James Nestor on Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art Introduction
Today we are exploring the breath, and as our guest says, this will be of interest to anybody who breathes. So I know that for the fact that that includes all of you and breathing is something that is just part of our lives. We give very little thought to it.
How often do we breathe? How much do we breathe? Do we breathe from our nose? Do we breathe through our mouth? How important is it? Well if you’re a regular listener, of this podcast, you will know it is essential, and it’s so accessible. That’s what I love about it as well. Just like sleep, these two interventions of getting sleep and breathe right are absolutely transformative. And they are cheap. They do not cost you anything. All you need to do is be aware of them and make a commitment to prioritize it, which is why we often revisit both those things on this podcast.
My guest today is James Nestor. Now, James has written for the Scientific American Outside magazine, Men’s Journal, National Public Radio, The New York Times, and much, much more. His book, “Deep Free Diving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves”, was the finalist for the PEN American Central Best Sports Book of the Year in a BBC Radio for Book of the Year, James has appeared on dozens of national radio and television shows, including ABC’s Nightline, the ABC, the CBS Morning News, the NPR. He lives and breathes in San Francisco. His current book is called “Breath The New Science of a Lost Art”. Now, I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with James Nestor.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:06] Hello and welcome to Unstress. My name is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Well, today we are exploring the breath, and as our guest says, this will be of interest to anybody who breathes. So I know that for the fact that that includes all of you and breathing is something that is just part of our lives. We give very little thought to it.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:00:29] How often do we breathe? How much do we breathe? Do we breathe from our nose? Do we breathe through our mouth? How important is it? Well if you’re a regular listener, of this podcast, you will know it is essential, and it’s so accessible. That’s what I love about it as well. Just like sleep, these two interventions of getting sleep and breathe right are absolutely transformative. And they are cheap. They do not cost you anything. All you need to do is be aware of them and make a commitment to prioritize it, which is why we often revisit both those things on this podcast.
My guest today is James Nestor. Now, James has written for the Scientific American Outside magazine, Men’s Journal, National Public Radio, The New York Times, and much, much more. His book, “Deep Free Diving, Renegade Science and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves”, was the finalist for the PEN American Central Best Sports Book of the Year in a BBC Radio for Book of the Year, James has appeared on dozens of national radio and television shows, including ABC’s Nightline, the ABC, the CBS Morning News, the NPR. He lives and breathes in San Francisco. His current book is called “Breath The New Science of a Lost Art”. Now, I hope you enjoy this conversation I had with James Nestor. Welcome to the show, James.
James Nestor [00:02:07] Thanks for having me.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:02:09] James breath is a breath, but breathing is a central pillar to what this podcast is about. So when I saw your book “Breathe The Science of a Lost Art”, I thought, wow, you’re coming at this from a nonprofessional point of view. You’re a journalist and author. And I just love the book. I think you’ve covered some incredible territory. And I wondered if you might just tell us, how did you come up with this? Where did this interest start?
James Nestor [00:02:40] Yeah, I never set out to write a book about breathing. This was not on my to-do list in my life. But so many things kept accumulating, so many stories. I saw so much data, so many studies that after several years of picking around it, this idea, everything sort of came together in a cohesive picture. And I guess the real jumping-off point for me was to see free divers, these people who have trained themselves just with their natural bodies to hold their breath for seven, eight minutes at a time to dive down to 300, 400 feet. I mean, none of this we thought was possible. And yet there they are. And I thought, what else don’t we know about our bodies? Where else can breathing take us? And that’s what I spent several years researching.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:03:28] Hmm. I love the way you say this book will be of interest to anybody that breathes. And, you know, I’m guessing I’m not guessing. I know everybody that’s listening to this can share that because they’re all breathing. And you wrote your first book, “The Deep Free Diving Renegade Science and What the Ocean tells us about ourselves”. I mean, that in itself lets you to the power of the breath, doesn’t it? Tell us a bit about that book.
James Nestor [00:03:55] It does. It’s you know, I saw where breathing could take us underwater. I saw the power of breath-holding. But what I wasn’t able to get into in that book, because that book is really about the human connection to the ocean from the surface to the very bottom of the sea. So freediving is closer to the surface.
Then there are all these other areas in the ocean there. So I kept finding free divers who understood free diving is not a competition but as a meditative practice. And they were telling me it’s like, well, the benefits of breathing this way, of really honing this skill extend far beyond what we’re doing here.
You can use breathing to help heat your body up when you’re cold. You can use it to heal your body of so many chronic conditions. And this all sounded crazy to me. But the more I went out in the field, the more I talked to researchers, the more I realized what they were telling me was 100 percent correct.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:04:52] Mm-hmm. And the other thing that I find fascinating about this whole subject as well is that we as humans think of ourselves as pretty special. And we are I mean; you just have to look around the world to know we’ve made an impact. But there’s something about humans that also make us quite unique. We’ve got crooked teeth and problems breathing. Tell us a bit about that, modern humans and their whole journey then?
