The Sunday Magazine

How we breathe has major impacts on our body — James Nestor has recommendations to improve it

We breathe roughly 25,000 times a day. Yet we think about it zero times. Science journalist James Nestor chats with Piya Chattopadhyay about the lost science and art of breathing, what it can do for our physical health and overall well-being, and some simple ways to improve it.

‘Breathe through your nose all the time,’ says the science journalist

Author James Nestor participating in a breath study under Dr. Jayakar Nayak of Stanford's Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Center In September 2018. (Submitted by James Nestor)

Originally published on January 19, 2021.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Now let's review.

If you didn't just inhale and exhale through your nose, it's time to reevaluate how you breathe, according to science journalist James Nestor.

"So many of us are habitually breathing through our mouths instead," he told The Sunday Magazine host Piya Chattopadhyay.

He explained that researchers have known for a long time that breathing through the nose forces air to get heated, pressurized, filtered, and conditioned, allowing the lungs to extract oxygen much more efficiently.

"When you're breathing through the mouth, you're not getting any of those benefits," he said.

Nestor's latest book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, delves into the science and culture of breathing.

"Breathing has actually deteriorated over the past few hundred years," he said.

The San Francisco-based author said the idea for the book was born out of his work with Dr. Jayakar Nayak, chief of rhinology research at Stanford's Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Center.

According to Nestor, Nayak told him that when people breathe through their mouths, it has a huge impact on their skeletal structure.

"Nobody knew how quickly that damage came on because nobody had tested it," Nestor explained.

Nestor's latest book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, delves into the science and culture of breathing. (Julie Floersch and Riverhead/Penguin Random House)

Anecdotal experiment bolsters 50 years of research

From ancient burial sites to the smoggy streets of São Paulo, Nestor spent four years tracking down people who explore the science behind ancient breathing practices while writing the book.

He also spoke with scientists and reviewed years of medical texts and recent studies to reevaluate long-held beliefs about how humans breathe.

While researching, he participated in a study where he completely plugged his nose with silicone for 10 days, compelling him to breathe only through his mouth.

"I still have a little PTSD about it all," Nestor said.

In a photo post from the study, Nestor shared that nasal obstruction triggered instant apnea and snoring and he went from having no snoring issues to snoring through much of night.

Nestor plugged his nose for 10 days during the September 2018 study, compelling him to breathe only through his mouth. (Submitted by James Nestor)

He also devised an experiment to compare mouth breathing and nasal breathing over the course of 20 days. Time and budget constraints made it difficult for him and Stanford to enlist 20 people for the study. However, Nestor was able to get Anders Olsson, a Swedish breathing therapist — who paid for his own flight — to participate.

"This was just an experiment. This proves nothing. But what it did do was bolster 50 years of science that has been out there and hundreds and hundreds of studies," Nestor said, referring to the advantages of breathing through your nose.

Advice from the ancestors

According to Nestor, people were talking about breathing for thousands of years.

"If you look at ancient Hindu text, they were talking about breathing," he said. "Further east into China, there are eight books of the Dao dedicated entirely to breathing."

By the time Western medicine came around, breathing was viewed as less important because modern medicines were being developed to take care of many problems, Nestor said.

"You can't just take pills to be healthy. You have to eat right. You have to exercise. You have to breathe right as well," he said.

Breathe through your nose

3 years ago
Duration 1:20
Journalist and author James Nestor shares some simple ways to improve your breathing pattern.

Centuries of bad breathing

On the recommendation of biological anthropologists, Nestor visited the catacombs in Paris to inspect human skulls and found that as human breathing deteriorated over the past few centuries, causing mouths and airways to narrow, people's teeth no longer fit.

"This is the first time that our species has ever suffered from chronically crooked teeth in the last 100 years," he said. Other impacts of shrinking airways include sleep apnea, snoring and even some forms of asthma and allergies.

But according to the skeletal records he reviewed, our ancestors had wide faces, huge jaws and nasal apertures, and straight teeth.

So what caused this opposite growth pattern?

"This didn't happen randomly," he told Chattopadhyay. "It happened from industrialized foods."

The data is very clear. It's just so few of us really know that we're overbreathing or we don't know that that's a problem.- James Nestor

There can be too much breathing

Not only are we breathing incorrectly, some of us may also be breathing too much, said Nestor. 

"You can absolutely breathe too much. You hear people breathe like that all the time. We think that we're getting more oxygen when we're breathing this way. We're actually doing the opposite," he explained. "You can feel this for yourself by taking 10 or 20 big, deep breaths. You're going to feel some tingling in your head or maybe your fingertips will get cool. That's from a lack of circulation to those areas."

Constantly overbreathing causes our adrenaline and blood sugar to spike and remaining in that state wears the body down further, he added. People who have anxiety, asthma and other respiratory issues are especially prone to breathing far beyond their metabolic needs.

"The data is very clear. It's just so few of us really know that we're overbreathing or we don't know that that's a problem. But it's a huge problem," he said.

While there's not much to be done about our crooked teeth and already shrunken airways, it's never too late to start breathing better. According to Nestor, there's a foundation of habitual breathing we can all use and build upon regardless of whether you're an asthmatic, an ultra marathoner, or prone to anxiety.

"First, breathe through your nose and breathe through your nose all the time," he explained. "Second, breathe slowly. This doesn't mean to make breathing a hassle or to force it, but it should be light. It should be slow and it should be deep … You get more oxygen by breathing less, by breathing slowly."

Nestor posted photos of the Dr. Nayak's findings and said that blocking his nose and breathing through his mouth triggered instant apnea and snoring. (Submitted by James Nestor)

Breathing in the age of pandemic 

Nestor's book, released six weeks into the global COVID-19 lockdown, came at a time when the act of breathing and how it can transmit a novel coronavirus was in sharp focus.

Nestor told Chattopadhyay that observing this unfold has been "absolutely bizarre."

"The best thing for me is to see these researchers ... who have been working on this stuff for decades, for 30, 40 years — no one's really been listening to them. Their work has just been stuck in these academic journals," he said. "Now people are really starting to recognize how important their work is. They're starting to adopt a lot of their methods, techniques and philosophies into medical practices. That's been thrilling to see."

Interview produced by Peter Mitton.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now