Science

How to Breathe Better

For something that should be automatic, there’s a lot we have to learn.

A woman meditating with her eyes closed
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ridofranz/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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“Take a deep breath.” This is some of the most common advice for dealing with stressful situations. But how exactly does taking a deep breath help us? And what really is a perfect deep breath anyway? On a recent episode of How To!, James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, shared how we’ve got breathing all wrong. From snoring to anxiety to asthma, learning to breathe better can ameliorate so many of our bodies’ issues, and James reveals some of the key exercises to help us get there. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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David Epstein: How did you get into research on breathing in the first place?

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James Nestor: I never set out to write a book about breath. I would have thought that that was a foolish thing to do. Breathing is something that is unconscious. It just runs in the background. Nobody ever thinks about it. That was my understanding of breath until I met these freedivers. I was sent on assignment to go to Greece and write about the World Freediving Championship, which is a competition in which different divers challenge one another to see how deep they can dive on a single breath of air and come back to the surface conscious. If that sounds crazy, it’s because it is. So I watch this guy take a single breath of air and completely disappear into the water below. The visibility was about 200 feet. He came back four minutes later and had just dived 103 meters on a single breath of air in four minutes. This completely blew me away because what these people are doing, according to several scientists years ago, was physically impossible. We shouldn’t be able to withstand such pressures. We shouldn’t be able to hold our breath for four, five, six, seven, eight minutes at a time.

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I wrote the book Deep, and while writing and researching that book, I kept finding these super breathers, not just freedivers, but people who claimed to be able to heal themselves with their breath. All of this seemed totally sketchy to me. But I spent several months talking to the leaders in the field, looking at scientific studies, and I found out so many of these stories, which sounded so crazy, have been studied in controlled, randomized experiments. It’s true. We get most of our energy through our breath, and we’ve completely ignored that to our fault.

Before we get to some of these exercises, can you describe how we have gotten to the place where most of us don’t breathe in the right way?

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Well, some of it is anatomical. If you were to look at an ancient skull, anything older than about 500 years old, you would see straight teeth, a very broad jaw, a prognathic face, and these huge nasal apertures. You know, I had crooked teeth. I had braces, extractions, headgear, all that stuff. Everyone I knew had the same thing. And it got me wondering, like, well, why didn’t our ancestors have their wisdom teeth removed? Why didn’t they have braces? It’s because their mouths formed large enough to allow teeth to grow in straight.

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The change was brought on by industrialized food. A lot of people view evolution as progress, that we’re getting faster and leaner. That is complete garbage. We are developing traits right now across our species that are in no way advantageous for our long-term survival. Just look at our breathing—what happened is about 300 years ago very processed foods came into the food supply. Because this food is so soft, it’s also nutritionally deficient, but the main culprit is this chewing stress. You need that early on in life for the upper palate to spread apart, for your mouth to grow wide and for that face to be pulled outward. But if a mouth is too small, teeth have no option than to grow crooked. A smaller mouth means you have a smaller airway. That means you’re much more susceptible to respiratory problems, to obstruction, which is exactly what’s happened to us now.

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If you open your mouth up, you’ll feel your tongue rocking back into your throat. When you close your mouth, you feel that tongue rocking up to your upper palate. That’s where it needs to be for that airway to be open. You can put your thumb to the roof of your mouth and if there’s a very large indentation there, that is likely causing some sort of obstruction in your nasal passages. It’s fascinating to see these ancient skulls and they all had these perfectly flat upper palates. None of them had these V-shaped palettes.

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So these maladaptations of our mouths are causing our airways to be constricted. Does this connect to the fact that many of us have problems with snoring and breathing through our mouths? 

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Yes. I was a mouth breather at night for as long as I ever remember. There are so many problems with that. When you sleep with an open mouth, you’re changing the P.H. in your mouth and making it more acidic, which it becomes a breeding ground for bad breath and cavities. Another problem is when you breathe through your mouth, you can essentially think of your lungs as an external organ. They’re exposed to all the dust, allergens, mold, pollution in the environment. Our nose is our first line of defense. It filters air so that by the time it enters our lungs they can much more efficiently extract oxygen. We get 20 percent more oxygen breathing through our nose than we do equivalent breaths through our mouth.

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So I would suggest some advice I learned from a breathing therapist at Stanford: Take a little piece of tape about the size of a postage stamp, place it on your lips, and keep it on throughout the day for an hour or to acclimate yourself to breathe through your nose. After you’re comfortable with that, you can wear it at night. It’s going to be miserable. It’s going to be awkward. It’s a reminder so that when your muscles relax, you keep your mouth shut. If you can become a nasal breather at night, not only is that better for your lungs, but it can also significantly decrease your snoring because there’s more pressure and air is moving more slowly in through the nose than it is through the mouth right now.

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Have you changed the way that you breathe because of what you’ve learned? 

Yes, I took a CAT scan a year before and exactly a year after and during that year, I practiced some different exercises in my mouth. I expanded my upper palate with this weird little device, this retainer. I learned how to hold my tongue in the proper position. And through that year, I gained about in some areas of my airway about 15 to 20 percent more space. I also gained more bone in my face by doing what our ancient ancestors did: chewing a lot. The key with proper chewing stress is that it’s not that you can just grind your teeth right now because if we’re clenching both sides of our jaw that elicits a stress response. Chewing stress is on one side or the other and that elicits this parasympathetic response, which is why you accumulate saliva in your mouth, because your body is relaxing. So chewing [especially foods like carrots or gum] is very relaxing to you.

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Can you walk us through some specific breathing techniques you practice? 

Hold your breath while pinching your nostrils. Take an easy breath in and then exhale very soft breath and pinch your nostrils. Now hold your breath and rock your head up and down, back and forth. Whenever you feel a pronounced need to breathe, I want you to breathe through your nose very softly about 50 percent of the breath you would regularly take. Whenever you feel that need to breathe, just release your nostrils and breathe very softly. After about 30 to 40 seconds or so, do that exact same thing. This can really help to open up the nose and allow you to breathe through it much more easily.

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The problem is today is many of us have such a low threshold of fear that we are constantly stressed out. We open our inbox. We see 30 messages our boss just wrote. We get that squirt of cortisol and we become stressed out. So breathing is one of the quickest ways of getting a hold of this. Another really healthy way to breathe is to breathe in to a count of about five to six seconds and out to a count of about five to six seconds. The systems of your body are going to enter the state of what they call resonance, where everything’s working at peak efficiency.

What about the advice of “just take a deep breath”?

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I’ve found, especially when you’re anxious, or about to have a panic attack or asthma attack, that’s the worst advice in the world. What’s happening at these stages of panic is people start to breathe. Asthma attacks offload too much CO2, they cause constriction and exacerbate and trigger an attack. If someone’s having a heart attack and they’re given a paper bag, that is a really bad thing. An easier way that’s much healthier for you is to just slow down your breathing. You can put your hands in front of your face to mimic the feeling of a paper bag. Instead of breathing too much in those situations, breathe less to get your CO2 up. This is a very effective way of not only staving off an attack, but also inhibiting those attacks in the future.

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To hear James coach a former opera singer through how to stop snoring, listen to the episode by clicking the player below or subscribing to How To! wherever you get your podcasts. 

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