James Nestor [00:05:21] Yeah, I had no idea this existed. I had crooked teeth. Everyone I knew had crooked teeth growing up. I had braces, extractions, headgear, all that stuff. And I thought that this was just a normal part of being a human. And, you know, I looked at the reasons why people have crooked teeth.
When I first started doing this research, when I started hearing these quaking that people were saying, you know, I think it’s attached to something, it might be correlated to food. And the National Institutes of Health here in the U.S. say it’s hereditary. They said it’s normal. So what does that mean? If we all started off the same way, why do some of us have and some of us don’t? The thing that absolutely shocked me was that if you look at ancient skulls, I looked at a lot of ancient skulls in this research. They all have perfectly straight teeth.
James Nestor [00:06:11] So it doesn’t matter. You can go back 50,000 years, five hundred thousand years, even five hundred years ago, the vast majority of humans had perfectly straight teeth.
These largemouths, these large jaws, if you look at humans today, about 90 percent of us have some crookedness in our teeth. So all of this change happened in just a few hundred years, and something obviously caused it. You can’t just say it’s genetic. That doesn’t mean anything. If three hundred years ago we all had straight teeth and now we don’t.
So it turns out that our modern diet has done this to us. Our teeth are so crooked because our mouths are so small. When you have a small mouth, you have a smaller airway, which is the main reason so many of us suffer from sleep apnea, snoring, other respiratory problems.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:06:58] Mm-hmm. Yeah. And it’s probably worth mentioning that we are pretty unique. In the world, in Animal Kingdom, because there aren’t any other; literally there are no other species that enjoy this feature, will suffer from it when you enjoy is perhaps not the best word.
James Nestor [00:07:22] But yeah. And if you don’t believe me, look at pictures of animals in the wild. I looked at a lot of those, too. They all have perfectly straight teeth. And to think that all animals had straight teeth because why would their teeth be crooked? Why would our teeth be crooked? This is not a trait that held any evolutionary advantage over a competitor.
Having crooked teeth does nothing to allow us to compete stronger. So this idea that evolution always means survival of the fittest always means no. No, that is not true. Evolution means change. And if you look at the human species right now, I don’t consider 40 percent of the population, the US having obesity as an advantage over their competitors. We’re changing in ways that are very damaging to our health.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:08:12] And you and I saw in your book, and I’m not sure that you didn’t come up with it, but de-evolution, you know, not evolution, but de-evolution. And it’s so interesting, too, isn’t it, that medical practitioners, health practitioners who are advising us are just accepting that as normal.
James Nestor [00:08:32] Yeah, and it’s really no, I don’t want to point fingers, they’re doing the best that they can in 20 patients a day. I mean, it’s insane, but the way that the system is set up is, at least in the US where its private health care system is, you know, people come in, and the doctors are educated to treat pathologies, to treat chronic problems. If you have a low-grade underlying condition, you can’t even see anyone until you’re really sick. And this is what this is not my hypothesis. This is not my viewpoint. This is what I heard from at least a dozen doctors.
My father-in-law was a pulmonologist, and this is what he told me. First off, he’s like, I don’t want to see people until they really need me, till I have to cut out some lungs or I have to do some surgery, some serious operation. So meanwhile, the rest of us just have these low-grade chronic conditions that just get worse and worse the older we get until we need serious help. So it just seems like an extraordinary way to live your life, just getting sicker and sicker. Shouldn’t you go the other way and try to get healthier and healthier?
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:09:43] Well, James, that’s the mission statement of this podcast. And I’ve often said that our current health system is a great economic model. It’s just not a very good health model. So I think you said the same thing.
James Nestor [00:09:58] I completely agree with you. And by the way, I have no solutions on how to fix it. Right. I know this is extremely complicated, but the one thing that we can do is take more of our health into our own hands. And that’s what podcasts like this and other books. And you see this huge revolution of people who are so angry from not getting proper care and who have in many cases been lied to, been told to eat high carb, high sugar food. And you’re going to be just fine.
Start off your breakfast with a big bowl of Cheerios or Trex; it’s not fine. And so the positive end of this is we now have awareness, and with awareness, we can really elicit some change.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:10:38] Which is why I love the book because of its accessibility and the way you’re coming at it from every person. And I say that with all due respect, you’re not coming at it from the physician research point of view. And this is something that’s available to us all, you know, to all of us that are breathing. We have an opportunity here.
James Nestor [00:10:59] Yeah. You know, you think of diet, which is so important to health as well when you’re asking someone to change their diet completely, the same diet they’ve had for 30 years, you say you got to go, keto. You’ve got to go paleo. You’ve got to go vegan, vegetarian. That’s a full lifestyle change. And there’s no doubt that there are so many benefits from changing your diet to healthier Whole Foods.
