People in distress are often advised to breathe through their noses to help them calm down, and scientific journalist James Nestor has devoted his latest book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, to the benefits of breathing this way. He discovered that although humans breathe innately, somewhere along the way we forgot how to do it properly. Here, Nestor shares the fascinating results of his research.

Your book bowled me over because it’s both revolutionary and deeply simple. Why do we have to relearn how to breathe?

“Research made me realize that we’ve changed our diet to suit our current lifestyle, much like we’ve had to resort to exercise to counteract our new sedentariness. It therefore makes sense to observe how the stressors in our environment have transformed the way we use our main source of energy: our breath. As it turns out, we’ve been using our nasal passages less and less: Humans breathe too much, and [we breathe] through our mouths.”

Why is it bad to breathe through your mouth?

“Because your mouth has no system to filter the air that you breathe. By breathing through your nose, you force the air to travel through a series of structures in which it’s warmed, humidified, filtered, pressurized and conditioned before it even reaches your lungs, which makes absorbing it much easier. You absorb 20 percent more oxygen by breathing through your nose.”

A lot of us are plagued by anxiety. What have you discovered about the connection between breathing and our psychological state?

“That 80 percent of exchanges between the body and the brain come from the body. By breathing through your nose, you’re communicating to your brain that you are calm and secure, which has the effect of regulating stress hormones. Many studies have shown that breathing slowly contributes to multiplying connections between the various regions of the brain tied to decision making, which allows you to exert better control over your reactions. Breathing is the body’s only automatic function in which you can play an active role.”

I was surprised to learn that the left and right nostrils actually have different functions!

“Absolutely! By inhaling and exhaling through your right nostril, you’re pressing down on the accelerator: Your heartbeat, thought processes and blood flow all increase. If you block your right nostril and only use your left one, you can calm your nervous system and stimulate your brain’s creative side.”

Your book is full of information on the health benefits of breathing slowly through your nose, from better sleep quality to improved athletic performance. How do we go about changing something we’ve been doing since birth?

“Breathing will not solve all your problems, but it’s part of the foundation of good health. You can start by making small adjustments to your lifestyle, whether that’s placing a piece of tape over your lips to train your brain to keep your mouth closed during the night or breathing consciously while driving or jogging. Explore these avenues with patience, curiosity and the intention to establish a new habit in your daily life.”

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art (Riverhed Books)

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