Book Summary: Breath by James Nestor

A must-read if you're serious about your health
Published: September 30, 2022 Reading Time: 14 minutes


If this book doesn’t open your eyes about the importance of proper breathing, I’m not sure what will.

It’s incredible even if taking breath in and out of our bodies is such a fundamental part of being alive most of us are doing it wrong. Proper breathing seems to solve so many chronic health issues that I hope doctors start paying more attention to it before recommending pills or other more complex treatments right away.


“There are as many ways to breathe as there are foods to eat…and each way we breathe will affect our bodies in different ways”

Seven books of the Chinese Tao dating back to 400 BCE focused entirely on breathing.

The way we breathe has gotten markedly worse since the dawn of the Industrial Age.

The Worst Breathers In The Animal Kingdom

(Children) are bottle-fed at six months, and weaned onto jarred commercial foods. The lack of chewing associated with this soft diet stunted bone development in his dental arches and sinus cavity, leading to chronic nasal congestion

“Those structures are in there for a reason” — Dr. Jayakar Nayak when referring to the dunes, stalactites, and marshes inside the human head that orchestrate a multitude of functions for the body

Upward growth impedes the development of the nasal cavity

Bizarrely, even though non of the ancient people ever flossed, or brushed, or saw a dentist, they all had straight teeth.

Of the 5,400 different species of mammals on the planet, humans are now the only ones to routinely have misaligned jaws, overbites, underbites, and snaggled teeth, a condition formally call malocclusion.

Evolution doesn’t always mean progress. It means change

Dysevolution, was made popular by Harvard biologist David Lieberman, and it explains why our backs ache, feet hurt, and bones are growing more brittle.

The more we cooked, the more soft, calorie-rich food we consumed, the larger our brains grew and the tighter our airways became.

In colder climates, our noses would grow narrower and longer to more efficiently heat up air before it entered our lungs; our skin would grow lighter to take in more sunshine for production of vitamin D. In sunny and warm environments, we adapted wider and flatter noses, which were more efficient at inhaling hot and humid air; our skin would grow darker to protect us from the sun.


Mouthbreathing is destroying our health

He’d become convinced (Anders Olsson) that mouthbreathing can put the body into a state of stress that can make us more quickly fatigued and sap athletic performance.

Simply training yourself to breath through your nose, Douillard reported, could cut total exertion in half and offer huge gains in endurance.

The key for exercise, and for the rest of life, is to stay in that energy-efficient, clean-burning, oxygen-eating aerobic zone for the vast majority of time during exercise and at all times during rest

Mouthbreathing, it turns out, changes the physical body and transforms airways, all for the worse. Inhaling air through the mouth decreases pressure, which causes the soft tissues in the back of the mouth to become loose and flex inward, creating less overall space and making breathing more difficult. Mouthbreathing begets more mouthbreathing.

Chronic insomnia, long assumed to be a psychological problem, is often a breathing problem.

No amount of snoring is normal.


Smell is life’s oldest sense.

Breathing is the most intimate connection to our surroundings.

Everything your or I or any other breathing thing has ever put in its mouth, or in its nose, or soaked in through its skin, is hand-me-down space dust that’s been around for 13.8 billion years.

The nostrils do pulse to their own beat, … they do open and close like flowers throughout the day and night.

The interior of the nose is blanketed with erectile tissue, the same flesh that covers the penis, clitoris, and nipples. Noses get erections. Within second, they too can engorge with blood and become large and stiff. This happens because the nose is more intimately connected to the genitals than any other organ; when one gets aroused, the other responds .

Our bodies operate most efficiently in a state of balance, pivoting between action and relaxation, daydreaming and reasoned thought. This balance is influenced by the nasal cycle, and may even be controlled by it. It’s a balance that can also be gamed. Work Hard Rest Hard

This conveyor belt (the turbinates) doesn’t just move by itself. It’s pushed along by millions of tiny, hair-like structures called cilia. Like a field of wheat in the wind, cilia sway with each inhale and exhale, but do so at a fast clip of up to 16 beats per second. Cilia closer to the nostrils gyrate at a different rhythm than those farther along, their movements creating a coordinated wave that keeps mucus moving deeper. The cilia grip is so strong that it can even push against the force of gravity. No matter what position the nose (and head) is in, whether it’s upside down or right-side up, the cilia will keep pushing inward and down .

