic. Techniques here include the Tibetan approach known as Tummo, the Wim Hof method, hypoventilation, pranayama and numerous other approaches.

I must say I found this second section to read more like some National Geographic article. On one hand, the writing sounds credible, on the other it stops short of fully validated science.

Finally, in case anyone is tempted to suggest that breathing is a super miracle cure for everything, Nestor throws in some realism:

“Breathing fast, slow, or not at all can’t make an embolism go away. Breathing through the nose with a big exhale can’t reverse the onset of neuromuscular genetic diseases. No breathing can heal stage IV cancer.”

Still, everyone can benefit at least a little by reflecting on how we’re breathing. I’ve found that merely thinking about my breathing already helps reduce my anxiety (at least a whiff) — now imagine if I do more?

* Note 1: Obviously, I wouldn’t recommend anyone attempt any serious modifications in breathing without first consulting a doctor or medical advisor, especially those with respiratory issues.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.