Of course, there are. Same with exercise. So to tell someone who’s been sitting on a couch for 20 years that they need to go now walk ten thousand steps, they said whoa. But breathing is something we all carry with us all the time. And you can improve your breathing whether or not you’re sitting on that couch, whether or not you’re jogging, whether or not you’re at work. And you can show measurable benefits in a concise amount of time, and it’s free.
So there’s there are no side effects to this beyond feeling better and having your body operate better so that the accessibility of it all really, really appealed to me.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:11:59] Yeah. You know, And listen, you mentioned skulls looking at skulls and part of your book. Now, I’ve been to Paris many times, and it’s a beautiful city, but you explore the side of it that I have never seen before. And you did. And I wondered if you’d share that with that listener and what you found.
James Nestor [00:12:18] Yeah. So I had heard that there was this big transition in the human skull. This was right at the beginning when I was getting deep into this research where I really knew there was a book here. I had heard that there was this pretty sudden transition. So where we went from having perfectly straight teeth and large airway’s large nasal apertures to crooked teeth and small mouths and less room for our airways. So I had seen ancient skulls, plenty of those online, but I had never seen them up close. This is before I got access to labs.
So. Right, because again, this is right when I was starting out, so I had heard that there were the Paris catacombs, which I’m sure a lot of people have been to. This is a special tour that you can take, and you can see a bunch of old skulls. But I had also heard that the catacombs are just about five percent of the Paris quarries, which extend something like one hundred and seventy miles underneath the streets of Paris. And there’s six million skeletons and skulls down there.
And I thought, Wow, well, that would be cool to go down there without any guardrails, plaques where I could just look. At these skulls, I could do whatever I wanted, so through friends of friends, which shall remain nameless because I want to say this is the most legal thing that we should do.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:13:40] Should we cut this out of the broadcast?
James Nestor [00:13:43] I’m fine with it. It’s already done. Yeah, I managed to get access to some people who had studied these areas. So because you can get lost down there and you could not find your way out. So people died before. But what was so fascinating is they built these limestone quarries, which are just tunnels, and they use that limestone to build all of Paris, the Louvre, all that white stone all over Paris. That’s where it came from, right under Paris.
So they moved all the dead bodies down there because they didn’t know where else to put them. But what was amazing to me is they would have the quarries, which were 60 feet below the Parisian street, would go in line with the streets. So you would know where you were going. So you could be underground and know exactly where you were if you were above ground. But since all of the streets in Paris have changed, there’s this ghost map of the way that Paris was before with all of these street names that no longer exist. And along.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:14:45] And the street, names are down there?
James Nestor [00:14:47] Yes, yes.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:14:48] Yeah. This was before the big housemen rejig of the Napoleonic Times.
James Nestor [00:14:54] This was yet those quarries have been down there for at least a thousand years. Fifteen hundred years. Wow. So because Parisians mean Parisians, they believe that if you owned a house on a certain piece of land that extended all the way to the core of the earth. So they were staking out that they this land 60 feet under them belong to them.
It doesn’t really, or maybe it does according to their laws. But we were able to get access down there, and there are skulls all over the place, and we were able to find this burial ground of cholera victims from the early eighteen hundreds. And this is right at the edge when our mouths just went to hell when we all started getting crooked teeth, and I was just surrounded by hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of skulls. And you could see what happened. And they looked so different from the other skulls that I had seen the older skulls. So it’s amazing to see how perfectly we were shaped by nature and how drastically change we’ve been through industrialization.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:15:57] And it’s a thing that I’ve explored myself on the podcast many times, and I’ve spoken. But that and you referenced the work of Weston A Price, which our listeners and I’m sure you’ve heard many times in your travels and about nutrient-dense diets being one aspect of it. But there’s another aspect, and that is the chewing, the actual chewing. Talk to us about that.
James Nestor [00:16:20] Absolutely. So industrialized foods were deficient in so many, especially fat-soluble vitamins and so Weston Price believed that because of the lack of these essential vitamins and minerals, bones did not develop properly. So mouths grew too small, teeth grew and crooked. He was right to a certain extent. So there is evidence of some malnutrition. And in these cultures that he was studying who switched from a traditional diet to an industrial diet.
But what I found more interesting was that doesn’t really matter. Even if you had the proper amount of vitamins and minerals, if you are not chewing, especially when you’re very young, your face doesn’t model properly. So your mouth doesn’t grow wide enough, which is why you get crooked teeth. And they’ve done studies just in the last few years looking at infants who were breastfed versus those who are bottle-fed.
Breastfeeding requires a ton of chewing stress, and it helps literally to push the face out. When you’re pushing, pushing, I should say, pulling the face out like that, the upper palate can drop properly.
James Nestor [00:17:29] You can have a wider mouth. And they followed these kids and found that those who were breastfeeding have a significantly less incidence of sleep apnea and snoring because they have larger airways. So to me, it makes perfect sense. There’s no controversy about this, but so few people are talking about it or acknowledge it. I just thought it was crazy.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:17:50] Interestingly, yesterday was exposed to a new piece of research that linked chewing mastication to cognitive function. So it goes even further than just developing good habits that develop good jaws, it actually impacts our brain function as well.
