Breathing is Science: Art and a Personal Journey with James Nestor
There is nothing more essential to our health than breathing. Last month, I mentioned the book to read was Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor. I reached out to James and was delightfully surprised to find that he was open to speaking about his newly released, transformative book. It has become an instant New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times Top 10 bestseller. I agree with James in that after you take in this book, you will never breathe the same again.
Sherry: What drew you early on to write and lead research expeditions into the unknown?
James: I am a curious person. And when I am curious, I want to learn more. As a journalist, that’s what you’re hired to do: be curious and get the facts of a story. And like most journalists, I come across 100 stories a year; some are intriguing and others resonate with you on a personal, emotional or scientific level. I never set out to write books about these topics, but rather eased into them. I usually spend several months, or years, with a subject before things really start clicking and realize it could all weave itself into a book.
Sherry: Where did your writing career start?
James: I was a corporate professional for many years, starting as a copywriter and copyeditor for catalogs as well as working on advertising for a hotel and restaurant group. I wrote magazine stories on the side as a release from the doldrums of my day job. I never thought I could make a living doing it, but eventually I got enough contracts and finally cut the cord. So, my career didn’t start as simply as a “let’s go write a book” type of thing.
Sherry: How did you organize to capture a million-year-long history of how humans breathe?
James: I’d heard the human mouth had changed in ways that was deleterious to our breathing. It all sounded nuts. Evolution is supposed to move forward, right? That’s not what these researchers were saying. So I checked the data, and to my surprise, it all check out. I was fascinated. I didn’t understand why the general public hadn’t heard any of this as we were all affected by these changes. They are the main reason why so many of us snore, have sleep apnea, even asthma and allergies. Along the way I uncovered what I thought was a fascinating, and truly bizarre, hidden history of breathing.
Sherry: Does western medicine embrace the research you found?
James: Sure. Nobody can refute the facts. But facts don’t always change approaches and treatments. My father in law is a pulmonologist; my brother in law is an MD. They both deal with pathologies—cutting stuff out, removing things, and repairing them. They are focused on treating serious issues and have very little time and few resources to dedicate to milder or chronic conditions, all the hypertension, inflammation, anxiety, and other chronic modern malaides that the majority of the population now contends with. So many of these issues can be brought on by poor breathing; they can be blunted, or sometimes effectively “cured,” by healthy breathing. This is a fact western science is just now catching on to.
Sherry: Do you think your new book challenges healthcare leaders to think differently?
James: The best compliments have been those from doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists who have read the book said “it’s about time!” These are people on the frontlines of healthcare who are as frustrated as their patients. Our medical system is built in silos: lungs, heart, kidneys, neurologists. But the human body isn’t a silo. You have to look at all body functions to understand so many underlying conditions of disease. It was fascinating for me to learn that 50 percent of what we thought is correct in medicine throughout history turned out to be either harmful to us or ineffective. And that’s true today as well. The problem is we just don’t know which 50 percent. This is why conscious breathing is such an important pillar of health. It’s been practiced form thousands of years and the science is very clear these methods are very effective, and sometimes even transformative.
Sherry: What was the greatest challenge in tackling this work?
James: It took me four years to complete this project and the hardest thing was to synthesize a million years of human evolution and medical research and functions of the body in something that was readable. I needed to have a story that moved forward. Deep, my first book, was much easier because the story was linear: it looked at the human connection to the ocean, starting at the ocean’s surface and ending at the bottom of the deepest sea. Breath looks at the who, what, why, and how of breathing. But breathing is a vast subject. I had to understand the human body and health and evolution, from the subatomic level on up to the bones to organs. I was lucky enough to surround myself with the leaders in the field and to learn from the best.
Sherry: In retrospect, what was the big ‘ah hah’ for you?
James: I thought I had the book figured out early on. I wrote a proposal, sold it, then headed out into the field. But I had to scrap it all, six months of work, because there was a weirder, wilder story behind the one I laid out. Companies do this all the time, pivoting as they develop. Books do this too.
Sherry: How might this new science on breath change our view about wellness at work during a COVID19 world?
James: I think that we have to first acknowledge the problem is that we aren’t breathing well and so many problems are the result of this, and in some cases this is the cause of the problem.
One issue is that an estimated eighty percent of people who are working in offices and are at their computers all day suffer from something called “email apnea.” For example, they sit down at their desks and see 40 new emails and they stop breathing, literally! This has been studied by Dr. Margaret Chesney at UCSF for years. When we do breathe during these moments of fragmented attention, it is erratic and stilted. This triggers more stress in the body, which is one of the reasons office workers have cold fingers and toes. Their circulation is stunted in these areas.
Over extended periods of time, email apnea has the same problems associated with sleep apnea, causing the same stress to body. It can cause neurological problems and other issues. It really impacts productivity at work.
People should be more cognizant throughout their days and acknowledge that there is stress. Take some time, set an app or an alarm to change how you think and breathe, which can change how you react. Remind yourself to breathe at a certain pace, which will make a significant impact on your health.
Sherry: How does this impact our health in light of increasing Zoom calls?
James: On Zoom calls people sit around and talk. When we talk all day we’re breathing out of our mouths. Mouthbreathing has been implicated in everything from periodontal disease to respiratory ailments to, once again, neurological disorders. Strange, but true. No, talking isn’t going to ruin your health. But habitually breathing through the mouth when you aren’t talking will certainly contribute to lower immune function. This is something researchers have known for decades but nobody really considers.
Sherry: Where does your next adventure take you to further understand ourselves?
James: Well, the idea of doing another book at the moment makes me queasy. I am going to soak into this book for now. To me, it’s an endlessly fascinating subject and everyone’s got their own story about breathing or breathing woes. But I do have another book idea. I am going to allow it to gestate for a while and work at it slowly.
Sherry: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
James: The past 300 or so years of rapid industrialization, and now modern office culture, has messed up our bodies. Just look around: sore backs, anxiety, tired eyes, all the rest. But the good news is that the human body has an amazing capacity to recover. We can undo so much of the damage that’s been done. We can do this by eating right, by exercising. But we can also do this through breathing. Thirty pounds of air makes its way into and out of our lungs everyday. How we take in that air and exhale it really matters. It’s a “lost art,” and as we’re just now discovering, a missing pillar of health. And the best part is it’s free and available to everyone, everywhere. There are no nasty side effects. The worst thing that can happen to you is that you’ll feel better.