How the Science of Breathing Can Save You
Updated: Apr 22, 2022
Why proper nasal breathing techniques can change your life, and even make you live longer.
When I was in high school, I struggled with asthma and a variety of respiratory issues. I was on several medications and weekly allergy shots to help alleviate the crud in my lungs and sinuses. When I asked my doctor if I could run the Peachtree Road Race (a 10-kilometer distance race held in Atlanta, Georgia) he balked. He told me my lungs "could not handle it." At the reception desk, I smiled at the nurse and took my folded race number out of my pocket and put my finger to my lips.
I ran that race, and after, continued to run 10 miles a day - and I still do. How could a kid with a childhood history of asthma attacks and chronic bouts of bronchitis do this? Diaphragmatic nose breathing. I had begun daily, slow, deep breathing exercises - I performed them in the morning before school, then again before bed. My lungs heaved like drunk accordions, yet I pushed through the exercises. How did I discover this at the age of 18? Let me explain.
How to Pass a Breathalyzer
One weekend while home from college, my friends and I hit the bars, and I had more than my 2-drink limit. While I was not hammered, it does not take much to red flag your alcohol blood level. I should not have driven, but I figured I lived a few miles away, I'll be fine. As I drove through Duluth, Georgia, (back then, think Deliverance), Duluth's finest pulled me over. After the policeman asked for my driver's license and returned to his car to run me through the system, I instinctively opened the windows and began doing deep nasal breathing. What made me do this I cannot tell you; it was instinct or nerves or both, or maybe I read it in a book. (The irony is that I would later learn ancient breathing, then train and teach in martial arts for over 30 years, where breathing is part of training.) By the time the officer returned to my car, I had probably done 40 breaths.
He leaned into my window, his gut spilling over his belt. He sniffed. "Son? You done had a few tonight?" He performed a breathalyzer and I passed with flying colors. And to this day, I am absolutely certain I would have failed that test had I not done the breathing.
That night, I thought, if this works with toxins in the body, why wouldn't it help my lungs? It was then I began to breathe, and run.
How Western Medicine Fails Breathing
Breathing has been in the news a lot lately, partly due to Covid-19, a mainly respiratory illness that attacks the lungs. James Nestor's latest book about the science of breath has piqued interest in breathing, and for good reason. Breathing is powerful. But if we begin with modern western medicine, breathing is not on a primary care doctor's radar. During a checkup, she will take your blood pressure, pulse, and palpate your abdomen, yet a focus on breath is limited to taking a few deep breaths as she listens with her stethoscope. Doctors will give advice on diet, exercise, and medications, but they rarely talk to you about breathing. Imagine if my doctor told me, "Tim, you can cure your asthma with nose breathing." Guess what? A myriad of scientists is changing this mindset.
Breathing, an Ancient History
Breath consciousness has been around for thousands of years. From the Chinese Taoist Canon, the Tao Tsang, it says this of breath: "What the bodily form depends on is breath (ch'i) and what breath relies upon is form. When the breath is perfect, the form is perfect (too). If the breath is exhausted, then form dies." In yogic practices, pranayama means expansion of the life force (prana) and expansion of the breath. Yogis knew that expanding the breath would expand life, yet they also understood lack of breath kills. In ancient Budo traditions, moving arts such as qi-gong and tai-chi utilize proper breathing in their forms. For thousands of years, the power of the breath was used to shift consciousness and heal disease. By regulating the breath, the ancients realized you could control the mind and nervous system (and Nestor discusses this in his book). Breathing can heat the body, slow heart rate, and rid the body of nasty bacteria. (Famed pulmonaut Wim Hof proved this by ridding his body of e-coli.) These ancients reached altered states of awareness and discovered that profound healing was possible through the breath. And that's exactly what I did with my asthma.
The Lost Art
Why is breathing a lost art? And why, if science concurs with the benefits for health, does the medical community ignore it? The short answer is it has been lost in conventional norms. Ask most if they breathe correctly and they will likely answer "of course." While it's true we all breathe daily to exist, that breathing quality is lacking.
Environmental and social aspects exist, too. Depression, stress, anxiety, and lifestyle all play a role in how we breathe. Our social lifestyles -technology, social media, etc - literally paralyze the body, making even normal breathing difficult. If anything, we over breathe, and this activates the sympathetic nervous system (raised heart rate etc.). I've taught movement arts for decades, as well as dynamic nasal breathing, and the one thing I notice in students is the lack of a mindful focus on the process. They have a difficult time "following" the breath and putting in the effort to actually learn (and understand) what the benefits are. "It's just breathing," they say.
Like many esoteric practices, breathing is a shugyo (study, self-training), and it takes effort and focus to do correctly. Yet it's also quite simple. Breathe through the nose. Close the mouth. Breathe less by breathing slower, and by lengthening the exhalation. And that brings us to another point. Why breathe through the nose?
