Breathing should be easy, right?

I mean, we don’t think about needing to breathe correctly. Nobody teaches us classes on how to breathe in school. The only people you hear talking about breathing are yogis, guided meditation teachers, and birthing class instructors. So, if nobody’s teaching it, then it must not be important, right? Or we must all be doing it correctly.

Well, obviously breathing is important. There’s the old adage: you can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without breathe. That is self evident. However, the method by which we breathe has rarely been called into question.

So, is it important how we breathe or will any old breathing do? That is the question I will try to answer here.

First, I’ll walk through the science of how oxygen and carbon dioxide affect our energy. Second, I’ll go through the research on what the experts are saying. Third, I’ll experiment with my own levels of energy by implementing what I’ve learned. And finally, I’ll summarize my findings.

But here’s a sneak peek: I think proper breathing is the foundation to good energy.

As I’ve said before, energy is a multifaceted thing. You can’t just fix one aspect of your energy chain and hope that you’re good. There could be multiple links in your energy chain that are broken or fractured and causing a weakening in your energy levels.

The Science (simply) – how it affects our energy

So, let’s talk about the science behind how your breath affects your oxygen.

As we’ve discussed, there are three ways in which your energy is created: aerobic cellular respiration, anaerobic respiration, and fermentation. Oxygen is needed for the aerobic cellular respiration. We need to breathe in deeply in order to inflate the lungs efficiently with oxygen-rich air. The lungs suck oxygen into the blood streams through the alveoli, combining with red blood cells which transport the oxygen throughout the body to your tissues. Anything that impedes that process up until now is a problem (smoking, pollution, poor breathing).

Here’s the interesting part of the science: in order for the oxygen to let go of the hemoglobin and move into your tissues, you need a certain level of carbon dioxide in your body. It’s carbon dioxide that pushes the oxygen from the red blood cells to the tissues. This is the second place where our breathing is important. We have to breathe slowly in order to keep our carbon dioxide at a certain level. Most of us have plenty of oxygen in our blood, but not enough carbon dioxide to push the oxygen into the tissues that need it.

Okay, now, part three. Inside the tissues. Your cells break use the oxygen to break down the ATP into ADP. Your food is ‘oxidized’ into energy. This is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak.

For a fun, deeper dive into cellular respiration, here’s a great video:

Now for the research.

The Research – tips & tricks from the experts

I will begin by basing my research on the book, Breath, by James Nestor, and the websites, articles, and books he references.

Breath came out in 2020, a NY Times bestseller, NPR’s Best Book of 2020, and Washington Post notable nonfiction book. James Nestor claims “making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines.”

To read my full book review, click here:

Most modern humans breathe too rapidly. Have you ever noticed that your breathing slows way down when you go to sleep? That’s how you should be breathing all day long. But you can always tell a modern human when they fallen asleep because their breathing goes from a short shallow breath to a long deep breath. Because your body’s finally taking over instead of your brain. When your brain is on, you’re stressed out and you are focusing on everything that’s going on in your day which triggers your sympathetic nervous system and your Vagus nerve to cause your diaphragm to beat rapidly as though you’re in fight or flight mode. With short shallow breaths, you’re getting too much oxygen and not enough carbon dioxide. That’s going to affect the second phase of second cellular respiration where the carbon dioxide is used to push the oxygen off of the hemoglobin through the walls of your arteries and into your tissues.

The average human breathes between 16 to 20 breaths per minute. (One breath is counted as an in breath and out breath.) I timed myself and I was 18 breaths per second. Dead average. According to the research we should be breathing five to six times per minute. That’s a third of what I’m currently breathing. I was staggered by this! In the beginning, when I tried to breathe this slowly, I found it uncomfortable. But here’s why the research says this is important: as you know from every picture you’ve ever seen the lungs, the lungs are narrow and thin at the top and deep and wide at the bottom. A short shallow breath only accesses the smallest part of your lungs deep slow breaths. It isn’t efficiently using the entire capacity of your lungs.

And did you know that the highest correlation between longevity and any other factor in your body is lung capacity? If you’ve ever heard of elite athletes having a high VO2 max, that’s essentially their lung capacity. It’s their ability for their blood to efficiently carry oxygen. This blew my mind when I found out that the longest lived humans have the highest lung capacity. It’s not that they ate well, that they slept longer, or drank one glass of red wine a day or whatever else you’ve heard. It was their breath! Which makes sense, right? Even though it’s mind blowing, you can only live weeks without food days without water and minutes (four minutes, to be exact) without air.