Chewing helps decrease stress
James Nestor [00:18:08] For sure. Sharon Moore, who I was just corresponding with, she is an Australian myologist. I think that’s the name of where she does a lot of work with different people to allow them to exercise their mouths in a certain way to open up their airways. But chewing I learned from her that chewing helps decrease stress. It helps reduce cortisol because parasympathetic you when you have saliva flowing; you should be in a parasympathetic mode so you can digest better, it helps brain function and increases the circulation of the brain.
I mean, I can go on and on and on, like essential, essential things for proper development. And if you think about even the food that we consider healthy, right. Right now, smoothies, yogurt, avocado, it is healthy stuff. It’s got a lot of nutrients in it. There’s no chewing involved in any of that stuff.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:19:01] Yeah, that whole field of oral myology is a whole new and emerging area, which, you know, if you were a dentist or an orthodontist and I happen to be a dentist, you know, and you weren’t working with an oral myologist, I think you’re really missing out on an essential part of it.
But listen, you know, people don’t really think that breathing through your mouth or breathing through your nose. And in fact, you mentioned in your book again, that many professionals also say it’s not that important. But you went through something at Stanford University that kind of highlighted how important that was. Tell us about that study.
James Nestor [00:19:41] Yeah, so I had been talking with the chief of Rhinology research at Stanford, a great guy named Dr Jayakar Nayak. We had had numerous lunches, these long three-hour launches. He was telling me about his research, all of these crazy, you know, coauthors, 20 different studies a year. This guy is just a machine. And so he knows the benefits of nasal breathing versus mouth breathing. And there’s no controversy about that.
So if anyone tells you it’s the same thing, they have not read the research. They and there’s so much research on it. There’s at least 50, 60 years of research at Stanford, at Harvard, and Yale showing the advantages of nasal breathing. So he didn’t even want to get into that. He’s like that. There’s not an argument about it.
But what he didn’t know and what I didn’t know is how much of this damage comes on. So we know that if you’re a mouth breather that can cause certain neurological disorders, it can cause metabolic problems, you’re going to be able to have more cavities, which was crazy because there’s more acidity in your mouth, which is a hotbed for cavities on and on and on.
James Nestor [00:20:47] But again, does that damage come on after six months, six years, three decades, like nobody knew because no one had done a controlled trial. No one had done a study. And I asked him; he’s a guy at Stanford.
He’s one of the best institutions here in the US for research. So why don’t you do one? You know, come on, you’re at the top of your field. And he didn’t have the money; you didn’t have the time, yadda, yadda. And so I convinced him.
I said, well, if if I volunteer if I get someone else because it’d be so much more important to have an N2 than just a single person. Will, you can you dedicate at least your lab and look at the data and help us out? And he said, absolutely. So game on. We had to pay for all this stuff at Stanford, which was just crazy. Pulmonary function tests, not cheap, CAT scans not cheap, but he got us some significant discounts.
But what was amazing to me, instead of it taking six weeks or six years or whatever, then a few hours my blood pressure shot through the roof just about 20 points higher than it had been. And to stage two, hypertension.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:21:59] Well, just tell us firstly, how what the what it was.
James Nestor [00:22:03] I’m sorry.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:22:05] I mean, I’ve read it, but I want to share it with my listeners.
James Nestor [00:22:07] Been a long day. So the study got off on the wrong rails there. The study was designed to be a twenty-day study. It was actually twenty-one days. The first ten days we had our noses plugged. So silicon, a little piece of tape over this. So we’re only breathing through a mouth.
A lot of people say, oh, that’s horrific. This is some jackass stunt. Well, if you look at 25 to 50 percent of the population is habitually breathing through its mouth. A lot of kids are so plugged up, they’re just breathing through the mouth all the time, so I don’t view this as being some extreme stunt. I view this as lulling ourselves into a position that so much of the population knew. But we were calculating data three times a day, sleep data, I mean, you name it, oxygen, CO2, nitric oxide.
We had a full lab set up at my house. And so the other ten days of that was going to be almost entirely nasal breathing. You can’t nasal breath all the time, but the majority of the time we were just going to focus breathing through our nose. So if the pathway through which you breathe doesn’t matter, then both of those data sets should be basically the same. They were so incredibly different.
What I mean by that is then the first couple hours, blood pressure through the roof. You know, blood pressure goes up and down throughout the day. But I never have seen my blood pressure so high ever in my life, and then I went to bed, and I started snoring, and I had not been snoring, so we took two weeks of baseline data snoring an hour and a half, then a few days.
