Humans take about 25,000 breaths per day. Think about that. No, I mean really think about that. Most of us, most of the time, give no thought to breathing. You would think about it if you were having difficulty breathing. That’s a panic situation. On the other extreme, you would think about breathing if you were meditating. That’s the opposite of panic.
I heard an interview with author James Nestor on Fresh Air about his new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. A journalist, not a scientist or doctor, James Nestor became interested in breathing when his doctor recommended he take a breathing class to help his recurring pneumonia and bronchitis.
I have done meditation and some yoga and fitness activities that ask you to focus on your breath. I know that breathing slowly and deeply through the nose is associated with a relaxation response and that when the diaphragm lowers, more air moves into your lungs and your body switches to a more relaxed state.
The nose breathing seems to be the key takeaway. Nestor participated in a study while working on the book in which his nose was completely plugged for 10 days, forcing him to breathe solely through his mouth. Not a way to feel better.
What’s so much better about nose breathing? Air taken in through the nose is filtered and warmed and it can trigger different hormones to flood our bodies, lower our blood pressure and even help store memories.
I didn’t know that the nose is more closely connected to our genitals than any other organ. It has the same tissue and when your genitals are stimulated, your nose will become stimulated as well. Some people even sneeze when stimulated (“honeymoon rhinitis).
It sounds like Nestor was also inspired to study breathing while working on his previous book, Deep, which was about the science of freediving where holding your breath for long periods is key.
It was also news to me that scientists believe that breathing is one way that our bodies maintain balance. When we breathe through our right nostril, circulation speeds up, so we get hotter, cortisol levels increase, and blood pressure increases. But breathing through the left nostril will reverse that – lower blood pressure, temperature, and anxiety. You don’t need to think about this as it occurs naturally, but you can think about it. I’ve had meditation breathing sessions where we try to breathe in through our left nostril – without holding our right one closed.
When you breathe through your mouth, you lose that balancing.
And exhaling relaxes the body. A deep breath in lowers the diaphragm and sends a lot of blood into the thoracic cavity, and when you exhale, that blood shoots back out through the body.
The really new thing I learned about is about “mouth taping” when you sleep to train yourself to breathe through your nose. There are commercial products for this, but Nestor said a small piece of micropore surgical tape will work. I have now tried it for a week. Besides my occasional problems falling asleep, I have been diagnosed with mild sleep apnea. I have a mouthguard that helps but before I was diagnosed, everyone (especially my wife) was bothered by my snoring. It’s too early to report results on the taping but, according to my Fitbit. I have slept better this past week.
Nestor mentions an experiment that had participants use the Sanskrit mantra Auṃ maṇi padme hūṃ which I learned in a class on Buddhism to work on their breathing.
Another video Nestor links to is with Dr. Andrew Weil demonstrating the 4-7-8 breathing technique which can help you get to sleep. I’ve tried it and sometimes it does seem to work.