Happiness is just a deep breath away, author says

Bestselling science writer James Nestor shares research on breathing with Exeter assembly.

November 22, 2021

James Nestor addressed Exeter assembly Nov. 19, sharing his research from 10 years of study on human breathing.

How can you lessen your susceptibility to diabetes and heart disease, lower your stress, sharpen your focus, fight tooth decay and make yourself more physically attractive?

Just breathe. Or rather, just breathe correctly.

This is the conclusion James Nestor has come to after 10 years spent studying the science of breathing — and the utter failure of humankind to do it the right way.

“Me, you, and everyone you know, are part of a species that are the worst breathers of any animal in the whole animal kingdom,” Nestor claims.

His book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, has been translated into 30 languages and has drawn near-universal praise since its release in 2020. One reviewer called the book an “invigorating user’s manual for the respiratory system.” Another said it is “an eye-opening, epic journey of human devolution that explains why so many of us are sick and tired.”

Nestor brought his research to Exeter on Nov. 19, speaking at assembly and conducting a follow-up Q+A with students over lunch.

Me, you, and everyone you know, are part of a species that are the worst breathers of any animal in the whole animal kingdom."

“Our breath is this extremely powerful tool that allows us to access full functions in our bodies that nothing else can,” Nestor said. “About 30 pounds of air enters in and out of our lungs every day. And how we take that air in and how we exhale it determines so much of our mental wellbeing, our physical health, and even our life span. But here's the bad news. The vast majority of us are breathing all wrong.”

The author is quick to disclaim good breathing habits as a cure-all. He also acknowledges much of what is in his book has been known to science for decades — and was understood by ancient cultures long before. Nestor’s book punctuates the science with storytelling, from primitive burial grounds to polluted Brazilian streets to deep-sea dives off the coast of Greece. His assembly talk deftly interwove anecdotes like those with data and was structured around four basic recommendations: Breathe through the nose, not the mouth; breathe slow and steady; exercise your breathing “muscles” by chewing; and become aware of your breathing patterns.

“When you breathe through the mouth, it's almost like your lungs are an external organ,” Nestor said. “They're exposed to everything in the environment: dust, pathogens, viruses, bacteria, and more. And mouth breathing leads to a number of severe health problems.”

Nestor said between 25% and 50% of the population habitually breathes through the mouth, and that is an extremely inefficient way to supply oxygen to the brain. “When we breathe air through our nose, we push it through a bunch of different structures, and those structures heat the air up; they humidify it; they pressurize it; and they condition it, so that by the time it enters our lungs, we get about 25% more oxygen breathing through our nose than we do equivalent breaths through our mouth.”

Nestor said science shows that a respiration rate of about five to six breaths per minute — about five to six seconds to inhale, five to six seconds to exhale — is ideal. That pattern lowers heart rates and blood pressure and feeds more oxygen to our brains. That allows our brains to operate at peak efficiency.

“I'm not saying that nasal breathing is going to cure you of all issues you've ever had, but it can only have benefits, and for some people it can be transformative,” Nestor said.

“The more we understand our breathing, the more we acknowledge it, and the more we use it, we can either reduce the symptoms of several chronic problems, or in some extraordinary cases, eliminate them all together.”