I was snoring 4 hours throughout the night. The other subject, Anders Olson, was snoring even worse than me, we both got sleep apnea. So our sleep quality just went into the gutter. We were fatigued, anxious. I mean, everything I could go on and on. But it was so dramatic and so drastic that it floored us we were getting pretty concerned about our health about a week into it.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:24:07] Wow. Wow. Yeah. Now it’s quite a crash course, a crash course in the importance of nasal breathing. But the other thing that I thought was interesting, too, is that this isn’t new. I mean, to say breathing isn’t new is ridiculous, of course. But to say that some of these ancient practices, you know, this is I love the fact that we have so much to learn from our past and, you know, about how we ate and how we moved and all of that, but how we breathe. Tell us a bit about some of the ancient practices, because the books called “Breath The New Science of a Lost Art”.
James Nestor [00:24:50] So what was interesting is to dig through these archives. And I spent months and months in medical libraries. I’m fortunate enough to be in San Francisco, so I’m near the University of California, San Francisco, a very well-known medical institution, and then Stanford as well, and Berkeley on and on.
So I kept finding these ancient scripts that were all saying the same thing. And this doesn’t matter if you were looking at ancient Hindu script or an ancient script from Chinese, the ancient Chinese, or even Greek. So they were saying that nasal breathing is healthy breathing and mouth breathing is very bad. And the Chinese went so far as to write seven books on breathing, all the awful things that are going to happen to you if you breathe improperly, specifically if you are breathing, especially inhaling through your mouth and all the wondrous things that are going to happen to you, all the health you’re going to be able to celebrate if you’re breathing through your nose and if you are practicing other breathing techniques.
So just the same exercise is repeated in different cultures, which, from what I understand, did not have contact with one another, but came to the same conclusions. And so now with all the instruments and technology that we have, I think it’s fascinating that we can actually test this stuff and we can test these claims. And what we’ve been finding for the last few decades is that they were spot on with so much of it, about breathing slowly, about breathing through your nose, about concentrating on your breath. These are simple things that can really make a transformative effect on your health.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:26:26] Mm-hmm. And you also mentioned the effect of it on the nervous system and that not only the breathing in not only the breathing out but the whole the holding of the breath, too.
James Nestor [00:26:41] Yeah. And so we can you know, if anyone is listening to this right now, you can just place your hand on your heart. And this is what a breathing therapist did for me when I first started getting into this.
You can just breathe into a count of about three and exhale to a count of about seven or eight. But don’t push it just very, very casually. So two, three, exhale. Two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. Inhale to three. One, two, three. Exhale to that same count. And you’re going to feel your heart rate getting lower and lower and lower as you exhale and as you inhale, the heart rate’s going to go up just a little bit. So this is not a placebo effect. This is you hacking into your nervous system and controlling your heart rate. And when you control your heart rate like that, you can control your circulation as well. And this is why slow breaths, especially with a longer exhale.
A lot of people who have cold toes or cold fingers, you’re going to feel this warmth to your fingers and this warmth to your toes. That is more circulation to these areas. So it’s fascinating that all of this stuff in our bodies, not all of it, most of it just works in the background like a software program, which is great. We don’t have to think about it, but when we take control of it, we can actually command it. And we can not only affect that the way that our bodies are working, but we can actually affect how our brains are working by increasing more oxygen, by synchronizing those different waves in our brain all through breathing.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:28:21] Look, I’m like you and I’ve been a professional for 40 years, and I’m still amazed every time I learn something else about this. The power of this simple thing, you then when you actually invented the term pulmonaut. I hadn’t heard that before because as you pointed out to me before we started, you invented that. I thought, wow, what a great expression. Tell us about the pulmonaut and some of the heroic stuff that some pulmonauts have done. I mean, you know, there’s been they’re out there.
James Nestor [00:28:54] Yeah, I wanted to develop an umbrella term because not everyone fits the medical researchers who have been the doctors, pulmonologist cardiologists who have been researching, breathing, and then there’s breathing therapists who are researching breathing. And then there are just these freelance people who came to breathing completely randomly because nothing else in their lives were working and they found breathing, and it worked so well that they taught it to other people.
So I consider all of them pulmonaut, but a pattern kept developing. And I was not looking for these stories, but these stories kept repeating the same pattern where we would discover something about breathing. And it didn’t matter if it was discovered at Yale or at Harvard or whatever, and then we would forget about it about 10 years later after the person who discovered it died, and then it would be rediscovered with a different name and a different place and then forgotten about again. And all these stories had the same arc. And it was especially frustrating when you see these certain breathing therapies, the ones developed by Carl Stahl, which he was able to, I won’t say cure emphysema because emphysema is not curable, but it can feel like a virtual cure if you’re engaging the rest of their lungs.
These people were literally left for dead in hospitals. He allowed them to get up and walk out and go live somewhat normal lives by just showing them how to breathe properly. And Katharina Schroth in Germany did the same thing. She had scoliosis, and she learned how to stretch and breathe in certain ways to straighten her spine. And if you don’t believe me, you can check out the pictures. And then she taught hundreds and hundreds of women to do the same thing.
