Book notes reflect a specific time in the reader’s life. If you enjoy my notes and highlights, I highly recommend you buy the original book as it’s likely that there’ll be parts for you to discover that I didn’t find important.
Read my notes below. Or buy Breathe on Amazon.
The greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, but lung capacity.James Nestor in Breathe
Breathe is a fascinating book. I don’t say this lightly, but I think everyone should read it. The message and the empowering insights in Breathe could change your life. If only to convince you that email apnea is a thing. And you too probably suffer from it.
So much of our modern ailments can be linked back to poor breathing habits. And how all this affects the quality of our life and our longevity. Be it asthma, anxiety, depression, various chronic diseases, or how present we are in our day-to-day lives.
But Breathe is also about hope. The author James Nestor did 10 years of research for the book, and his fascination with the topic fills the pages with techniques that all of us can do to improve the way we breathe.
It doesn’t hurt that Nestor is a brilliant writer. He brings the science, education and entertainment together in the book, sharing his insights with a captivating narrative.
Here are my notes from Breathe
“[Breathing] is as important as what we eat or how much we exercise.”
“Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less space and making breathing more difficult.”
“Mouth breathing was both a cause of and a contributor to snoring and sleep apnea.”
– Placing a stamp-sized piece of tape over mouth when sleeping can reduce mouth breathing.
Inhaling from the nose makes the airways wider. Nasal turbinates (a long, narrow, curled shelf of bones that protrudes into the breathing passage) heat, clean, slow and pressurise air so that the lungs can extract more oxygen.
“Nasal cavity responds to whatever input it receives”
“The density of your nasal hairs helps determine whether you’ll suffer from asthma.”
“The left nostril is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, the rest-and-relax side that lowers blood pressure, cools the body, and reduces anxiety.”
– Could you close your right nostril whenever you’re feeling stressed or anxious and focus on deep breaths through the left nostril only?
Nasal breathing can boost nitric oxide (a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells) sixfold. The amount of nitric oxide in the body can heavily influence immune function, weight, circulation, mood and sexual function.
Research spanning 70 years focusing on heart concluded that “the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise”, but lung capacity. “The smaller and less efficient lungs became”, regardless of the reason, “the quicker subjects got sick and died.”
“Any regular practice that stretches the lungs and keeps them flexible can retain and increase lung capacity.”
Katharina Schroth trained herself, and later on, her patients out of a severe scoliosis with “orthopaedic breathing”. People who were bedridden could walk again.
“A typical adult engages as little as 10 percent of the range of the diaphragm when breathing, which overburdens the heart, elevates blood pressure, and causes a rash of circulatory problems.”
“Shallow breathing will limit the range of our diaphragms and lung capacity and can lead to the high-shouldered, chest-out, neck-extended posture common in those with emphysema, asthma, and other respiratory problems.”
You can strengthen the diaphragm with long exhales. Keep pushing the air out as if it’s toxic, get it all out through pursed lips.
“The lungs are the weight-regulating system of the body.”
“Average person today takes 12-20 breaths a minute.”
“The optimum breathing rate is about 5.5 breaths per minute. That’s 5.5-second inhales and 5.5-second exhales. This is the perfect breath.”
This allows the heart, circulation and nervous system to enter a state of coherence. “Practice fewer inhales and exhales in smaller volume.”
“By taking longer breaths, we allow our lungs to soak up more [oxygen] in fewer breaths.”
The benefits of decreasing the volume or air in the lungs and increasing carbon dioxide in the body. “Blood with the most carbon dioxide in it (more acidic) loosened oxygen from hemoglobin.”
Overbreathing = too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide to offload it from the haemoglobin and into the cell where it is needed.
That’s why long exhale followed by a breath hold can reduce, or stop, a panic attack. Carbon dioxide will build up and release more oxygen.
It’s also why breathing into a paper bag helps as you’re breathing in more carbon dioxide.
“Our bodies determine how fast and often we breathe, not by the amount of oxygen, but by the level of carbon dioxide.”
