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?