As humans, we breathe more than we perform any other biological function yet rarely consciously think about it. Our species can go days without water and weeks without food, but no more than a few minutes without breathing.
Taking control of the breath — consciously thinking about the unconscious respiratory mechanism — is the first step to improving a plethora of everyday struggles and habits. Science journalist and author of The New York Times bestseller, “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” James Nestor, has investigated over the last several years how the human species has lost its ability to breathe properly and why we’re suffering from respiratory issues like sleep apnea, asthma and snoring because of it.
Nestor said in an interview with memory trainer and brain guru Jim Kwik that just because we unconsciously breathe 25,000 times a day, it doesn’t mean we can’t be cognizant of our breath. He said we must breathe consciously in order to train the unconscious biological function.
“The brain takes 20% of the energy from our body, and we get the majority of our energy from our breathing,” Nestor said. “So, we want to use that energy efficiently, and breathing — taking control of our breathing — is really the quickest way of doing that.”
Optimal breathing methods
Chelsea Duncan, a kinesiology professor at JMU, said different stimulants throughout one’s day trigger automatic breathing responses. These include gasps — deep inhales when we’re frightened or startled — as well as sighs or exhales when we feel relief and instinctively holding our breath when we’re nervous. These autonomic responses, Duncan said, shouldn’t necessarily prevent humans from thinking about our breath because in order to mitigate these fight-or-flight responses, we must be aware of how to breathe optimally.
Besides getting oxygen to the brain, Nestor said, nasal breathing has many benefits and is more advantageous than breathing through the mouth. He said nasal breathing, among other values, balances the nervous system and organizes different areas in one’s brain, including the emotional centers within the frontal cortex.
Nestor said our bodies will naturally shift the airflow between our nostrils throughout the day, and every 30 minutes to three or four hours we’ll become left-nostril or right-nostril dominant. He said breathing through the left nostril — inhaling and exhaling through it — will calm the body down. It activates more of the right side of the brain, he said, and heart rate and blood pressure will go down.
In contrast, Nestor said inhaling through the right nostril has been shown to increase heart rate and blood pressure and activate the left side of the brain more.
There’s also another breathing technique that’ll speed up the heart rate called the Wim Hof method, rightly named after its pioneer.
Wim Hof — nicknamed “The Iceman” — is a 62-year-old Dutch extreme athlete who’s known for being able to withstand extreme temperatures. Some of his most impressive feats include running a half-marathon north of the Arctic Circle in bare feet and swimming below 188 feet and 6 inches of ice. Hof attributes these seemingly insurmountable activities to controlling his breathing, heart rate and blood circulation.
A 2017 study titled “Brain over Body - A study on the willful regulation on autonomic function during cold exposure” found that Hof’s ability to tolerate cold exposure is accredited to creating an analgesic — or pain-relieving — artificial, stress-induced response in his body through his breathing method. His “forced respiration” creates an increase in the intercostal muscle’s glucose consumption, which generates heat and “warms circulating blood in the pulmonary capillaries.”
The Wim Hof Method is like an exercise, consisting of three sets and, in total, taking about 10 minutes. It starts with 30-40 breaths — in and out in rapid succession. Then, after letting out the last breath, a 90-second breath hold occurs in the form of a large exhale, followed by another breath hold of 15 seconds, and the sequence is repeated twice more. The few brave souls who are up for the challenge can try a guided tutorial by Hof himself here.
“Everyone thinks that Wim Hof is breathing ‘Wim Hof breaths’ all the time,” Nestor said. “He’s not. He’s breathing like that for 20 minutes, and the rest of the time he’s breathing really slowly, and he’s humming.”
Humming? Yes: Humming is beneficial because it “releases 15 times the amount of nitrous oxide in your nasal cavity,” Nestor said, which causes blood cells to vasodilate — expansion that allows for oxygen distribution and circulation throughout the body. After 10-15 minutes of humming, it’s common to feel lightheadedness or tingly fingers, which are similar feelings after cycling through the Hof method.
A separate breathing technique that Nestor said he learned was from Dr. Andrew Huberman — neuroscientist and professor in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine — where two deep inhales are taken followed by a sigh. Rather than “blowing your fuse” like in the Hof method, Nestor said this method is the ultimate down-regulator, as we have a separate subsection of neurons in our brain that controls sighing.
If you look at animals in the wild, Nestor said, what do they do before they go to sleep? They sigh. “If you do that about three or four times in a row, it sends signals throughout your body and brain to relax,” Nestor said. “It’s a great trick to do before public speaking or any other time you sense yourself getting stressed or nervous.”
