Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art

Written By Adam Drake

6 min read

James Nestor - Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
health and wellness

How we breathe really matters and can make a huge difference to our quality of life. In his book - Breath, James Nestor explores the past to discover what our ancient ancestors seemed to know much about but what the modern-day way of life has forgotten. That being able to breath properly is integral to a healthy body and a healthy life.

Summary of main ideas

You can breathe in as many different ways as different foods you can eat however it is estimated that around 90% are breathing either incorrectly or not efficiently. There are many modern day maladies that stem from not breathing properly ranging from asthma, anxiety, sleep apnea, snoring, ADHD and even cardiovascular diseases.

James embarks on his own journey by participating in a 20 day experiment with a quirky and enthusiastic Swedish scientist named Anders Olsson. Anders is obsessed with breathing and spent a decade studying the difference between mouth breathing and nose breathing.

The idea of the experiment was to spend the first 10 days mouth breathing only and the next 10 days nose breathing. Many tests were done during these experiments to gain insight into the effects of boths methods of breathing. The results were alarming and it led James on a world wide tour to rediscover the art of breathing that certain ancient civilisations practised.

James breaks down the methods he discovered into 7 steps that you can incorporate into your daily life.

Step 1: Shut Your Mouth

James’s experiment breathing 10 days just through his mouth and then 10 days just through his nose showed just how bad for you breathing through your mouth is. Stress hormones spiked, he acquired a bacterial bug in his nose, blood pressure was through the roof and heart rate variability plummeted.

Ander’s and his snoring increased at night and they both suffered from bouts of sleep apnea. Certain blood markers however stayed the same which would explain why many people are chronic mouth breathers but don’t notice anything seriously wrong. It seems to be more of a very slow killer that decreases quality of life along the way but to a level that people accept as normal.

Step 2: Breath through your nose

When they did breath through their noses both James’s and Olsen’s blood pressures, heart rates and carbon dioxide levels normalised. Snoring decreased from several hours to mins each night. James practised taping his mouth shut every night to force himself to breath through his nose when he was asleep and reported feeling much better afterwards. There are now clinical trials happening investigating this practise and the benefits it could bring.

Step 3: Exhale

Carl Stough spent his lifetime teaching people how to get stale air out of their bodies so they could get more fresh air in. He trained his clients to exhale longer and this had miraculous effects on emphysema patients, Opera singers and professional athletes. Most of us only use a small percentage of our lung capacity but the first stages of healthy breathing is to extend these breaths and get the diaphragm working.

Step 4: Chew

James on his worldly travels investigated skulls from different periods to see what differences he could find. He found that pre-industrial skulls have three main features - huge sinus cavities, straight teeth and strong jaws. These three features would have helped our ancestors breath much easier than we do today. The reason our ancestors had these features comes down to a few reasons but one main one is the food they ate. They used to spend hours chewing.

They lived before our food became processed and mushy and therefore had to chew their food properly in order to digest it. The bones in our face can continually grow throughout our lives. Your diet should consist of food that requires much time chewing. And when not chewing your lips should remain together, your teeth slightly touching and your tongue on the roof of your mouth.

Step 5: Breath More on Occasion

Practise something like Tummo Breathing, Wim Hof breathing method and vigorous pranayamas on occasion. They stress the body and snap it out of its funk so it can properly function for the other 23.5 hours of the day. Conscious breathing teaches us to be the pilots of our bodies.

Step 6. Hold Your Breath

Doctor Donald Klein studied links between chemoreceptor flexibility, carbon dioxide and anxiety. His research has led to discoveries linking certain parts of the brain to breathing and how breathing can be used to treat certain fears and anxieties.

Step 7: How we Breathe Matters

The perfect breath is this: Breathe in for 5.5 seconds. Breathe out for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute and 5.5 litres of air. You can practise this method of breathing for a few minutes or a few hours. It is also (through no coincidence) the length of time that many prayers or religious chants take.

It seems the body responds very well to this way of breathing and this has been discovered over and over again throughout the ages.

What can you get out of this book

30 lbs of air that pass through our lungs everyday and the way we breathe is just as important as the food we eat or the exercise we do. James has broken down the art of breathing into very simple and doable steps.

These steps can be incorporated into your daily life very simply and that is why I like this book so much. Simply by shutting your mouth when not talking can have wondrous effects on your long term well being. Chewing your food properly when eating can actually change physical bone structures in your face. By practising certain breathing exercises you can take charge of your body.

With levels of depression and anxiety apparently at an all time high I think it is time as a species we looked at the most basic functions of our lives such as breathing. If we can focus on this and do this well then I firmly believe we can build a solid foundation on which we can live healthy happy lives.

Some good further reading/watching/listening

Watch an in depth interview with James Nestor on the infamous Joe Rogan Show:


Also listen to James discussing his book with breathe expert Patrick McKeown:


James also introduces Wim Hof in his book and his modern day take on tummo breathing. If you haven’t heard of Wim Hof you can get a great introduction to him here on the Rich Roll podcast:


Where to get it

Buy Breath on Amazon

Listen to Breath on Audible

Buy Breath on Book Depository

About the author

James Nestor is an American journalist and author who has written several books and also written for many popular publications including The New York Times and The Atlantic. His latest book Breath had his travelling the world to figure out what went wrong with the way society breaths and what we can do to correct it.

Published by

Riverhead/Penguin Random House

Publication Date

26 May 2020

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