We’re inundated with the latest and greatest wellness tips (yes, we’ll take one Mirror and two new Bala Bands, please.) And yet, somehow, we’re still suckers for easy solves and low-level commitments. If we’re honest, we want to get healthier without, well, any marathon training. That’s what led us to the research of James Nestor, New York Times bestselling author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.
Over ten years, Nestor followed doctors and experts to understand why we breathe the way we do, its effects on our health and how to do it better. His book documents that journey. And while his findings were extensive and impressively scientific (we can’t recommend the book enough, seriously), a lot of it boils down to one easy shift: breathing slowly through our noses instead of our mouths.
Below: Why slow, nasal breathing is beneficial and how to add it to your lifestyle.
Why breathe through our noses?
In Breath, Nestor documents two ten-day experiments during which he breathed exclusively through his mouth (thanks to semi-permanent nose plugs), and then exclusively through his nose (thanks to a bit of tape placed over his lips, and uh, don’t try this at home). Tracking blood pressure, hormone levels, smell, heart rate, sleep, bacterial growth and more, Nestor found that simply breathing through our noses dramatically improves physical and mental health.
Mouth breathing results
Just a few days into his mouth-breathing stint, Nestor documented a host of new maladies: spikes in his blood pressure, equating to stage 1 hypertension; a drop in heart rate variability, which signaled his body was in a constant state of stress; and decreased body temperature and mental clarity. Unfortunately, this experience isn’t his alone. About 50 percent of today’s population are habitual mouth breathers.
Nasal breathing results
Similarly, a few days of exclusive nasal breathing reversed the negative mouth-breathing effects for Nestor, and he cites hundreds of examples to support these claims. A quick nod to our nozzles: Aside from clearing, heating and moistening raw air upon inhaling, our nose triggers hormones and chemicals that lower blood pressure, regulate heart rate, ease digestion and more. Our noses also have direct access to our brain hemispheres. Breathing through the right nostril feeds blood to the left hemisphere, which facilitates logical decisions, language and computing. Breathing through the left shifts blood flow to the right hemisphere, igniting creative thought and emotions. Goodbye, brain fog.
OK so why does breathing slowly matter?
Countless studies have shown that slow breathing increases blood flow to the brain, which leads our bodies into a state of balance and peak efficiency. Slower, longer exhales mean higher levels of carbon dioxide in our bodies. This also increases aerobic endurance, raising our energy levels and ultimately our longevity.
On the contrary, over-breathing—of which we’re all likely culprits, especially those of us suffering from chronic anxiety and stress—depletes our bodies of essential minerals, causing nerves to malfunction, muscles to spasm and cells to fail at creating energy. In one study, Dr. Xavier Woorons tested hypoventilation, or breathing less, on elite athletes. Over just a few weeks, he found that athletes’ muscles adapted to tolerate more lactate accumulation and red blood cell counts increased, allowing them to hold more oxygen and produce more energy.
How do I try this slow nose breathing technique?
Nestor’s research led him to the “perfect” breathing rhythm through the nose. Here’s how to try it:
- Inhale through the nose for 5 to 6 seconds
- Exhale through the nose for 5 to 6 seconds
That’s about 5.5 breaths per minute—a far cry from the 18 most Americans take. It’s slow. Give it a try, if only for five minutes daily. The effects are immediate, and the commitment is low. Oh, and the price? That’s our favorite. Snorers and cyclists, anxiety-prone and asthmatics, fog-brained and insomniacs, young and old can benefit alike. Our breath is indiscriminate, portable and always accessible.
But the best news? No marathons required.