Close your Mouth and Breathe
There is an old proverb: "Breathe through the nose, eat with the mouth." The Chinese Taoist Canon makes many references to nose breathing, and how breath is "lost" when done through the mouth. Now tons of research shows how mouth breathing negatively changes the skull, teeth, pallet, sinuses, and even the nervous system. If you are a mouth breather, you are getting hijacked. The nose is the main organ to oxygenate the body while the mouth is meant for chewing and getting food into the stomach.
Humans are nose breathers by default. We only switch to mouth breathing under “extreme” circumstances, such as "fight or flight," because mouth breathing is so ingrained with this sympathetic response. As I discussed earlier, that’s because we’re constantly dealing with chronic modern-day stressors. Soldiers in war often suffered from irregular heartbeat and tightness in the chest because they were in a constant state of duress (and mouth breathing).
Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system leading to shallow, rapid, and abnormal breathing. And this is where we are now in society. You are mouth breathers, admit it. Mouth breathing:
• Activates the fight or flight response.
• Can’t filter and condition inhaled air.
• Causes dry mouth, which can lead to gum disease and bad breath.
• Increases the risk of throat and ear infections.
• Changes the pallet and bones, making the mouth smaller
• Disfigures teeth
• Distorts posture
If you have children and they are mouth breathers, it can lead to physical abnormalities ( a flattened face, or poor posture) as well as cognitive issues like ADHD and sleep disorders. A simple solution? Nasal breathing.
Nose Breathing 101
One of the extraordinary benefits of nasal breathing is that the nose acts as a filter and humidifier.
In the nose, the turbinates (the long, narrow, conch-shaped bone) and tiny hair prevent unwanted particles from entering the body. That includes dust, pollen and anything you inhale.
Because of this filter, breathing through your nose keeps the body healthier. It also monitors the temperature and humidity of the inhaled air to prevent your lungs and bronchial tubes from getting too dry. And perhaps the greatest benefit? The nose produces nitric oxide, which improves the lung’s ability to absorb oxygen.
Nasal Breathing for Sports Performance
If you are an athlete, there are many benefits to nasal breathing during exercise. A recent study published in the International Journal of Kinesiology and Sports Science analyzed 10 runners, male and female, who performed nasal-only breathing for six months while exercising. To measure their maximum oxygen intake rates, the athletes were tested with nasal breathing and then with mouth breathing. They were also tested for carbon dioxide levels while running. The results? The maximum rate of oxygen consumption did not change from nasal to mouth breathing. The athlete's respiratory rate (breaths per minute), however, and the ratio of oxygen intake to carbon dioxide output decreased during nasal breathing. Amazingly, they didn’t have to work as hard to get the same amount of oxygen. This is because of the lower breath rate used during nasal breathing, which allows more time for oxygen to get to the bloodstream.
This science suggests that you can produce the same work and oxygenation (VO2Max) while breathing through your nose as you can with your mouth. So why not implement it? Well, to do it, this takes some time to develop, and you will feel like you are drowning from oxygen lack at first, but this is normal. If you are running, for example, try breathing as slow as you can through the nose, and try extending the exhales. You will fight for breath at first, and want to breathe through the mouth, but this will get stronger as you persist. (Athlete James Newbury did an entire 5-hour bike ride and 4-hour run in the Ironman, breathing only through his nose.)
How to Nasal Breathe
Here's how to start nose breathing now to change your life. I'm giving you the basics, so I suggest you investigate other sources to get more knowledge. Proof is always an incentive, so I highly recommend you get a blood panel and blood pressure workup before you begin the change to nose breathing. Three months into your new program and mindset, get another checkup. Compare the numbers. You will be amazed. Simply changing from mouth to nose breathing will illicit change, but you must be consistent.
For starters, begin a daily routine of relaxed nose breathing cycles. Inhale for a slow 5 seconds, then extend the exhale longer (6-7 seconds). Fight the pull to breathe through your mouth. Develop a new mindset of breathing only through the nose, even during your day. Next, try sleep taping. That is, place surgical tape over your mouth at night. Sounds crazy, but it works (and if you do a Google search it's the rage now). You can try interment periods of this at first, or use shorter pieces of tape so that some of your mouth is available. Soft, cloth tape works best, but you can also purchase specific tapes that are made for sleep taping.
While there is a myriad of strange, wonderful side effects you will experience, one of the strange effects for me, especially after sleep taping, was lucid dreaming. My dreams became so lucid I could touch them. I also woke less groggy and my anxiety was less prominent. I am also more productive and my creativity is nuts.
Nasal breathing has enormous, documented health benefits. I implore you to investigate your own pulmonary adventure, and for goodness sake, close your mouth (unless you're eating ice cream).