Better Breathing and Your Nose

Breathing seems simple enough. I’ve been doing it my entire life and I haven’t stopped yet. It’s one of those innate behaviors we’re born with, thank goodness. And yet, I learned recently that I’ve probably been doing it all wrong.

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor, was a recent book club read. I talked about this book a lot while I was reading it to people who had not. I got some strange looks. When you ask someone out of the blue if they’re a mouth breather, a strange look isn’t that strange. Usually, they’d be talking about headaches or poor sleep. Nose breathing could correct these behaviors.

I am a recovering mouth breather. Nose breathing is becoming more natural.

 James Nestor is more than a breathing enthusiast. He’s obsessed. I’d go as far as say perhaps a nut. He has put himself through periods of mouth breathing to see his health deteriorate and then restore his health through nose breathing. The man crawled through Parisian catacombs to examine how skulls of a thousand years ago differed from those of today. He has spoken with others who conducted disturbing breathing experiments on animals. His experiences go well beyond anyone’s norm. The book also contains fascinating anthropological glimpses of our human development as breathers.

The premise of the book is that nose breathing makes us healthier. Not only would we experience gains in lung capacity and athletic performance, but we’d see benefits in other health areas. Nose breathing can lessen headaches, asthma, halt snoring, improve sleep, and makes other internal organs healthier.

One experiment in the 1990s demonstrated the effectiveness of bikers breathing through their noses. Bikers were instructed to breath only through their mouths as pedal resistance was increased. The bikers struggled and panted as 200 watts of power was reached. When the same bikers repeated it and switched to nose breathing, their rate of breaths per minute decreased. One biker was able to cut his breaths per minute from 47 to 14 even though the intensity was increased. I find that amazing. I sure could benefit from cutting my exertion in half and being fitter by doing so.

Breath is jammed packed with good science that is written in an easy narrative style. If you’re reading this post, you may be more interested in some of the recommended exercises to encourage nose breathing. Below are some of the techniques James Nestor included in his book.

Mini Breathholds

• This practice encourages breathing less.

• Nestor claims it can stave off asthma and anxiety attacks.

• Over time, it is also supposed to happen more naturally when running or doing other physical activity.

• Breathe normally. Exhale and hold for 5 seconds. Breathe normally for two breaths (10 seconds). Repeat for 2 to 3 minutes / about 10 rounds.

Box Breathing

• Use for calm and focus.

• Inhale and count to 4. Hold four. Exhale 4. Hold 4. Repeat for 4-6 rounds.

• You can change the size of the box to 3, 5, or 6 as you’d like.

Sleep Tape

• Encourages better sleep with nose breathing and mouth taping.

• James Nestor suggests 3M Nexcare Durapore durable cloth tape.

• Use a postage stamp sized piece of tape. Nestor says to tape it like a Charlie Chaplin mustache moved down over your lips.

Alternate Nostril Breathing

• Use to improve lung function, lower heart rate, blood pressure, and sympathetic stress.

• Cover right nostril with thumb, inhale through left.

• Cover left side, exhale through right.

• Inhale through right, cover right side, exhale through left.

• Practice alternating for 5-10 cycles.

Nose Songs

• Breathe normally and hum.

• Humming for 5 minutes or more a day increases the nitric oxide in your nasal passages which eventually increases oxygenation.

Breathhold Walking

• This practice increases carbon dioxide in the body which increases circulation.

• It will also help you slow your breath when running, biking, etc.

• Breathe in. Exhale all the breath. Walk slowly counting your steps.

• Stop counting and return to gentle nose breathing while still walking. Breathe normally and repeat after a one/two minute break.

These are just a few of the breathing methods included in the appendix.

Not all is rosy in my breathing world. My personal data is skewed by a slightly faster heart rate caused by my Taxol chemo treatment. It’s definitely an uphill battle to consciously try to breathe slower and breathe less if/when I try to run because a faster heart rate makes me breathe harder. I switch to mouth breathing and I can’t maintain a rate that high. I don’t know if it’s medically possible to make strides in my breathing and running while being on this chemo. I wind up winded and frustrated. As a walker, I’m in my zone. As a runner, it’s a bummer. I’ll keep working on it because the idea of working less to achieve more excites me. I’m tired of working so hard and not ending where I want to be.

The perfect breath is apparently a 5.5 second inhale followed by a 5.5 exhale. I’m not perfect. Never have been and never will be. My breathing won’t be either, but it will be perfect enough for me as long as I keep doing it.

So, are you a mouth breather or a nose breather?

Heavy Breathing

I have a friend who works as an administrator in health care. She often shares with me aspects of wellness activities that are part of her work. Recently, she told me there had been many long days at the hospital due to all the planning that goes into protecting staff and patients from COVID-19 while ensuring the hospital and other facilities still operate effectively and safely. It’s a very demanding job, yet she describes it as also being a highly supportive work environment. She has shared with me creative challenge questions they are given each week. One week each person needed to share a sound that made them feel productive. She said it made people more mindful of the sounds in their environment all week long. A little extra mindfulness can make an enormous difference these days. My friend chose the sound of cutting fabric. She is a talented quilter, so this sound made sense even though it wasn’t related to work.

