The Perfect Breath

Breathing is something we’re each doing. I hope. All day, all night, every day without giving it any thought. On average we’re breathing 15-20 times per minute. That’s more than 25,000 times a day. Over the course of our lives, we’re breathing more than half a billion times. This act is at the essence of our existence. We can go without food for weeks, without water for days, but without the ability to breathe, we’re finished in minutes. As important as inhalations are, what do we know about breathing? Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu legend, Rickson Gracie, writes in his book Breathe, “Not knowing how to breathe is like having a hand and not knowing how to use your fingers.”

There’s a lot going on with our breath. It’s more than filling up our lungs and feeding oxygen to our blood. James Nestor in Breath writes, “The tens of billions of molecules we bring into our bodies with every breath also serve a more subtle, but equally important role. They influence nearly every internal organ, telling them when to turn on and off.” As both a martial artist and surfer, Gracie embraced the power of breath early in his adulthood. He attributes his efforts here as a core contributor to his life’s success writing, “Everything I have earned today was at least partially a result of breathing—my best performance, my emotional control, my ability to endure. Breathing gave me all of this.”

Not all breaths are equal. Just like there are thousands of foods we can choose to eat, an abundance of options for breathing are available. Like foods, some ways of breathing are better than others. Also, like foods, our current lifestyles are leading us to pick ways of breathing which aren’t helpful for our health and productivity. Some ways of breathing, like foods, will nourish our bodies, while others, will harm it. We’re gorging ourselves in the wrong things and starving ourselves of the right things. The way we breathe influences the size of our lungs, our body weight, our immune response, and our ability to concentrate. The way we breathe impacts our ability to perform any number of physical activities. It influences our ability to handle stress. It also influences how we sleep.

Let’s take a moment to consider the breadth of what’s occurring with each boring breath. The journey of a single breath is magical. Inhaling through our nose draws air through our nostrils into our nasal cavity. Inside our nostrils, there’s the hair we may have the misfortune to see, there’s smaller hairs we can’t see called cilia, then there’s small bones called turbinates, and finally the mucous. All serve as our body’s first line of defense. These four work together to warm air being inhaled while filtering out irritants. Our nasal mucous is on a constant march collecting debris from our inhalations and moving junk down our throats into our stomachs where acid sterilizes it. From here, it’s passed like other waste through our intestines and out. The “good” air continues past our nostrils. Inside our skulls is space. Our sinuses are about the size of a billiard ball occupying around six cubic inches. Nestor captures the complexity and power of a single breath noting, “more molecules of air will pass through your nose than all the grains of sand on all the world’s beaches—trillions and trillions of them.” Our nasal tissues provide a mirror to our general state of health. Where our nasal tissue is healthy, it’s a solid indication that we’re healthy. Where our tissues are inflamed, it’s likely we have a health issue somewhere.

As our breath continues it moves to our windpipe (trachea). From here, our respiratory system resembles an upside-down tree. The windpipe or main trunk splits into two bronchi. Our right one feeds our right lung and the left one feeds our left lung. Once in our lungs the bronchi split into smaller branches known as bronchioles. At the ends of bronchioles are alveoli. Alveoli isn’t something you find in an Italian pasta sauce, it’s the place where oxygen is moved to our blood. The alveoli connect our respiratory and circulatory systems. Our lungs contain over 300 million alveoli which are covered in tiny blood vessels called capillaries. The area of contact between alveoli and capillaries is where the oxygen moves from air to blood. This surface area in each of us is the equivalent of the size of a tennis court. Our airways and lungs weigh around ten pounds and contain over 1,500 miles of tissue. It’s a big part of us. Patrick McKeown in The Oxygen Advantage notes with deep respect for nature’s wisdom that our respiratory systems resemble an upside-down tree almost in a way to show how our breathing operates opposite to the respiration of trees. We take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide while trees do the opposite.

