Book Review: Breath, by James Nestor

My dog-eared copy of Breath

In Breath, James Nestor does a masterful job of turning a subject we all take for granted into a mind-blowing journey of enlightenment and delight.

We all take breathing for granted, right? I did. But if life has taught us one thing, it is this:

Humans are bad at the fundamentals.

– Me

Eating, sleeping, drinking water, and – yes – now I have to add breathing to the list of things I’ve been getting wrong. It’s as though these big brains of ours which lifted us out of the jungles have also simultaneously distracted us from what makes us fundamentally human.

But breathing should be foolproof, right? Eight billion people can’t be doing this wrong, can we? I mean, we are alive.

The answer?

Here it is, from Breath by James Nestor:

  1. We have forgotten how to breathe
  2. It is not our fault
  3. It is slowly killing us
  4. We can fix it
  5. The benefits will astound you

Sound good? Let’s dive in!

Fact #1 – We have forgotten how to breathe

Unless you live in an ashram or were raised by an indigenous tribe, chances are you’ve forgotten how to breathe correctly. Whether you breathe through your mouth, have allergies, snore, forget to breathe while checking your email, have a deviated septum, or any of a list of maladies, you’ve probably got something that messes with mystical flow of energy coursing through your lungs. Here are the facts:

  • 90% of us are breathing incorrectly
  • 40% of today’s population suffers from chronic nasal obstruction.
  • 50% of us are habitual mouth breathers, with females and children suffering the most.
  • 45% of adults snore occasionally, with 25% snoring habitually. 
  • 25% of adults over 30 choke on themselves because of sleep apnea (with estimates that 80% of cases are undiagnosed – because, how would you know, unless you have a cranky spouse who elbows you in the night). 
  • 75% of modern humans have a deviated septum. 
  • Up to 80% of office workers suffer from continuous partial attention or “screen apnea”. 

Fact #2 – It is not our fault

We aren’t breathing wrong because of some innate character flaw. WE have ALL forgotten how to breathe because we were raised on unnaturally soft foods, we’re stressed out, we’re forced to stare at screens all day, pollution clogs the air, and pharmaceuticals cause unintended side effects.

Three hundred years ago, we didn’t have these problems. Everybody could breathe just fine. In fact, every skull we’ve found from 300 years ago to 300,000 years ago had expansive sinus cavities, large jaws, broad mouths, and – shock – straight teeth.

That’s right: modern life has given us crooked teeth. Since the Industrial Revolution, food has become more processed and softer, requiring less chewing, causing the jaw to shrink. As our jaws have shrunk, teeth have grown in more crooked and there has been less space for the tongue. As the tongue has been forced back into the throat, we’ve had more trouble breathing, so we’ve opened our mouths to breath. That has caused our sinuses to grown stagnant and clogged, compelling us to breathe through our mouths more. This encouraged the roofs of our mouths to steeple up into our sinuses to gain more space for air, making it more difficult to breathe through our noses and shrinking the space for our teeth further. More mouth breathing caused the soft tissue in our nasal passage to sag, making it even harder to breathe through our nose.

The vicious cycle goes on.

Fact #3 – It is slowly killing us

A host of maladies have arisen because of poor breathing:

  • 90% of children have some deformity in their mouths and noses. 
  • Asthma has become a global epidemic.  Nearly 25 million Americans now suffer from it, about 8%, and a fourfold increase since 1980 (the worldwide annual market for asthma therapies is $20 billion).
  • Exercise-induced asthma affects around 15% of the population and up to 40% of athletes.
  • 50% of us have chronically inflamed turbinates. 
  • 90% of us have some form of malocclusion in our mouths.
  • 15% of Americans, more than 50 million people, suffer from autoimmune disorders.
  • 18% of Americans suffer from some form of anxiety or panic, with numbers rising every year. 
  • 50% of us will suffer from anxiety or depression at some point in our lifetime. 

Mouth breathing shallowly and quickly, as we do, triggers our sympathetic nervous system. The Vagus nerve, which wraps around the lungs like a web, tells our amygdala that we are preparing for fight or flight. It tells our adrenal glands to begin injecting adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress hormones into our blood stream. Our blood vessels begin to constrict, blood flow is redirected from non-essential organs like the brain and stomach to the heart and lungs, and we burn blood sugar instead of fat.