So it just shows you what the human body is capable of. But what was so sad is when these people died, this practice, which was never disproven, OK, that the science is obvious, that it works completely forgotten about business as usual. And that’s where a lot of it is today. But hopefully, we’re on that next wave of awareness right now.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:31:08] And one of the therapies that you explored was Buteyko. What what was your impression of that? And how did you obviously you used it? What was your impression of Buteyko? Tell us a little bit about for our listener that may not be familiar with it.
James Nestor [00:31:24] So Konstantin Buteyko was a Russian cardiologist who had severe high blood pressure 212 was his number. And he was told he was going to die in a year and they kept giving him drugs, but it wasn’t doing too much. And he found that if he slowed his breathing down if he breathed way less, his high blood pressure problems, his hypertension completely went away.
So he said, this is weird. No one’s studying this. They’re saying all these drugs, but they’re not studying breathing. So he went on to study this for something like forty or fifty years, helped hundreds of thousands of people with his method.
It’s especially effective for asthma and also works for hypertension. But what he discovered is it was nothing new. This is another one of those pulmonauts who just fell upon something that had been talked about in yoga practices and Ancient Chinese practices thousands of years ago. And it’s the idea that we should be breathing in line with our metabolic needs so we can over breathe we’re still going to get air that way, but we are just going to overwork our body.
We’re going to cause it so much wear and tear. It’s like if you’re in a car and you’re at a stop sign, and you are just idling and just revving that motor at every stop sign, what’s going to happen? The car is going to break down a lot quicker, and our bodies are the same thing. So many people have heart rates of ninety beats per minute, one hundred beats per minute. So you’ve got to get that down. And one of the most efficient ways to get that down is to get control of your breathing.
So Buteyko is associated with these practices of breathing less so inhibiting air, and some of them are pretty hard to do. But what he’s really doing, those practices are like weight training for your lungs, for your respiratory system, so that the other twenty-three and a half hours of the day you’re breathing in line with your metabolic needs.
So he’s causing you to hold your breath to breathe so slow you feel like you’re dying so that you get acclimated to a slightly higher CO2, and you can breathe normally the rest of the time, I’ve seen people absolutely transformed by you could call it Buteyko method. You could call it the Papworth method; you could call it Pranayama. It’s all doing the same thing. It is controlling your breath and taking what you need instead of constantly just wasting that air.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:33:55] I mean, I know we measure life in years, but there are some cultures that measure life in breaths. And, you know, you only have so many breaths in a lifetime, so why use them all up too quickly? And that’s basically what they’re doing with the Buteyko, isn’t it? Just slowing it all down. But there’s another character out there who is quite amazing and who’s rewriting medical textbooks, and that’s Wim Hof, who you must have already.
Also, I know you also explored, and that’s quite a different story. What was your impression? Tell us about how you reconciled, what Wim Hof was doing, although you had done deep dive. So you had some clue there. Tell us what your impression of what Wim Hof is doing.
James Nestor [00:34:42] So I learn all of these benefits of breathing less and breath-holding because you want to breathe in line with your metabolic needs. You know you want to be running efficiently and having that lower heart rate. We know that people with a lower heart rate are going to live longer. Right.
So it’s almost like you only have so many clicks in a lifetime. If you’re breathing heavily, your heart rate’s going to go up, which means you’re using up those heartbeats. I know this doesn’t work out perfectly, but if you look at the science of animals who have the lowest heart rates, they live the longest animals that breed, the less they live the longest.
So definite connection there. So when I came upon these cumbersome Pranayama Sudarshan Kriya practices these I mean, you do some really, really crazy stuff. I thought this is totally the opposite of what I heard from Buteyko and all the Buteyko not I won’t say all some of the Buteyko people are like, don’t do that stuff, it’s poisonous. And I said, but look what he’s able to do. So so happen to be two hours before I came here to talk to you, I was on an interview with Wim Hof for an hour when I interviewed him about his new book for a promo in England.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:35:54] Wow. Fantastic. So hot off the press here.
James Nestor [00:35:56] It’s hot off the press. He’s a fantastic guy because he is focusing on allowing the body not only to heal itself but to push it to limit far beyond what any medical researcher. I won’t say any what most medical researchers thought possible.
He’s able to take control of his nervous system completely. He’s able to hold his breath to a level where his oxygen levels go down 50 percent, and he’s excellent. That’s not supposed to be possible. He ran a marathon on Everest and bare feet that took eight hours.
I mean, this is just he sat in ice baths for an hour and a half, almost two hours, and didn’t suffer from frostbite or hypothermia because he found a way of breathing. So this guy is literally rewriting textbooks and what his system is. He calls it the Wim Hof Method. It’s been around for thousands of years, and he’s the first one to admit that. Right.