Unfortunately, we’re not maximizing the miracle of breath. Our lifestyles over generations have changed such that more and more of us are butchering how we breathe. What are the consequences to getting this wrong? Our breathing has become shallower and more of us ignore our nose instead using our mouths. We’re now the only animal that doesn’t breathe exclusively through their nose. As we neglect our nose and breathe through our mouths, the reduced air through our nose results in congestion as bacteria flourish. Over 40% of us have some kind of nasal obstruction which pushes us to breathe more through our mouths. This results in more infections, colds, and breathing issues. Research has found that the quality of our nasal tissues reflects the quality of our overall health. When our nasal passages suffer, we suffer. It seems that we used to be much better at strictly using our noses but as we discovered fire and began to cook food, our need to chew became less. This became even more the case as we began to eat more grains. Today, it’s worse with processed foods being such a large part of our collective diets. This has led to changed facial skeletal and muscle structure. Whether animal or people, where we transitioned from natural, chewier foods to processed foods, face structure changes followed. Faces became narrower, teeth became more crowded, cavity frequency grew, and jaws fell out of alignment. Nestor notes, “Ninety percent of children have acquired some degree of deformity in their mouths and noses. 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.” Breathing through our mouths instead of our noses has negative consequences. Ultimately, the more we breathe through our mouths, the worse we feel. The problems are piling up. Nestor summarizes, “we’ve lost touch with our most basic and important biological function.” The consequences aren’t good.

Mouth breathing is a key contributor to dehydration. Mouth breathing results in a loss of moisture from our bodies 40% higher than when nasal breathing. Moreover, mouth breathing can influence how we digest food. Additionally, it is a state our body perceives as reflecting a state of stress. It appears that mouth breathing can cause headaches and even hypertension. Where we breathe more, our resting heart rate tends to rise as well. It gets worse, mouth breathing seems to be producing all kinds of orthodontic problems. Dental issues, misaligned jaws, overbites, underbites, crowded teeth…. It contributes to bad breath and gum disease. Mouth breathing is a greater contributor to causing cavities than sugar or hygiene. The downsides deepen, mouth breathing is suggested as a significant contributor to Sleep Apnea. It is the source of snoring. Not only does mouth breathing in sleep irritate those near by, but the quality of our own sleep suffers. The type of sleep and amount of sleep becomes less. Moreover, our blood oxygenation is worse off with mouth breathing than with nose breathing all creating cascading negative health consequences. Even our metabolism is influenced negatively by mouth breathing. We feel worse and perform poorly as a result. Moreover, shallow breathing results in diminished lung size and capacity. We are barely using our diaphragms which results in circulatory problems. Our blood pressure is needlessly elevated as our hearts must work harder. The “normal” number of breaths per minute today is between 12 and 20. Each “normal” breath today averages about half a litre per breath. This results in about twice as much air being breathed as was the case a generation ago. We’re over breathing just like we’re overeating.

In Breath, James Nestor writes, “In the 1980s, researchers with the Framingham Study, a 70-year longitudinal research program focused on heart disease, attempted to find out if lung size really did correlate to longevity. They gathered two decades of data from 5,200 subjects, crunched the numbers, and discovered that the greatest indicator of life span wasn’t genetics, diet, or the amount of daily exercise, as many had suspected. It was lung capacity.” Those in peak health show slower breaths which translates into both less frequent breaths and lower resting heart rates. There’s an abundance of studies showing a relationship amongst many mammals that those that live longest have the lowest resting heart rates. Slower breaths through our nose affects our lung capacity, our blood pressure, heart rate, digestion, and even our ability to store memories. Beyond the numerous physical benefits, the psychological benefits of improved breathing are substantial.

