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Breath

The New Science of a Lost Art

By James Nestor
15-minute read
Audio available
Breath by James Nestor

Breath (2020) is the fascinating and unexpected story of the power of breathing. Western science has overlooked the amazing effects that different methods of breathing can have on our health.

  • Fans of popular science
  • People looking for simple ways to improve their health
  • Anyone keen to learn more about something we do unconsciously.

James Nestor is a journalist based in San Francisco. He has written for publications including Scientific American, Outside Magazine, and the New York Times, and wrote the book Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves.

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Breath

The New Science of a Lost Art

By James Nestor
  • Read in 15 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 9 key ideas
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Breath by James Nestor
Synopsis

Breath (2020) is the fascinating and unexpected story of the power of breathing. Western science has overlooked the amazing effects that different methods of breathing can have on our health.

Key idea 1 of 9

It’s far more beneficial to breathe through your nose than your mouth.

The author James Nestor’s blood pressure has risen by an average of 13 points over the past few days, greatly increasing his risk of heart attack or stroke. His pulse has quickened while his body temperature has plummeted, and – worst of all – he feels absolutely terrible.

The cause of his misery? Five days ago, a doctor inserted silicone plugs into his nostrils and taped them shut. Since then, Nestor has been breathing exclusively through his mouth to experience his body’s response. In short? It’s been hell.

The key message here is: It’s far more beneficial to breathe through your nose than your mouth.

Some estimate that around 50 percent of us breathe mostly through our mouths. There are many reasons for this, including medical conditions, pollution, and even stress. The problem is, the more you do it, the worse it gets.

Nestor’s plugs come out after ten days, and his nose is a disaster. It’s horribly blocked, and has to be cleared out with long cotton swabs. It’s also housing a bacterial infection that could have become serious. Tests reveal that mouth breathing has ruined his sleeping patterns – but, well, he knew that already. The worst was just how awful the experience made him feel.

Nestor only managed to take a full breath through his nose hours after his plugs had come out. That first breath was a spectacular burst of freshness and relief.

The nose does far more than you might realize. It doesn’t just take air in, but also cleans it out, heats it, and moistens it. It leads to a release of chemicals that lower blood pressure, regulate the heart rate, and much more. When you take in unprocessed air through your mouth, you get none of these benefits.

A rather cruel experiment in the 1970s and 1980s had even starker results than Nestor’s own experience. Egil P. Harvold, an orthodontist and researcher, took a group of rhesus monkeys and closed their nostrils up with plugs. He monitored them closely, taking photographs, for up to two years.

It’s painful even to look at the photographs. The monkeys’ dental arches narrowed and their teeth grew crooked. It didn’t just affect their health – it affected the whole shape of their heads. 

But when the plugs were eventually removed, their faces returned to normal within six months. All because of how they were breathing.

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