Imagine if a Nobel Prize-winning scientist developed a pill that could fight depression, anxiety, and most forms of chronic disease, speed healing, improve your mental clarity and help you get in the best physical shape of your life, all with no side effects and no cost.
Would you take this pill? Of course, you would!
Now, what if it wasn’t a pill but a simple adjustment to something you do unconsciously every moment of every day?
That “something” is breathing.
And volumes of research dating back hundreds of years have shown that making two small but massively important changes to how you breathe can have profound impacts on your health, energy levels, and overall well-being.
Before I share these changes, consider this: The average person takes between 20 and 25 thousand breaths every day, inhaling over 30 pounds of air (much more weight than what we eat) that transfers approximately 1.7 lbs of oxygen into our cells.
There’s no other autonomic function of our amazingly complex human body that is as fundamental to the quality of our lives.
As James Nestor, author of the International best seller, Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art, puts it:
Breathing is the missing pillar of health.
As crazy as it sounds, many people breathe incorrectly, robbing them of energy, vitality, and the ability to present their very best selves.
Consider these findings from James Nestor’s research:
Ninety percent of children have acquired some degree of deformity in their mouths and noses (from dysfunctional breathing). Forty-five percent of adults snore occasionally, and a quarter of the population snores constantly. Twenty-five percent of American adults over 30 choke on themselves because of sleep apnea; and an estimated 80 percent of moderate or severe cases are undiagnosed. Meanwhile, the majority of the population suffers from some form of breathing difficulty or resistance.
You may be thinking, “Breathing is a natural thing! Breathe in, breathe out…not much to it, right?”
Well, what if you decided to take golf lessons and your instruction consisted of hitting a hundred balls by yourself. “You will eventually find your natural swing,” your instructor confidently tells you.
How well would that work?
In the same way, whether it’s hitting a golf ball, learning yoga, or teaching your toddler to tie their shoes, there’s a right way to do things and a wrong way. And that also applies to the basic but vitally important act of breathing.
So how should we breathe?
What’s the best way to inhale and exhale to optimize your energy, fortify your immune system, and maximize your health?
Follow these two rules of functional breathing and you will be on the right track.
1. Breathe through your nose.
According to volumes of data, there are few things you can do to deplete your health, drain your energy, and send your stress levels through the roof than breathing through your mouth.
For example, as part of his research in writing Breath, James Nestor submitted to having his nasal cavities plugged with silicone (under the supervision of trained scientists) for 10 days. Halfway through the experiment, he shares the results of his physical exam:
The data (from my exam) reveal what the previous days have revealed: mouth breathing is destroying (my) health. My blood pressure has spiked by an average of 13 points from where it was before the test, which puts me deep into stage 1 hypertension. If left unchecked, this state of chronically raised blood pressure, also shared by a third of the U.S. population, can cause heart attacks, stroke, and other serious problems. Meanwhile, my heart rate variability, a measure of nervous system balance, has plummeted, suggesting that my body is in a state of stress. Then there’s my pulse, which has increased; my body temperature, which has decreased; and my mental clarity, which has hit rock bottom. But the worst part about all this is how I feel–awful. Every day it all just seems to be getting worse.
Studies show that chronic mouth breathing dramatically increases the risks of:
• Respiratory infection
• Snoring and sleep apnea
• Changing the shape of the face in young children, creating the need for costly orthodontia and other treatments
When you breathe through your mouth, it’s as if your lungs are an external organ because mouth breathing exposes them to every harmful thing in your environment: pollutants, smog, dust, black mold, dirt, etc.
Conversely, our noses have a complex filtering system consisting not just of hair but also cilia, which are cells that line the nasal cavity and sweep germs and small particles entering the trachea from the outside.
When you mouth-breathe, you get none of these benefits of filtration and you are far more exposed to colds, flu, and harmful bacteria.
Another major benefit of nasal breathing is the release of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells.
Immune function, weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function can all be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body. The popular erectile dysfunction drug sildenafil, known by the commercial name Viagra, works by releasing nitric oxide into the bloodstream, which opens the capillaries in the genitals and elsewhere.
2. Breathe less.
Mouth breathing isn’t the only problem. According to research, over-breathing is another root cause of poor respiratory health.
For most of our lives, we’ve been told to take long deep breaths to clear our lungs and take in more oxygen. This advice, while well-intentioned, exposes one of the biggest respiratory myths, centered around the crucial role of an under-rated chemical that is vital to functional breathing: carbon dioxide.
Contrary to popular opinion, carbon dioxide is not just a waste gas. It is the catalyst for oxygen to be released from the blood into the cells.
When you breathe, the goal isn’t getting oxygen into your blood–your blood has plenty of oxygen; rather, the goal is delivering oxygen from the blood to where it is needed–the cells throughout your body.
Along with mouth breathing, over-breathing reduces your tolerance for CO2 which causes you to offload too much of this important gas, decreasing its concentration in your blood which, in turn, reduces the delivery of oxygen to your tissues and muscles. This is known as the Bohr Effect, a scientific principle that, for generations has governed our understanding of the human respiratory system.
To put it simply, breathing too much and too fast expels carbon dioxide from your system which constricts blood vessels and causes your hemoglobin to hold onto oxygen instead of delivering it to your muscles and the rest of your body.
How can you tell if you’re breathing too much?
The simplest way to measure your ability to tolerate higher levels of CO2 in your breathing (the more sensitive you are to CO2, the faster you need to breathe to get rid of it) is to determine your BOLT (Body Oxygen Level Test) score.
To perform a BOLT test, take a long breath in and out through the nose.
Then pinch your nose to stop the entry of air into the lungs.
Record the number of seconds you can hold your breath before feeling the first strong urge to breathe (NOT until you can’t hold it any longer and need to gasp for breath).
Then resume breathing naturally through the nose.
The lower your BOLT score (anything under 20 seconds is considered low), the more sensitive your breathing receptors are to CO2.
This means you need to breathe harder and faster to offload excess carbon dioxide, resulting in an inefficient respiratory system.
Chances are, you may be surprised by how difficult it is for you to hold your breath from an exhale for more than 20 seconds!
Don’t feel bad. Numerous studies reveal that even elite athletes can struggle with low body oxygen levels.
Are there tools you can use and habits you can learn to improve your breathing? Yes–there are simple strategies you can easily incorporate into your daily life to dramatically improve how you breathe, leading to greater energy, vitality, and long-term health.
In my next post, I’ll share my top 3.
In the meantime, try measuring your BOLT score.
How many seconds did it take before you felt the urge to breathe?
Now, have a few family members or friends try it and compare the results.
Are you surprised by your score? Are you motivated to improve it?