White Coat Black Art·The Dose

How to breathe better and why it matters, especially in a pandemic

Learning how to breathe better can have real impacts on your overall health, according to James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. He shares tips on how we can harness the power of our breath, and feel better physically and mentally as a result.

'Look at your mask as a calming device,' says author of book on breathing

Breathe in, breathe out — but through your nose. Nasal breathing can benefit your physical and mental health, says the author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

There's a good chance you're not breathing effectively and it may be impacting your health, according to James Nestor, the author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.

Nestor spent years researching how we breathe and found that humans, unlike most species, are "terrible breathers" because many of us breathe through our mouths most of the time.

James Nestor is the author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. (Mark Mahaney)

"When you breathe through your mouth, you're exposing your lungs to everything in the environment," Nestor told Dr. Brian Goldman, host of The Dose and White Coat, Black Art.

"Our noses are our first line of defence and so few of us tend to use them today."

Breathing is on our minds more than ever these days, as we cover our mouths and noses with masks as protection from a disease that could rob us of our breath.

As anxiety levels spike in the pandemic, meditation apps that focus on breathing are also surging in popularity, according to the mobile app analytics firm Sensor Tower. 

But take a deep breath before you start worrying too much about how you breathe. 

Nestor outlined simple steps you can take to breathe better and help improve your physical and mental health.

Awareness of your breath

If fixing how you breathe feels daunting, Nestor said the first step is simply paying attention to how you breathe. 

"If you're like me — and I was gauging my breathing every minute of every day — it was a disaster. Every time I jumped on email when I would get stressed out, my breathing would just completely fall apart."

Experts say there is no evidence that masks deprive you of oxygen. In fact, Nestor says you can use your mask as a calming device by focusing on slow breathing through your nose when you're wearing it. (CBC News)

Breathe through your nose

The most important thing you can do, Nestor said, is breathe through your nose.

Mouth breathing can cause poor oxygen concentration in the bloodstream, which can lead to high blood pressure, heart problems, sleep apnea and other medical issues, a link backed up by considerable research, he said.

Dr. John Lee, head of the division of rhinology at the University of Toronto and a researcher at St. Michael's Hospital, seconded the health benefits of breathing through your nose.

"The nose has a lot of key functions that we don't think about. It helps warm and humidify the air we breathe in so it's more tolerable to our lungs … and it really helps filter the air we breathe," which helps with overall health, he said. Tiny little hairs inside the nose, called cilia, trap allergens and other airborne particles.

The nose also produces something called nitric oxide, a molecule that helps oxygen, blood and nutrients travel through the body.

"The sinuses are the primary place where we produce nitric oxide, [which] has antibacterial and antiviral effects. This gas makes its way to the lungs as we breathe in through our noses," said Lee.

In fact, there are now at least 11 studies under way using nitric oxide to treat COVID-19 patients — including one from Vancouver-based company SaNOtize that has developed a self-administered nitric oxide nasal spray.

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

Nestor saw firsthand the nasty side effects of mouth breathing when he took part in an experiment at Stanford University's Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery Center under Dr. Jayakar Nayak, its chief of rhinology research.

He did ten days of only mouth breathing followed by ten days of mostly nasal breathing.

During the mouth breathing phase, he started snoring, his blood pressure went "through the roof," and he was extremely fatigued — all of that was reversed after the nasal breathing phase, he said.

"This experiment didn't prove anything. What we were doing was just further buttressing what science had already known about nasal breathing and its role in circulation and heart rate and stress in sleep and more."

Nestor even recommends putting a small piece of surgical tape over your mouth to help you practise. 

He isn't suggesting you never breathe through your mouth, but said this helps build a habit of nose breathing.

Breathe slower 

One exercise Nestor recommends to help you practise breathing through your nose is something called resonant breathing: breathe in through your nose for five or six seconds and breathe out through your nose for five or six seconds. 

"This means to take fewer breaths, but deeper breaths. By allowing yourself to take these deeper breaths, you will get more oxygen. So you will be using that air more efficiently." 

WATCH | For help with breathing slower through your nose, James Nestor recommends this instructional video from the division of rheumatology at Johns Hopkins University:

Breathing in your mask

Many of us spend a good part of our days now breathing through a mask.

While some people might feel they are not getting enough oxygen, there's no truth to that claim, according to experts.

In fact, Nestor recommends using your mask as a hack for breathing better.

"I take the mask as an opportunity to breathe slowly, to breathe through my nose and to breathe in this fluid, rhythmic way. And if you're able to do this and condition your body to do it, you can look at your mask as a calming device."

What if you can't breathe through your nose? 

If it's hard to breathe through your nose, then you need to fix your nose, said Nestor.

"If a sink is clogged in your house, you find a way of clearing it as soon as possible. The nose needs to be considered in the same way. Some people need surgery."

This device, known as a CPAP or continuous positive airway pressure mask, blows a small amount of pressure into the airway to prop it open and is used to treat sleep apnea. Learning to breathe through your nose can help with sleep apnea. (Getty Images)

If you're unable to breathe through your nose properly, "it can have a huge impact on your quality of life," said Lee, the rhinologist.

If that's causing issues like sleep apnea, snoring or other symptoms, then "there's good reason to explore whether you should fix any structural problems."

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

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

Sign up now