The average human being will take approximately 670 million breaths in their lifetime. Unfortunately, a large part of this process will produce more disease in the human body than a lousy diet and lack of exercise combined. Researchers produce study after study showing how good this diet is for you or how much exercise you need to be healthy. Still, the ultimate predictor of longevity comes down to one thing - lung capacity.
I first realized I had an issue with my breathing when I started CrossFit. I had played sports all of my life and had been training and conditioning for sport for almost 20 years. Surely, I know how to breathe while lifting weights. But the cold conclusion I was faced with early on was that I didn’t. During every workout, I would be taking giant panic breaths sometimes as feeling left my arms, and my vision blurred to the point of feeling like I was looking through wax paper. Other times it felt like there was a 20-pound weight on my chest with an accompanying spear going into my solar plexus. It became a habit to sit back and watch other people complete a workout with ease while I was nowhere close to finishing, bent over gasping for air.
As my scalenus (the muscles in my neck) started to get more and more overworked, my head posture began to move forward, and I would wake up in the morning with both hands numb. I realized my breathing was broken, but I had no idea what to do - so I suffered and just made the best of it.
Fast forward a couple of years. I’m sitting at my desk going through email, and I come across a sale for a device that helps you breathe through your nose. I researched the science, and it seemed legit, so I bought it. I lasted approximately 3 minutes and 37 seconds with it in my first workout before I ripped it out of my mouth in claustrophobic anger. That device made my breathing worse. I felt back to square one.
The Universe, however, would not let me off the hook. My wife started telling me I was occasionally snoring, which hurt me more than it did her. I didn’t want to be that type of partner. The more that it happened, the more frustrated I became. I trained right, ate right, took care of my body, and more importantly, I was very, very fit. So, what gives? It turned out that my lungs were just fine, and so was my diaphragm. It all came down to an issue we all do every day and think nothing of. It came down to the fact that I had lost my biologically innate ability to breathe through my nose.
My saving grace came after watching a Youtube video from James Nestor promoting his book Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art. That is where most of the information in this blog post is coming from. If you find this as fascinating as I did, I suggest buying his book and going into greater depth for yourself.
It has taken us 300 years to undo what we knew about breathing for 3200 years. Around 1500 BCE, the Ebers Papyrus, one of the oldest medical texts ever discovered, talked about how the nostrils feed air into the lungs, not the mouth. In Genesis 2: 7, it is said, “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” Lastly, a Chinese Taoist text from the 8th century said the nose was a “heavenly door” through which the breath should be taken in, and to do otherwise would lead to illness.
Around 12,000 years ago, people in and around the fertile crescent stopped gathering wild roots and hunting and instead started to grow their food. It was then that diseases of the mouth began to show up. About 300 years ago, these diseases spread like wildfire. Mouths were shrinking, faces were looking flattered, and sinus problems exploded. The loss of hard foods like roots and tubers, combined with no longer chewing on or eating bones, has caused our mouths to narrow and become forced upwards, taking space away from our nasal cavity, causing us to become the worst breathers on the planet. Personally, my nose has been plugged for as long as I can remember. Colds never seemed to stop, and my lungs would suffer when I got a cold, especially after contracting bronchitis in my late teens. When I was young, my first trip to the orthodontist required them to put a spacer in the roof of my mouth. I explicitly remember my Mom and Dad having to stick a key up in it as I opened my mouth as wide as I could every night to turn it and help my mouth expand.
Researchers have concluded that processed food has been shrinking our mouths and faces and wrecking our breathing for quite some time now. It was always thought that these problems were due to a lack of vitamins like C or D, but we now know that it is from a lack of hard chewing and inadequate dental procedures. Dr. John Mew had noticed that the more patients he saw in his practice that had their teeth removed or went through retractive orthodontics suffered from stunted mouth and facial growth, as well as developing obstructions in the airway. He also found that devices used to fix crooked teeth caused by small mouths were making mouths smaller and breathing worse.
Oxygen or Carbon Dioxide?