Above all methods, it’s best to have our default breathing method be made up of deep inhales and exhales through the nose, John Douillard, author of “Body, Mind, and Sport: The MindBody Guide to Lifelong Health, Fitness, and Your Personal Best,” said. It’s also the most versatile breathing method as it’s conducive to working out, meditation and studying.
Duncan said it’s important that we use what’s called diaphragmatic breathing, where we inhale by expanding our abdominal cavity, rather than our chest cavity, when working out. “When we inhale to expand our chest cavity, we take shallower breaths, which means we are not getting as much oxygen into our system to fuel our working muscles,” she said.
Duncan said we also tend to see an increase in heart rate and blood pressure when using our chest cavity which may cause us to fatigue quicker during exercise. Diaphragmatic breathing, she said, allows for the increase in intra-abdominal pressure, core engagement, and stability.
One misconception, Nestor said, is that breathing faster allows more oxygen into the brain when working out. In fact, he said breathing rapidly out of the mouth lowers circulation to the brain. So please, don’t be “that guy” on the squat rack at UREC.
Deep breathing to relax
JMU writing, rhetoric and technical communication professor Jared Featherstone — Koru-certified meditation teacher and completer of the two-year Mindfulness Meditation Certification Program — said he tells people who are exceptionally stressed or experiencing high anxiety to deepen and elongate their breath because of the many health benefits of doing so.
“I give them a counting exercise,” Featherstone said. “Like, start with a three-count ‘in’ breath and three-count ‘out’ breath and just expand it out [to] four, five, six until you have a nice, deep breath going on.”
Featherstone said that counting can be a way of anchoring the attention to the breath when trying to achieve a relaxed state. Sometimes, he said, he does another kind of counting based on a Zen tradition where one counts each exhale up to 10, then goes back down to one to prevent becoming mindless or counting to 500.
When studying, Nestor said, the key isn’t just to have long inhales and exhales, but to keep them balanced so as to not fall asleep — a common occurrence if the exhale becomes longer than the inhale. He said a rhythmic pattern of five- to six-second inhales and exhales through the nose will keep us focused and help to remember content better when we sleep.
Visualization is another tool that can optimize breathing, Duncan said, either by actually showing a visual representation of the breathing pattern with waves or a color- or size-changing shape like a circle, or by visualizing a scenario ourselves such as waves on the ocean which we can sync our breathing to.
“Visualization is a powerful tool,” Duncan said. “When attached to the biofeedback training in breathing exercises, [it’s] highly effective.”
What happens when we don’t breathe correctly?
Nestor said a common denominator of those with fear-based disorders like anxiety, agoraphobia and panic disorder is that they breathe too much — above their metabolic needs — and through their mouths.
“What happens with a lot of people with panic or asthma is they sense an attack and go, ‘I’m losing the ability to breathe’ — they breathe more and more and more, and guess what happens? That triggers the attack,” Nestor said. “There’s been so many studies just retraining people with panic and asthma to breathe slowly, less and through their noses, and this can have a huge impact on their states — and some can reverse them.”
This impulse to breathe when an asthmatic, for example, senses an attack coming is actually due to an increase of carbon dioxide in the brain, not a lack of oxygen, Nestor said. He said researchers are working to retrain fear-based disorder patients to breathe slower, which makes chemoreceptors more flexible and therefore apt to take on a larger — normal — load of carbon dioxide. Eventually, the goal is for patients to take control of their breath again.
While Elizabeth A. Holloway and Robert J. West's 2007 study found deep, slow breathing can help reduce respiratory problems in asthmatics, the opposite can have contrary effects, Duncan said. She said breathing incorrectly can alter the pH of our bodies and mess with our digestion and metabolism.
Not breathing properly has led to a host of problems in the present day that weren’t around 400-plus years ago, Nestor said. While humans in our lifetime normalized the use of CPAPs — a device used to keep breathing airways open — braces and nasal dilators, it didn’t used to be this way.
“If you look at our ancestors, they all had perfectly straight teeth, huge jaws, wider nasal airways, so from the skeletal record we can see that they breathed so much easier than we have,” Nestor said. “So when you consider right now, the majority of the human population has a chronic respiratory problem.”
The best way to change this? Develop proper habits so that healthy breathing becomes something that can run in our unconscious mind.
“But changing habits can take a long, long time,” Nestor said.
Contact Grant Johnson at email@example.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every Monday and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.