“When we breathe too much, we expel too much carbon dioxide, and our blood pH rises to become more alkaline; when we breathe slower and hold in more carbon dioxide, pH lowers and blood becomes more acidic. Almost all cellular functions in the body take place at a blood pH of 7.4, our sweet spot between alkaline and acid.”
“Techniques they used varied, but all circled around the same premise: to extend the length of time between inhalations and exhalations.” Get all the air out before taking a new one.
A lot of our breathing problems is caused by mouths that are too small due to the soft modern diet. “Our ancient ancestors chewed for hours a day, every day. And because they chewed so much, their mouths, teeth, throats, and faces grew to be wide and strong and pronounced.”
The good news is that “the human face don’t stop growing in our 20s, unlike other bones in the body. They can expand and remodel into our 70s, and likely beyond.”
“The more we gnaw, the more stem cells release, the more bone density and growth we’ll trigger, the younger we’ll look and the better we’ll breathe.”
Finally, a convincing reason for me to keep my lifelong chewing gum habit. I am taking it up a notch with mastic gum. Maybe chewing it will help with my ongoing sinus issues. It’s also biodegradable, so there’s that too.
“The more time infants spent chewing and sucking, the more developed their faces and airways would become, and the better they’d breathe later in life.”
What’s the role of dummy in here? Most research says it’s not good for speech development and teeth?
“Many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic system are located in the lower lobes, which is one reason long and slow breaths are so relaxing.”
“What they often suffer from are communication problems along the vagal and autonomic network, brought on by chronic stress. To some researchers, it’s no coincidence that eight of the top ten most common cancers affect organs cut off from normal blood flow during extended states of stress.”
“Sympathetic stress takes just a second to activate, turning it off and returning to a state of relaxation and restoration can take an hour or more.”
Left nostril breathing?
Relaxed nasal breathing will help take us from sympathetic (stressed / fight or flight) to parasympathetic (calm / rest and digest). But sometimes the body “needs a violent shove” to get there. Enter Tummo breathing.
“[Tummo breathing is] also especially useful for middle-aged people who suffer from lower-grade stress, aches and pains, and slowing metabolisms.”
“Breathing really fast and heavy on purpose flips the vagal response the other way, shoving us into a stressed state. It teaches us to consciously access the autonomic nervous system and control it, to turn on heavy stress specifically so that we can turn it off and spend the rest of our days and nights relaxing and restoring, feeding and breeding.”
“Stress the body on purpose, snapping it out of its funk so that it can properly function during the other 23½ hours a day.”
Wim Hof Method for Tummo. Fair bit of convincing research to support this.
“Nobody knows how eliciting such extreme stress might affect the immune and nervous systems in the long term.”
“Fear is the core of all anxieties”
“Fears weren’t just a mental problem, and they couldn’t be treated by simply getting patients to think differently. Fears and anxiety had a physical manifestation, too. They could be generated from outside the amygdalae, from within a more ancient part of the reptilian brain.”
“Conditioning the central chemoreceptors and the rest of the brain to become more flexible to carbon dioxide levels. By teaching anxious people the art of holding their breath.”
“People with anorexia or panic or obsessive-compulsive disorders consistently have low carbon dioxide levels and a much greater fear of holding their breath.”
“people with anxiety likely suffer from connection problems between these areas [chemoreceptors and amygdala] and could unwittingly be holding their breath throughout the day. Only when the body becomes overwhelmed by carbon dioxide would their chemoreceptors kick in and trigger an emergency signal to the brain to immediately get another breath. The patients would reflexively start fighting to breathe. They’d panic. Eventually their bodies adapt to avoid such unexpected attacks by staying in a state of alert, by constantly overbreathing in an effort to keep their carbon dioxide as low as possible.”
Yoga used to be all about breathing. Unsuprisingly, we’ve bastardised it to its current form.
“Breathing techniques are best suited to serve as preventative maintenance, a way to retain balance in the body so that milder problems don’t blossom into more serious health issues.”
They are not the cure-all we all hope to find.
“Our body is much more nearly perfect than the endless list of ailments suggests. Its shortcomings are due less to its inborn imperfections than to our abusing it.” -Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi
If reading these sparked your curiosity about breathing and how to improve it, I recommend you invest in a copy of Breathe. One of the best books of 2020.