The nose is the silent warrior: the gatekeeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds, and weather vane to our emotions.

Healthy nasal breathing started at birth. Mothers in all these tribes followed the same practices, carefully closing the baby’s lips with their fingers after each feeding. At night, they’d stand over sleeping infants and gently pinch mouth shut if the opened. Some Plains tribes strapped infants to a straight board and placed a pillow beneath their heads, creating a posture that made it much harder to breathe through the mouth. During winter, infants would be wrapped in light clothing and then held at arm’s length on warmer days so they’d be less prone to get too hot and begin panting Ancient Knowledge Parenting

Mouthbreathing contributed to periodontal disease and bad breath, and was the number one cause of cavities, even more damaging than sugar consumption, bad diet, or poor hygiene.

One of the many benefits is that sinuses release a huge boost of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells.


All the way up to the 1980s, the common belief in Western medicine was that the lungs, like every other internal organ, were immutable. That is, whatever lungs we were born with, we were stuck with


The role of carbon dioxide plays in weight loss. The carbon dioxide in every exhale has weight, and we exhale more weight than we inhale. And the way the body loses weight isn’t through profusely sweating or “burning it off.” We lose weight through exhaled breath

Blood with the most carbon dioxide in it (more acidic) loosened oxygen from hemoglobin. …Carbon dioxide worked as a kind of divorce lawyer, a go-between to separate oxygen from its ties so it could be free to land another mate.

Pure oxygen is only useful for those at altitude (where oxygen levels in the air are decreased) or those who are so sick that they cannot retain healthy oxygen levels.

“Carbon dioxide is the chief hormone of the entire body; it is the only one that is produced by every tissue and that probably acts on every organ,” Henderson later wrote. “Carbon dioxide is, in fact, a more fundamental component of living matter than is oxygen.”

It turns out that when breathing at a normal rate, our lungs will absorb only about a quarter of the available oxygen in the air. The majority of that oxygen is exhaled back out. By taking longer breaths, we allow our lungs to soak up more in fewer breaths.

The most efficient breathing rhythm occurred when both the length of respirations and total breaths per minute were locked in to a spooky symmetry: 5.5-second inhales followed by 5.5-second exhales, which works out almost exactly to 5.5 breaths a minute. This was the same pattern of the rosary.


Training the body to breathe less actually increases $$VO_2 Max$$ , which can not only boost athletic stamina but also help us live longer and healthier lives.


The changes triggered by the rapid industrialization of farmed foods were severely damaging.

This new, highly processed diet lacked fiber and the full spectrum of minerals, vitamins, amino acids, and other nutrients. As a result, urban populations would grow sicker and smaller. In the 1730s, before the onset of industrialization, the average Briton stood about five-seven. Within a century, population shrank two inches, to less than five-five.

The same story played out no matter where he went (Dr. Price). Societies that replaced their traditional diet with modern, processed foods suffered up to ten times more cavities, severely crooked teeth, obstructed airways, and overall poorer health. The modern diets were the same: white flour, white rice, jams, sweetened juices, canned vegetables, and processed meats. The traditional diets were all different.

I traveled to Latvia to meet for two days with the then-president of the Empty Nose Syndrome Association. Her name was Alla and she was in her early 30s. Eight years ago, after completing two master’s degrees, Alla was pursuing a corporate career and spent her off hours singing and dancing. She was physically fit and had never suffered from a serious illness. During a checkup, a doctor found a small cyst in her sinuses and suggested Alla have it removed in a routine procedure. The surgeon dug through her nose, removing large portions of her sinuses and turbinates while also forgetting to remove the cyst. The effects were dramatic. “It feels like I’m constantly drowning in air.” Alla told me. She was forced to quit her career and give up most of her physical activity. “Every day a struggle, every breath,” she said .

(correct “oral posture”). It just meant holding the lips together, teeth lightly touching, with your tongue on the roof of the mouth. Hold the head up perpendicular to the body and don’t kink your neck.