Long ago, far before there were any human beings on this planet, a single cell organism figured out how to use oxygen for energy. It’s called mitochondria. Oxygen produces 16 times more energy than carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide, however, is the chief hormone of the entire human body. It is produced by every tissue and acts on every organ. Yandell Henderson, the director of applied physiology at Yale, believes that carbon dioxide is a more fundamental life component than oxygen. Our bodies are equipped with chemoreceptors that regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the body. Whether you are breathing through your nose or your mouth during exercise, studies show that blood oxygen levels stay the same. However, as you breathe through your nose, your carbon dioxide levels rise. The magic happens when having your chemoreceptors, and thus your tissue, adapt to increased carbon dioxide saturation.
Dr. John Douillard, a trainer to elite athletes, experimented with two different trials. During the initial stage, he had athletes breathe through their mouths like usual. As the intensity increased, so did their breath rate. By the end of the experiment, when the resistance was the toughest, all subjects were panting and choking, trying to catch their breath. During the second phase, he had them breathe through their nose only. As the intensity increased, the breathing rate decreased, and they ended the training with the same heart rate. The athlete’s bodies learned to adapt to the carbon dioxide levels, which then normalized cardiovascular functions.
Nose or Mouth?
More air molecules pass through the nose in every breath than there is sand on all the beaches of the world. Let that sink in a minute. Every breath, trillions, and trillions of air molecules enter our body. On their way in the nose, there are bones called turbinates that are covered in erectile tissue. These cels warm the air to body temperature and filter out particles that don’t belong, sending them down the throat into the stomach to be destroyed. As the air moves further into the respiratory system, these turbinates will further heat, clean, slow down, and pressurize the air so the lungs can extract more oxygen.
More oxygen is vital because our heart pumps a full blood course through the body once every minute and over 2,000 gallons of blood in a typical day. The diaphragm powers most of this as well. When we mouth breath, the diaphragm moves up and in, then returns to the rest position, while nose breathing will force the diaphragm down, massaging the organs, then lifting back up, massaging the heart. This motion will occur 50,000 times a day. If that doesn’t shock you, then here’s to realizing our 25 trillion blood cells contain 270 million hemoglobin, each upon which 4 oxygen molecules can attach to.
Your nose is just like every other muscle in the body. If you don’t use it, it will atrophy and eventually not do a good job when called upon. This is never more apparent than when we sleep. Snoring and sleep apnea are widely accepted, much to the chagrin of the affected partner. Using mouth tape and forcing yourself to breathe through the nose has virtually eliminated these issues without devices or machines. During the deep and restful stages of sleep, our pituitary gland makes a substance called vasopressin, which communicates to the cells to store more water - but only if we breathe through our nose. Using mouth tape will eliminate your dry mouth and the need to get up and pee every hour.
Each nostril has its tasks. The right nostril is the gas, and the left nostril is the brake - they both affect a different part of the central nervous system. A technique called Surya Bheda Pranayama involves inhaling through the right nostril, then exhaling through the left. When done for several rounds, you can naturally calm and relax your body, even providing a kind of weightless feeling.
The key is not just to breathe through the nose but to breathe less. Slowing down the inhales and extending the exhales for 2 seconds longer increases blood flow to the brain helping the rest of the body enter into a coherence state where the heart, circulation, and nervous system are all coordinated to peak efficiency.
Today I breathe through my nose for probably 95% of my day. I’ve not only been feeling the benefits but seeing my performance in exercise climb as well. By training myself to breathe through my nose, I not only fixed my breathing, but I improved my physiology. If there’s any doubt as to whether you should start breathing through your nose for pretty much everything, here’s what happened to the author of the book I read after he plugged his nostrils and breathed solely through his mouth for 20 days:
- Catecholamine and stress-related hormones spiked.
- A diphtheroid Corynebacterium bug infested his nose.
- Snoring was up 1300%.
- Sleep apnea occurrences averaged out to 25 times per night.
- Blood pressure skyrocketed to stage 2 hypertension.
- Heart rate variability (the efficiency of the heart) plummeted.
- Experienced unquenchable thirst and irritable bowel syndrome nightly.
Pretty nasty stuff if you ask me.
When I first meet people either in my practice, at an event, or on the phone, I get a common question, “What can I do right now?” Their shock never gets old when I tell them to start breathing through their nose. It’s free and anyone can do it. It changed my life, and it can change yours too.
Nestor, James: Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art.