It makes us dumber, fatter, and dead sooner.

Fact #4 – We can fix it

Just breathe slowly, deeply, and through your nose. It will be all right.

The author healed himself. There are studies that have shown people into their 70’s regrowing their jaws and increasing their sinus cavities. I have already experienced increased energy and weight loss after one month of self-experimentation. It is never too late to start breathing correctly.

There are 25 trillion red blood cells and the average human body each one of those red blood cells has 1 billion hemoglobin in it. Each hemoglobin can hold up to four oxygen molecules on it as it traverses the bloodstream to deliver that oxygen to needy tissues. However, oxygen cannot disembark from the hemoglobin and penetrate into the tissues that need it without the presence of enough carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. Carbon dioxide pushes the oxygen off of the hemoglobin and takes their positions in the red blood cell to be returned to the lungs and exhaled.

We use on average less than 25% of the oxygen present in our blood. Most of us have plenty of oxygen; what we are lacking is carbon dioxide. We are lacking carbon dioxide because we breathe too quickly and too shallowly and too often through our mouths. By taking slow deep breaths in through our nose, we activate a plethora of hormones and chemicals that dilate the blood vessels, push oxygen into the tissues that need it, and relax our muscles enough to burn fat and gain efficiency in our energy consumption.

In addition, nose breathing triggers the sinuses to release nitric oxide which increases circulation and the delivery of oxygen into lungs.  Nitric oxide also influences immune function, weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function.  [Interesting note: Viagra works by releasing nitric oxide.]  Nasal breathing alone can boost nitric oxide six-fold and can help us absorb 18% more oxygen than mouth breathing. 

Fact #5 – It’ll make your day

Ponder this: the body has two ways of creating energy – aerobic respiration and anaerobic respiration. Anaerobic respiration uses the sugar that’s in your bloodstream to create energy but usually only in times of fight or flight or intense exercise. Anaerobic respiration is like our turbo boost. But when we are low on blood sugar, we crash, making us hungry and tired. In addition, anaerobic respiration has an unclean byproduct – lactic acid.

Aerobic respiration, on the other hand, burns oxygen which generates 16 times more energy than glucose. It is also found in more muscle tissues in the body than anaerobic respiration. And it has no other byproduct than carbon dioxide, giving you clean burning fuel all day.

How do you keep your body in the aerobic respiration zone? Slow, deep breaths in through the nose.

Beyond the energy gains, the list of benefits from slow deep nasal breathing are still astounding:

  1. weight loss,
  2. increased longevity,
  3. lower anxiety levels,
  4. improved mood,
  5. lower resting heart rate,
  6. lower blood pressure
  7. reduced brain fog,
  8. more trunk fat burned,
  9. improved focus,
  10. and on and on.

What’s the catch?

You might be thinking, “What’s the catch? How can so many benefits come from something so basic? Wouldn’t everyone be doing this if it were so easy and beneficial?”

After reading this book, I have to turn the question back around. “How could it come from anything else? What is more important to life than breath?

As for why everyone isn’t doing it, there are some very real obstacles in our path to better breathing:

  1. We’ve been breathing weird our whole lives – that’s a tough habit to break.
  2. Eight billion other people are breathing weird too, which set the cultural bar low for our quality of life.
  3. We all take breathing for granted, which makes fixing it feel like extra work.
  4. Then we ask, “Is the amount of effort I have to put into this worth it?”


This book has changed the way I breathe for life.

If the average reader does nothing more than try a few, slow, deep, nasal breaths in the car, shower, or grocery store, you will see changes. The first thing you will notice is the urge to yawn. That is your body’s way of thanking you for finally breathing right. Then you will begin to feel relaxed. After more deep breathing, you might notice how you are able to think more clearly. Within a few days, I noticed my energy seemed to stabilize throughout the day. My mood did too. After a couple weeks, you might notice your weight dropping. I lost seven pounds in two weeks, and the only thing I changed was my breathing.

After these changes, I was hooked. I began experimenting with other recommendations from the book like sleep tape and running with mouth closed. You can read more about my self-experiments here. If you want to read more about how to implement these breathing exercises, buy Mr. Nestor’s book here.

Do yourself a favor and read Breath. For your energy. For your health. And for your peace of mind.


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