After decades of experimentation and collecting case studies, of seeing his patients' mouths and faces grow younger the older they got, Belfor decided that the conventional science of bone loss was, in his words, “total bullshit.”

The more we gnaw, the more stem cells release, the more bone density and growth we’ll trigger, the younger we’ll look and the better we’ll breathe.

Until a few hundred years ago, mother would breastfeed infants up to two to four years of age.

“An early soft diet prevents the development of the muscle fibers of the tongue,” he wrote more than a century ago (James Sim Wallace, renowned Scottish doctor and dentist)

“Crooked teeth a are disease of civilization” — Robert Corruccini, anthropologist

More, On Occasion

The lungs are covered with nerves that extend to both sides of the autonomic nervous system, and many of the nerves connecting to the parasympathetic system are located in the lower lobes, which is one reason long and slow breaths are so relaxing.

The deeper and more softly we breathe in, and the longer we exhale, the more slowly the hear beats and the calmer we become

Tummo heated the body and opened up the brain’s pharmacy, flooding the bloodstream with self-produced opioids, dopamine, and serotonin. All that, with just a few hundred quick and heavy breaths.

Hold It

The nagging need to breathe is activated from a cluster of neurons called the central chemoreceptors, located at the base of the brain.

Our bodies determine how fast and often we breathe, not by the amount of oxygen, but by the level of carbon dioxide

As far back as the first century BCE, inhabitants of what is now India described a system of conscious apnea, which they claimed restored health and ensured long life. The Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu spiritual text written around 2,000 years ago, translated the breathing practice of Pranayama to mean “trance induced by stopping all breathing.” A few centuries after that, Chinese scholars wrote several volumes detailing the art of breathholding. One text, A Book on breath by the Mater Great Nothing of Sung-Shan, offered this advice:

Lie down every day, pacify your mind, cut off thoughts and block the breath. Close your fists, inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth. Do not let the breathing be audible. Let it be most subtle and fine. When the breath is full, block it. The blocking (of the breath) will make the soles of your feet perspire. Count one hundred times “one and two.” After blocking the breath to the extreme, exhale it subtly. Inhale a little more and block (the breathe) again. If (you feel) hot, exhale with “Ho.” If (you feel) cold, blow the breath out and exhale it with (the sound) “Ch’ui.” If you can breathe (like this) and count to one thousand (when blocking), then you will need neither grains nor medicine.

Up to 80 percent of office workers (according to one estimate) suffer from something called continuous partial attention. 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.

Exposing the body to carbon dioxide, whether in water or through injections or via inhalation, increases oxygen delivery to muscles, organs, brain, and more; it dilates arteries to increase blood flow, helps dissolve more fat, and is a powerful treatment for dozens of ailments.

By the 1950s, a century of scientific research disappeared. Those with skin disorders turned to pills and creams; those with asthma managed symptoms with steroids and bronchodilators. Patients with severe mental disorders were given sedatives.

Fast, Slow, And Not At All

“All living organisms are but leaves on the same tree of life.” — Albert Szent-Györgyi

“Nature is simple but subtle” — Albert Szent-Györgyi

A Last Gasp

I wouldn’t be alive without antibiotics, immunizations, and a lat-minute rush to the doctor’s office to zap out a lymph node infection. The medical technologies developed over the last century have saved innumerable lives. They have increased the quality of life around the world many times over.

But modern medicine, still, has its limitations. “I’m dealing with the walking dead,” said Dr. Michael Gelb, who’d spent 30 years working as a dental surgeon and sleep specialist. He echoed what I’d heard from Dr. Don Storey, my father-in-law, who’d worked as a pulmonologist for the past 40 years. Dozens of doctors at Harvard, Stanford, and other institutions told me the same thing. Modern medicine, they said, was amazingly efficient at cutting out and stitching up parts of the body in emergencies, but sadly deficient at treating milder, chronic systemic maladies–the asthma, headaches, stress, and autoimmune issues that most of the modern population contends with .

Like all Eastern medicines, breathing techniques are best suited to serve as preventative maintenance

Nine out of ten of the top killers, such as diabetes, heart disease, and stroke are caused by the food we eat, water we drink, houses we live in, and offices we work in. They are disease humanity created.