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Notes from Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor

The missing pillar of health is breath. It all starts there.

We are passing down traits through generations that are not helpful, and even can be harmful, to our health - a process called disevolution.

Mouth breathing is destroying our health. (James did and experiment where he could only breathe through his mouth, and measured biomarkers. The results were horrifying.)

Mouth breathing changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Mouth breathing begets more mouth breathing. Nasal breathing begets more nasal breathing.

Mouth breathing causes the body to lose 40% more water. During the deepest phase of sleep, the pituitary gland secretes hormones including vasopressin, which is an anti-diuretic. It communicates with cells to store more water. This is how animals can sleep through the night without feeling thirsty or needing to relieve themselves. But if the body has inadequate time in deep sleep, as it does when it experiences chronic sleep apnea, vasopressin won't be secreted normally.

The right and left nasal cavities act as an HVAC system, controlling temperature and blood pressure while feeding the brain chemicals to alter moods, emotions, and sleep states. The right nostril is a gas pedal. When you're inhaling primarily through this channel, circulation speeds up and your body gets hotter. Blood pressure and heart rate all increase. This happens because breathing through the right nostril activates the sympathetic nervous system, that fight or flight mechanism that puts the body into a state of alertness. Right nostril breathing will also feed more blood to the opposite hemisphere of the brain, those areas that control things like logical decisions, language, and computing. Meanwhile, inhaling through the left nostril has the opposite effect. It works as a brake system. This nostril is more deeply connected to the parasympathetic nervous system, that rest and relax side, that lowers temperature and blood pressure, cools the body, and reduces anxiety. Left nostril breathing shifts blood flow to the opposite side of the brain to areas that influence things like creative thought, mental abstractions, and negative emotions.

The lower turbinates at the opening of the nostril are covered in that pulsing erectile tissue, itself covered in mucus membrane, a nappy sheen that moistens breath while simultaneously filtering out particles and pollutants. All these invaders can cause infection and irritation if they got into the lungs. The mucus is the body's first line of defense. Like a giant conveyor belt, mucus membrane collects inhaled debris in the nose and moves all that junk down the throat and into the stomach where it's sterilized by acid and then sent out of the body. This is why nasal breathing is far more healthy and efficient than mouth breathing.

One of the benefits of nose breathing is that the sinuses release a huge boost of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays a crucial role in circulation and delivering oxygen in the cells. Immune function, weight, and circulation can be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body. Nasal breathing can release 6 times the amount of nitric oxide and absorb about 18% more oxygen than by just breathing through the mouth.

One study showed that the greatest predictor of longevity was lung capacity. Large lungs meant longer lives.

The best way to prevent many chronic health problems, improve athletic performance, and extend longevity is to focus on how we breathe. Specifically, to balance oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body. To do this, we need to learn how to inhale and exhale slowly.

The way the body loses weight isn't through profusely sweating or burning it off. We lose weight through exhaled breath. 85% of the weight lost in the body comes from the lungs. The rest is sweated or urinated out.

The blood with the most CO2 in it releases more oxygen from hemoglobin. In some ways, CO2 acts as a kind of divorce lawyer, a go between, to separate oxygen from its ties so it can be free. This discovery explained why certain muscles used during exercise receive more oxygen than lesser used muscles. They were producing more CO2, which attracted more oxygen. CO2 also has a profound dialating effect of blood vessels, opening these pathways so they can carry more blood to hungry cells. Breathing less allows animals to produce more energy more efficiently.

Breathing at a third of the rate that's considered normal, oxygen levels can stay the same even as CO2 rises.

When breathing at a normal rate, our lungs will only absorb about 25% of the oxygen that's in the air. The rest is exhaled back out. Taking longer breaths, we allow our lungs to soak up more with less.

It turns out that the most efficient breathing rhythm for the body occurs when both the lengths of respiration and the total breaths per minute are locked in in a spooky symmetry. 5.5 second inhales followed by 5.5 second exhales, which works out to 5.5 breaths per minute.

The key to optimal breathing, and all the health, endurance, and longevity benefits that come with it, is to practice fewer inhales and exhales in a smaller volume. To breathe, but to breathe less.

Slower longer exhales mean higher CO2 levels. With that bonus CO2 we can gain a higher aerobic endurance. Training the body to breathe less actually increases the amount of oxygen we can consume, which can not only boost stamina, but help us breathe longer and healthier lives.