She also shared she liked the sound of a three-hole punch. A three-hole punch fits into her world of many papers at work. As a teacher, I liked the three-hole punch, too, although I think this friend likes it more. I still have a three-hole punch but rarely use it. It has a definite sound of accomplishment. It’s the precursor to placing final papers in a binder. I love binders but they are pretty quiet office supplies.

What would I have chosen as a teacher? Would I have chosen the morning bell announcing it was time to officially start my day with my second graders? Maybe the ending bell was a better indicator of a day filled with work, learning, and productivity. A pencil sharpener evokes mixed feelings. Often it was used to give the illusion of working hard when hardly working was the more likely scenario. Other times it represented the definite hum of worker bees in the hive of learning.

None of those sounds fit my present life. I still like the sound of an electric pencil sharpener. A newly sharpened pencil makes a soft scratching sound as it scrawls across a sheet of paper. It’s hardly perceptible but it’s there. I don’t do tons of writing by hand. I gravitate towards pens over pencils when I do. Even now as I type away, the keyboard clicks in a rhythm of spurts. Words appear, but I’ve never equated the sound of typing as being especially productive. I’ve never paid any attention to it. I’m being mindful of it now but think of it more as a means to an end. It’s the finished piece that makes me feel productive and that has no sound. When I’m done, I’m just done.

My home is pretty quiet. TV or music provides background noise. I’m not producing either of those. I don’t cook a lot, so the cooking sounds of mixers, knives slicing on cutting boards, and timers going off aren’t sounds that work for me either. I like the sound when it’s quiet. Silence has never bothered me. Seldom is there ever truly no sound. The clock that hung in my grandma’s kitchen ticks away in mine. I can hear that from the rooms off my kitchen. I find it reassuring. Comforting. Constant. Centering.

I enjoy being in nature where I can listen to birds sing and leaves rustle on trees. I can hear the wild turkeys forage as they move slowly in a cluster. A strong wind is exhilarating if it isn’t pushing against me. I’m not making any of these sounds. I just take them in and let them fill my soul.

How am I productive? What do I really DO anymore?

I’m a professional patient. Most things during treatment are done to me, not by me. Sounds are not any result of great productivity on my end. I sit the majority of my time at office visits and treatments, only walking to get from one area to the next. The infusion machine beeps when there is a problem or my infusion is done. I hear the whoosh of my cold cap filling with the magic cold that I wear to save as much hair as possible. Occasionally, I’ll hear doors of other treatment bays slide open and parts of conversations between nurses and patients. So much for privacy. About the only productive contribution I make is pressing the call button. I do that often to alert the nurses when I need to start the next phase of the scalp cooling process or there is an air bubble in the infusion tubing and the machine is beeping rhythmically because it isn’t happy. I don’t do very much. I show up and I endure, no small feats, but I don’t turn cartwheels while I’m there.

Professional patients still want to feel productive. We are quiet; we are vocal. We float in and out of appointments and visits; we dig in our heels and don’t make things easy for anyone while trying to get what we need that makes us feel human and a wee bit healthier. We say we are fine; we tell it like it is. We are grateful; we resent some things. We are individuals; we are part of a cancer community. We keep using our voices to push for action and not awareness; we know the number of women and men who die every day from metastatic breast cancer hasn’t budged one bit. Are we productive? Yes and no. There are no distinctive sounds that make any of these behaviors and feelings stand out.

I exercise. That’s an area of my life where I take ownership. Even this has changed no thanks to the issues I’ve encountered on this treatment with hand and feet issues. I’m aware I keep coming back to this in quite a few of my posts or comments, but I tell you, it has hit me hard. I hurt to some degree pretty much all the time with this treatment. Gripping tools makes my hands hurt. Gardening and yard work took a hit this summer. My first attempt at raking this season didn’t bode well for all I have to rake. My opposable thumbs have been highly oppositional. My poor elbows are skinned due to using them to push up off the floor when doing yoga or getting out of bed because pushing off my hands is painful. I work hard at walking, but I never know where my edge is and when I will have done too much. I only had blisters on my feet once, until last week when one the size of dime developed on the top of my big toe. My point is that a lot of the physical work that made me feel like I was being productive has been sidelined. I can’t run right now. I can’t lift my kettlebells. Walking is at a slower pace.

But . . . I have found a way to exercise differently. My coach has been phenomenal. I ordered a weighted vest and can load it up to sixty pounds if I want. Twenty pounds is a good amount for me. I can wear it walking around the house. An extra twenty pounds makes a noticeable difference. I will load more when twenty pounds doesn’t make me work hard. I climb stairs wearing it. I do squats, forearm planks, modified pushups, and some yoga poses. Over and over again. My core gets a workout. That vest pushes me. It makes me sweat. I feel alive and decisive.

The vest gives me control and agency. Putting it on and doing hard work is my choice. I know there will be moments I wish I wasn’t wearing it because it makes the work I’m doing lots tougher. It makes me feel like I’ve accomplished something and like I’m winning for a few minutes of my day. The vest makes me feel strong and proud of myself. I know I’ve had a good workout after I’ve used it. Feeling strong and proud are powerful feelings. I can do hard things. Hard things that make me feel good. Hard things that I choose. I am productive.

How do I know?

It’s the heavy breathing.

Heavy breathing is my sound that makes me feel productive.