So, by breathing well, you can live longer, but it’s not just about living longer. And I don’t necessarily care about living longer; I want to live well. I want to be energized and have a high quality of life. And breathing well does more than just energize you – it does lead to a higher quality of life. Breathing well will calm your mind, bring you a sense of peace, lower your cortisol, raise your testosterone, and increase your body’s ability to utilize oxygen. There are more benefits but just these alone are staggering. Why aren’t people teaching this?

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, humans are notoriously bad at the basics. This struck me forcibly when I was learning how to run I thought we all ran pretty well innately. However when I started to try to do long distance running, my knees gave out and tons of people said well of course your knees gave out running is bad on your knees. But I started to do some research. And I found out that that didn’t have to be the way. In fact, there’s a Stanford study that shows that runner’s knees are stronger than the average person’s knees. You just have to run properly. And we don’t Modern society has created these crazy shoes that make us feel like we can heel strike when we run. But all elite runners either land on the ball of their feet or land mid step and they avoid overextending their legs and heel striking which causes an insane amount of damage to your knees. As soon as I changed my stride, my knees problems went away for good and I have now been running long distances for 10 years.

So if we don’t run naturally, properly and we don’t breathe naturally properly, because modern society has stressed us out so much. What else aren’t we doing that we take for granted?

The Experiment – applying tips & tricks in everyday life

So, I started trying to do breathe deeply and slowly on a regular basis. As I mentioned at first, it was very uncomfortable. Our diaphragm muscles are out of shape. So, it’s gonna take a little bit of time to get this breathing down.

For the first day, I did it for 15 minutes. Maybe. The second day I started doing it in my car drive while listening to audio books on research. I found I started doing it at various points during the day. And I would guess on the second day I went up to 30 minutes of slow breathing. By the third day I was starting to subconsciously do it, I think but I consciously did it more and more throughout the day. Whenever I had a break where I could do that simultaneously with whatever activity I was doing.

I also began to breathe through my nose for as long as I could while exercising. On my daily run, I began only being able to breath through my nose for about 100 yards. After a few weeks, I can now make it approximately 1/3 of a mile. At work, I take the stairs up to the ninth floor every day. I only recently began to be able to do this without stopping. Now I’m trying it without mouth breathing. It took me about two weeks before I could consistently reach the ninth floor without stopping or breathing through my mouth. But I can tell you, the first time I made it, I thought I was going to die. It reminded me of running wind sprints in high school or trying to set a personal record in a 5k. I was so winded that, for a second, I felt like I might throw up or pass out. My heart was pounding so hard and lungs were sucking air into my body so deeply, my body seemed on the verge of seizing up from lack of oxygen.

Despite the discomfort, this was a fascinating feeling for me. I haven’t felt such an extreme lack of oxygen since possibly running my last competitive 5k nearly a decade ago. But really, it reminded me more of team sports in high school when coaches and teammates push you way past your limits and you nearly blackout. It’s that feeling of extreme training when you know your body is struggling to grow in order to survive. Yet I wasn’t sweating. I wasn’t at a gym. It was almost accidental. I pushed my body to its limits in five minutes on my way up to my office. And within a couple weeks, I saw real progress. Fascinating.

I will continue to experiment with deep, slow breaths through my nose, and I will continue to report back here.

Conclusion – how things turned out

While I obviously can’t make any final conclusions yet, I have noticed my energy is already subtly shifting. It isn’t that I have more energy. As I’ve documented in my log, my energy continues to fluctuate based more apparently upon my amount of sleep, the quality of that sleep, and the amount of calories I consume (or, more accurately, net after exercise). However, the quality of my energy seems to have improved. It feels more resilient. Steadier. I feel less fidgety and less frequently fatigued. I might still have low energy afternoons or evenings, but the ups and downs I used to experience seem less severe.

I’m not sure how to quantify this, but I shall endeavor to do more research, self-experimentation, and description here.

I do plan to set up a new experiment to separate out breathing as a source of energy. I will try shallow breathing on purpose and look at my energy and then try deep breathing on purpose and looked at my energy. I have a hunch this won’t be easy, but I will schedule this experiment for when I’m not tweaking any of my other factors (sleep, diet, caffeine, etc.).