So he’s very cool about that. Yeah. Is it focuses on all the stress of the day? So most of us walk around in this chronic state of low-grade stress for just frustrated emails, traffic. This concentrates that stress. When you’re breathing the Wim Hof method or Tuomo, you are stressing yourself out. You think, why do I want to stress myself out? Because you’re focusing that stress.
You’re learning to take control of that stress. You’re learning that you can turn on stress specifically so that you can turn it off. So the rest of the day you are cool. And the studies that I found that really blew me away is people with autoimmune problems, psoriasis, even M.S., Parkinson’s, the vast improvements that they’ve shown by breathing in this certain way, an occasional cold exposure.
You can’t argue with data. And so it’s so fascinating that he has this real revolutionary in this world. And if he wasn’t going into labs and willingly going into any study anyone asked him to do; you’d scratch your head and say, I think he’s a magician. He’s showing up to every lab that invites him. And that’s what’s so exciting to me about his work.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:38:12] And it’s interesting too because you touch on that, that this is intentional stress. Not all stress is bad. I mean, that’s why we exercise. And to use the breath as an intentional source of stress, I think the word is hormesis, you know, that actually is very powerful to control stress—what a wonderful idea.
James Nestor [00:38:33] This is how the human body was designed. OK, you know, when we were living in caves, most of the time we were just sitting around people things we’re working all day. We weren’t we were working about four hours a day and just sitting around.
But occasionally, you know, it would be time to attack a bear, fight off an offender or really do something. So these short bouts of stress, that’s how we’re designed to live. We’re not designed to live with this chronic low-grade stress where a bad email will put you into this.
This state of anxiety that can last two hours this is so damaging keeps you in a constant state of inflammation. And almost every modern disease can be attached or linked to inflammation. So it’s bad news. And Wim has just shown the benefits. I do that breathing is often as I can at least a few times a week. I feel a definite benefit from it as well. But don’t listen to me. Look at the data. Look at the lab studies, and you can see for yourself.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:39:39] Hmm. Well, you put it out there so nicely in your book, and I think it is fabulous. We’ll obviously have links to that. I just wanted to finish up now because we’ve covered some great territory here. But I wanted to finish up because we’re all on this health journey together in this modern world. And taking a step back from your role as an author and writer and researcher on breath, what do you think the biggest challenges for people on our health journey through life in this modern world?
The Biggest Health Challenge
James Nestor [00:40:08] I think the challenge is to weed through all of the information. We’re at an age where you can get information from any direction. And what ended up happening is so much of it is false on both sides of the aisle.
So, you know, people who aren’t studying in medicine are claiming the things the immunizations are going to kill you, blah, blah, blah, and that’s false. And then people on the other side, a lot of medicine is owned by corporations. And this isn’t any revelation. And there are many books on this. And just read the newspaper, and you can see that.
So in between those two worlds, I think is really where the truth lies. But I would look at studies; I would look at studies done at known universities by respected researchers. I would look at who was funding the studies. And that is so important. There’s a website called BNNT.org [thennt.com]; I believe it is. And what they do is they take studies and crunch all the data. And these are top statisticians, top doctors.
They crunched the data and really showed you what these medications are doing. Some of them are working wonderfully. Others are actually harming you more than they’re helping you. And that website, I think, is one of the most important things for people to look up before you start taking whatever drug you’ve been prescribed.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:41:34] Hmm. James, thank you so much for joining us today. And thank you so much for your wonderful book. We’ll have links to that on our show notes. So thank you.
James Nestor [00:41:45] Thank you very much for having me.
Dr Ron Ehrlich [00:41:50] So I always find it interesting, as you probably have noticed, to ask my guests what they think the biggest challenge is, because we are all on this health journey together and we are in our modern world, it is rather challenging to navigate your way through in the NNT website that he referred to meant the number needed to treat. And we will, of course, have links to that as well.
I think one of the most interesting things I find about James’s book is, as I said, that he comes at it from a different perspective and he looks at it in such a historical perspective. And I love to explore lessons from the past. I mean, whether we’re talking about the fact that we grew up on a nutrient-dense diet and organic foods, I mean, that was just the way humans functioned for millions of years on our journey to become Homo sapiens right up until a few hundred years ago.
So we had lessons to learn from that. And we don’t need randomized, double-blind controlled studies to necessarily teach us that. We sometimes just need to look at our past, learn from our past, and use some common sense. And that’s why his reference to so many of these ancient practices and the fact that the byline of the book is The New Science of a Lost Art, the lost art of Breathing.
Well, which up until the time that our jaws became narrow and our upper airways became narrow, who even thought of that? Who even thought, you know, our ancestors were not walking around thinking, am I eating organic or not in my eating and nutrient-dense food or not, and my breathing properly or not? These are all questions that we need to take a step back from, simple questions that we need to take a step back from and ask ourselves. And it’s accessible.
