Every system in the body relies on oxygen. From cognition to digestion, effective breathing not only provides us with a greater sense of mental clarity, but it can also help us sleep better, digest food more efficiently, improve our body’s immune response, and reduce stress levels. According to James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, as a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences.
The average reader of Mr. Nestor’s book will take about 10,000 breaths to move from cover to cover. Over the course of those breaths, the reader will come away with a deeper understanding of breathing and how to do it in a way that promotes multiple health benefits. Readers will also gain a medical forensic history lesson about arcane issues such as why humans are the only species with chronically crooked teeth and why our cavemen ancestors did not snore. Although the book explores fascinating evolution, medical history, biochemistry, physiology, physics, athletic endurance, and more, the most rewarding exploration focuses on us, modern humans.
Title: Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
Authors: James Nestor
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: May 2020
Price: $28.95, hardcover, 304 pages
The idea for Mr. Nestor’s book sprouted out of his work with Jayakar Nayak, MD, PhD, Chief of Rhinology at Stanford University’s Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Center. Dr. Nayak told the author that, when people breathe through their mouths, it has a large impact on their skeletal structure and other health-related properties. Moreover, researchers such as Dr. Nayak have long known that breathing through the nose forces air to become heated, pressurized, filtered, and conditioned, allowing the lungs to extract oxygen much more efficiently. “When you’re breathing through the mouth, you’re not getting any of those benefits. Surprisingly, it takes time and effort to learn how to breathe through your nose on a consistent basis,” writes Mr. Nestor.
While researching the book, the author participated in a study led by Dr. Nayak in which he completely plugged his nostrils with silicone for 10 days, forcing him to breathe only through his mouth. His 10-day journey of mouth breathing covers the first 50 pages of the book, during which he interjects interesting side stories about medical history and pioneers in the field of breathing. Despite some heady science, the narrative is a breezy read.
Serious Side of Snoring
During his 10-day participation in the Stanford study, Mr. Nestor’s snoring increased almost 5,000%, and his systolic blood pressure climbed to 142 mm Hg—stage 2 hypertension. This resulted in an average of 25 episodes of sleep apnea per night, with his oxygen levels dropping to below 85%. He points out that contrary to common belief, no amount of snoring is normal, and no amount of sleep apnea comes without risks of serious health side effects. Careful readers may challenge some of the author’s assertions, wanting more substantial data.
For instance, the author writes: “Mouth breathing was also making me dumber. A recent Japanese study showed that rats who had their nostrils obstructed and were forced to breathe their mouths developed fewer brain cells and took twice as long to make their way through a maze than nasal-breathing controls.” Unless the reader takes time to wade through the endnotes and Google the referenced study, in which, at age 5 weeks, the experimental rats were subjected to surgery to close completely one side of the nasal cavity and put through mazes and subsequently had their brains removed for examination, the leap from that to “making Mr. Nestor dumber” might seem like a scientific stretch that loses credibility.
Mr. Nestor also cites an anthropologic survey from the 1930s that examined the jaws, airways, and overall health of hunter-gatherers around the world, which were found to be much healthier than people in industrial societies—something Mr. Nestor attached to their improved breathing. Again, connecting the dots in a vaguely drawn comparison proves sketchy. Could it simply be that the hunter-gatherers got more exercise than those living in industrialized cities? And so on.
To his credit, Mr. Nestor adventured his way around the globe to make this an entertaining as well as thought-provoking book; his networking and people skills are impressive. He interviewed free divers who had trained themselves to hold their breath underwater for more than 5 minutes. He met a woman in New York City who had studied with a famous choir conductor who used individualized diaphragmatic breathing methods to ensure maximum exhalation capacity of stale air, which he purported not only improved the skills of opera singers and track athletes, but also cured emphysema and asthma. Again, more data are required for bold claims of cure, especially to satisfy the curiosity of readers of The ASCO Post, who may be wary of bogus cancer cure claims. Furthermore, Mr. Nestor ventured to Latvia, interviewing a woman suffering from “empty nose syndrome” (a clinical syndrome in which people experience a range of symptoms, most commonly feelings of nasal obstruction, nasal dryness and crusting, and a sensation of being unable to breathe) following invasive surgery on her nose. Other stops on his travels are São Paulo to interview a yoga expert about yoga and breathing and an illegal tour of the Paris catacombs to study bone development in old skulls.
Some of the claims in this book may warrant further data; nevertheless, its central tenets about the health benefits of proper breathing techniques are clearly drawn. Mr. Nestor wrote this book to convince readers that proper breathing techniques will make them healthier. He succeeded, and for that reason Breath is recommended for readers of The ASCO Post.