The point of this exercise is to get the body comfortable with higher levels of CO2 so that we'll unconsciously breathe less during our resting hours. So that we'll release more oxygen and increase our endurance to better support all the functions of our body.

Hypoventilation provides a huge boost in red blood cells, allowing athletes to use more oxygen and produce more energy with each breath. It's essentially high altitude training.

CO2 can be measured with a handheld cavnometer, which tracks CO2 in exhaled breath. A healthy level is around 5.5%. Keeping CO2 levels up was shown in one study to improve asthma.

When we breathe too much, we expel too much CO2 and our blood pH rises and becomes more alkaline. When we breathe slower and hold in more CO2, pH lowers and blood becomes more acidic. Almost all cellular functions in the body take place at a blood pH of 7.4. If we stray from that, the body will do whatever it can to get us back there. The kidneys, for instance, will respond to over-breathing by buffering - a process in which an alkaline compound called bicarbonate is released into the urine. With less bicarbonate in the blood, pH returns back to normal, even if we continue to huff and puff. It's as if nothing ever happened. The problem with buffering is that it's meant as a temporary fix. Weeks, months, or years of over-breathing and buffering will deplete the body of essential minerals. This occurs because as bicarbonate leaves us it takes magnesium, phosphorus, and more with it.

3/4 of modern humans have a deviated septum clearly visible to the naked eye, which means the bone and the cartilage that separate the right and left airways in the nose are off center. Along with that, 50% of us have chronically inflamed turbinates.

Breathing can stimulate the vagus nerve. Breathing is an autonomic function we can consciously control. While we can't decide when to slow or speed up our hearts or digestion, we can choose how and when to breathe. Willing ourselves to breathe slowly will open up communication along this vagal network. It will relax us into a parasympathetic state. Breathing really fast and heavy flips the vagal response the other way, shoving us into a stressed state. When we do this consciously, we can access or nervous system and control it. We can turn on heavy stress so that we can turn it off and spend the rest of our days and nights relaxing and restoring, feeding and breathing.

Wim Hof took the ancient technique of Tummo, honed it, simplified it, repackaged it for mass consumption, and began promoting its power in a string of daredevil stunts.

There is evidence breath work can help cure autoimmune diseases.

Holotropic breathing involves lying on the floor in a dark room with loud music playing breathing as hard and as quickly as you can for up to 3 hours. They found that willingly breathing to this point of exhaustion can place patients in a state of stress where they can access unconscious thoughts. Essentially the therapy helped people blow a fuse in their minds so they can return to a state of groovy calm.

During rest, 750ml of blood flows through the brain every minute. That changes when we breathe heavily. Whenever the body is forced to take in more air than we need, we'll exhale too much CO2, which will narrow the blood vessels and decrease circulation. Within just a few minutes or few seconds of over-breathing brain blood flow can decrease by 40%. The areas most affected by this are the brains hippocampus and parietal occipital cortices, which together govern function such as visual processing, memory, experience of time, and sense of self. Disturbances in these areas can elicit powerful hallucinations, which include things like out of body experiences and waking dreams. Holotropic breathing also tricks the limbic system into thinking the body is dying.

People with Urbach-Wiethe disease have a damaged amygdala and cannot feel fear. People with this disease have shown us there is another pathway that we perceive fear. The need to breathe comes from a bundle of neurons called the central chemoreceptors located at the base of the brain stem. When we are breathing too slowly and CO2 levels rise, the central chemoreceptors monitor these changes and send alarm signals to the brain, telling our lungs to breathe faster and more deeply. When we're breathing too quickly, these chemoreceptors direct the brain to breathe more slowly. This is how our body determines how fast and how often to breathe, not by the amount of oxygen, but by the amount of CO2.

High amounts of CO2 can fix seizures.

In experiments and treatments using CO2, the most effective and safest blend is 7% CO2 mixed with room air, which is the super-endurance level in the exhaled breath of top athletes during exercise. This allows us to flex our chemoreceptors.

Monks can decrease their metabolic rate by up to 64% by breathing slow, as tested in lab experiments. They can also increase their body temperature by double digits.

Modern medicine is amazingly efficient at cutting out and stitching up parts of the body during emergencies, but it is sadly deficient at treating milder chronic problems - all the asthma, stress, and autoimmune issues that most of us contend with.

In a nutshell this is what we've learned:

  1. Shut your mouth.

  2. Exhale longer.

  3. Chew - to make your jaw bigger.

  4. Breathe more, on occasion.

  5. Hold your breath.


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