And that’s what I love about the breath. And that’s why I, I put sleep and breathe has two of the most central pillars, because if you get those two right and as we’ve talked about before, sleeping a consistently good night’s sleep is a function of both quantity getting enough, which is about eight hours a night for 90 over 90 percent of the population and breathing well while you’re asleep now breathing well rolls off the tongue very easily.
But for the fact that 90 percent, at least of the population does not have enough room for all 32 of their teeth through their mouth and in perfect alignment, it has implications on our health and specifically on our ability to breathe well, if we didn’t, I’ve used this analogy many times in my own practice. But if we didn’t have enough room for all five fingers on our hands, we wouldn’t be as blasé about it.
If we all had to have our forefinger removed when we were 18 or 20, we would you know, I’ve never you wouldn’t go, oh, did you have your forefinger removed when you were? Of course. Didn’t you? Why? No big deal about that. We just wouldn’t have accepted that as normal. And yet we accept this as normal, this crowded mouth as normal, and this narrow airway as normal. And you even get health practitioners saying it’s no big deal whether you breathe through your mouth or your nose.
Well, if you’ve been following this podcast, then you’ll know that there is a huge difference. And just I will share with you an image of an X-ray that we have displayed on one of the brochures in our practice about nasal breathing. In fact, I’ll have the brochure as a downloadable thing, downloadable resource attached to the show. Now, in that brochure, we really promote the importance of nasal breathing, because at the end of the day, breathing through your nose has so many advantages. It warms humidifiers and filters the air before we take it into our lungs.
So, you know, this is why so many people have one of the reasons why anyway, why so many people have respiratory issues, asthma, allergies because they’re taking air into their lungs, which is irritated and it’s irritated. One of the reasons is because it’s not filtered and warmed. So when we take our air into through our nose, there are five or six levels of filtration. There are the fine hairs which filter out the particles. There is the mucus lining the sinuses and terminates, which antimicrobial they warm the air. Then you take it in over. And also when you breathe through your nose, the body produces a chemical called nitric oxide, which.
Is anti-microbial and interestingly, antiviral, there’s some great research which shows that nitric oxide interferes with the coronavirus, SARS one. And so presumably it probably does that with COVID19 as well. So there then you pass it passes through your adenoids and finally your tonsils and then it enters your lungs. But if you breathe through your mouth, you bypass most of those and put the pressure on your tonsils and adenoids. And that’s why people often have sore throats and enlarged tonsils because they’re asking to do much more than they need.
The other thing you may when James was going through his exercise of three, nine, and seven out, three seconds in and seven seconds out, it may have also reminded you, and again, if you’re a regular listener to the podcast and if you do our Brief Pillar online course, I’ll share this with you then too. But it’s a way of switching on that part of our nervous system that is involved in the rest and digest.
So there are there’s a part of our nervous system called the autonomic nervous system, which functions automatically, mostly in the background. And there are two parts to that. There’s the sympathetic part, which is the fight or flight when we’re under stress, and that should only be for a short period of time. And there’s the parasympathetic part, which is the rest and digest. And by controlling your breath, you can control your nervous system and switch on your parasympathetic nervous system with what I call a four by four by four, which is not that different from what James was showing you, which might fall by four.
By four is four seconds in through the nose slowly, four seconds out through the nose slowly and four seconds of holding the exhaled breath and repeating that four or five times. And you’ve switched on the parasympathetic. So how simple is that? And wouldn’t that be a good thing to do just before you starting to eat, rest and digest and just before you go to sleep, rest and digest? And I thought it was also interesting about asking him about Wim Hof with the intentional stress on the system, which is something we’ll explore more. And we’ve talked to Marc Cohen about a year or so ago, Professor Marc Cohen. And we’ll explore in other podcasts.
I just wanted to explore breath from a slightly different perspective, a more historical perspective, and from someone who wasn’t a clinician perspective. And I think the book is just fabulous. So the courses that we’re running, the five pillars of health courses online, it’s coming. We’re starting with the sleep pillar, and we’re going to work our way through it. And this is not just a subject that occasionally touches on, and you’ll never hear from again.
You’ll have noticed that we revisit sleep, we revisit breathe, we revisit a whole lot of subjects. Because to me and in my clinical experience and as I said, I’ve been a practitioner for 40 years telling people something once you may have ticked that box on your clinical notes, but in order to effect change, I think we see it as kind of tapping the hoop along the street.
And as soon as you as long as you keep tapping that hoop, the hoop keeps propelling down the street. But as soon as you stop, it stops as well. So there are a few messages that are recurring coming at it from different perspectives. I hope you find that useful. I know I did. I really enjoyed James’s book. So until next time, this is Dr Ron Ehrlich. Be well.
This podcast provides general information and discussion about medicine, health, and related subjects. The content is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice or as a substitute for care by a qualified medical practitioner. If you or any other person has a medical concern, he or she should consult with an appropriately qualified medical practitioner. Guests who speak in this podcast express their own opinions, experiences, and conclusions.