As miserable as the many health consequences are of poor breathing, the psychological effects loom large as well. “Those with the worst anxieties consistently suffer from the worst breathing habits. They are anxious because they’re overbreathing, overbreathing because they’re anxious,” writes Nestor. It’s not a good cycle. Nestor points out that almost 80% of us suffer from CPA or continuous partial attention when working. Nestor writes, “We’ll scan our email, write something down, check Twitter, and do it all over again, never really focusing on any specific task. In this state of perpetual distraction, breathing becomes shallow and erratic.” Linda Stone, a researcher who coined the idea of Continuous Partial Attention produced a description for our shared work state. In 2008, Stone defined Email apnea as “a temporary absence or suspension of breathing, or shallow breathing, while doing email.” This seems to be an inescapable peril of our work world. With the costs piling up associated with bad breathing habits, what are some benefits with getting it right?

In our always on, go, go world, we’re darting about dazed and confused. Our breath reflects this state of activation. Our shallower breaths result in more breaths higher in our chest. Carbon dioxide is reduced as a result. CO2 is a stress reliever in our blood. With less, we become anxious which spirals our state of agitation upwards. To regain a stronger mental state, we need to focus first on our breathing. Low, slow breaths slow the physical actions in our body and bring us a calmer state of mind. This is counter to what our bodies want to do under stress, but we each have it within us to control our breathing to improve our state of mind and, therefore, our ability to perform.

Here’s a breathing exercise for you to consider which is referred to as a “Perfect Breath.” Nestor refers to resonant or coherent breathing as that found where the time of inhalation and exhalation match at 5.5 seconds each. Additionally, doing these types of breaths results in 5.5 breaths per minute and a volume of about 5.5 litres per minute. Breathe slowly through your nose for a count slightly over five seconds. Then exhale at equal pace through either your nose or mouth for slightly over five seconds. Repeating this five and a half times will get you to the desired number of breaths per minute. Focus on this effort for just two minutes to start, that’s 11 breaths. You’ll feel more relaxed and fresher because of this exercise. Do this anytime of day or night. Do this as frequently as you like. Any efforts here slowly trains your brain and body to breath beneficially in the way it was meant to be done. These perfect breaths are about one third what we’re presently taking, moving from 15 or more breaths per minute down to five. With practice, this can become our default way to breathe. This type of breathing is considered the equivalent to “fasting” from a nutritional perspective. Slowing down and deepening our breaths has several benefits. Lower heart rate, optimal blood pressure, balanced oxygen levels in our blood, and enhanced heart rate variability which are all indicators of health can be achieved by spending a few minutes daily working on evening the pace between inhaling and exhaling. Coherence between heart function, circulation, and the nervous system follow this type of breathing.

Breathing, like blinking, is one of the few things we do as humans that can be both automatic and controlled by us. We can take control of our breathing to improve ourselves and our ability to perform. Our breath can be our friend or our enemy. This is up to us. Dane Jensen in The Power of Pressure writes, “When everything else is uncertain, focus on your breathing. It’s something you can always control… There is a reason that ‘Take a deep breath’ is the first thing we usually say to people who are panicking. Focusing on breathing serves two purposes: first, it establishes a beachhead of control in the midst of uncertainty that begins to connect us with self-efficacy; second, it has a direct impact on our physiology. Conscious breathing in peak pressure moments can lower our heart rate and move us into a state of coherence.”

As the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again.” Dane Jensen reinforces this idea writing, “In extremely heightened circumstances, we must be able to get our body under control if we are going to make headway on what is happening upstairs. And focusing on our breathing is far and away the best way to accomplish that.” Breathing is yet one more little thing that can make a big difference. In fact, we’d offer that of all the little things we’ve encouraged to consider, improving our breathing is the one that has the biggest potential to positively impact our physical and mental health and our overall ability to perform.

Summary Points:

  • The way we breathe influences the size of our lungs, our body weight, our immune response, and our ability to concentrate.
  • We’re not maximizing the miracle of breath.
  • The “perfect breath” is an inhalation and exhalation each equalling around 5.5 seconds resulting in 5.5 breaths a minute.
  • A “perfect breath” slows things down and helps our brain function optimally.
  • We can take control of our breathing to improve ourselves and our ability to perform.