Book review: Breath by James Nestor

Tape your mouth shut when you sleep.

That’s what I was told, by a clear-eyed clear-nosed tech-type, on a hiking trip in the Rockies. I almost did it on the spot, but I was simultaneously being exhorted into buying a portable bidet and got overwhelmed. These are two big life choices, and by the sounds of it irreversible. I decided to pause on both until I had a chance to think them through. In the case of the mouth-tape, I agreed to let James Nestor’s Breath do the thinking through for me.

It’s the latest hip don’t-overthink-the-science health book, following hot on Why We Sleep, whose central message is so darn correct you almost want to forgive the sloppy fudgery and fakery that props it up.

He starts at rock-bottom. James, that is. His life in shambles and his airways clogged, he goes to a group breathing session that he describes as a sort of free yoga class for people who don’t own MacBooks. He’s sceptical, but he breathes and breathes and has a moment of clarity, sorts his life out and decides to write this book. At this point it’s revealed that he previously wrote (and gonzo’d, i.e. he took part) a book on free-diving, so this is a sort of sequel to that.

From there we join him on an experiment (i.e., he took part) that involves paying several thousand dollars to a scientist (said with rising inflection) in Berkeley to tape his nose shut for ten days, while tracking his vitals, followed by nightly mouth-taping and more vitals. This is interspersed with some history on how deformed our modern jaws and sinuses are: apparently we’re the only animals that snore and get blocked noses and it’s all modernity’s fault. The honorifics heaped on various old skulls are a bit noble-savagey but he does remind us that we’re taller and richer and longer-living, so it’s not all bad.

Some personal context, in the spirit of a gonzo review. I have a chronically blocked nose. When I first met my partner, I told her I’d been sick for four weeks. I’d just moved to Washington DC in the spring, so she obviously realised this was allergies. I don’t think I’ve slept with a clear nose since that day. Some even more personal context: I’m a nose-picker, and I have a secret dread that this is causing the above-mentioned lack of clarity.

Back to the book, where I’ve already learned two things. One: judging by his statistics on blockages and snoring and apnea, I might actually by comfortably above average in nose function, since I neither snore nor sleepily choke myself. This is little comfort and doesn’t change my lived experience, thank you very much. Number two is that having one nostril blocked (with the other free) most of the time is normal!? Do people know this? I feel like this should be included in the manual, along with how to put a t-shirt on (arms through, leading the head, not head first then stretch and tear getting your two arms up there with you, as I did until about a year ago). I’d really like to know what other basic body functionality I’m missing out on. It’s like the Apple approach to UI discovery, a very hands off, you’ll know it when you swipe it kind of thing.

And so but[1] back to James’ nostril experiment. After ten days he’s a mess. Blood pressure up, fitness down, vitals through the floor. He dons a pair of VR goggles and watches the feed from a camera stuffed deep (deep) into his sinuses. It’s a nightmarish waste land. The doc also takes a little sample from up in their to check his bacteria situation. The prick causes him to wince and me to close the book for a beat.

Some more personal context (hopefully the last) is that I am deeply (deeply) averse to needles and blood and medical stuff, and the description of the inside of his nose (need I remind you that I too have a nose) is more than I can handle. The upshot of all this is that merely reading about nostrils has made it impossible for me to pick my own in the same sitting: I’m far too conscious and grossed-out.

And so but if the taped nose was Inferno, then starts Purgatorio. The tape comes off and… breathe. James nostrils recover and restore their rhythm, which includes right-nostrilled-logic and left-nostrilled-imagination[citation needed, clearly]. We move quickly onto Exhaling, and how that’s just as important. There was a guru of exhalation in the 70s called Dr Breath who cured emphysema, trained opera singers and lead the US track team to gold. But he died and his science went with him and, as with a lot of this book, I’m unsure where my takeaway should lie between “he was clearly a quack” and “science is failing us, beatify that man”. The chapter is very short so I didn’t get time to make up my mind.

Personal progress update: I’ve now done two three four nights with my mouth taped. And… maybe I’m not a mouthbreather in the first place, but I haven’t yet noticed any superhuman powers. One of my nostrils is still blocked.

After exhalation are chapters named Slow and then Less. We learn about various other “pulmonauts”, who figured that we should breath much slower, which seems sensible and the kind of thing a good yoga session or meditation will often achieve. Less is less intuitive: apparently there’s an optimal CO2 level, and breathing too much causes it to drop too far, which makes it harder for our haemoglobin to suck in O2. So we’re admonished to exhale fully (like, keep going to get every last drop out), to breathe slowly (apparently one thing Buddhists and Catholics agree on is 5.5 seconds in, 5.5 seconds out) and to breathe less. To not take big gulping breaths when not necessary, but rather small slow sips, followed by slow, complete exhalations.

We then get to a topic that was foreshadowed aplenty. Why us moderns have such clogged nostrils and sinuses in the first place. Unsurprisingly, it’s about chewing, and it’s all the Fertile Crescent and Industrial Revolution’s fault. Our food is all too soft, and we don’t spend enough time grinding our way through seal skin, so our jaws and faces have ossified and shrunk, leaving less space for air. James takes this opportunity to illegally explore the Paris Catacombs with a guide named “Red” (colour of her hair dye), in order to look at some 19th century skulls. He reminds us that he’s unqualified to pass judgement, but looks at a few and concludes that yes, they were wonky.

Like some of the others, this chapter does its best to convince you that you’ll die alone and soon if you don’t take up its recommendations. And again the anger directed at the slow medical establishment leaves me unsure where I stand. Certainly it is slow, but anecdotes leave a lot of room for fudging, and it’s hard to know how righteously outraged I should be, or how quickly I should rush to my nearest fringe orthodontist. However, I have picked up another concrete recommendation (to go with the mouth tape): chewing gum. James sleeps with some kind of mouth-expanding device between his teeth, but apparently I can get most of the benefit by chewing lots of gum.

Ok, so we’re nose breathing, exhaling fully, going slowly, not sucking in more than we need, and we’re chewing. If you thought that was all there was to it, hold onto your RSS feed, because the next act is called “Breath+”. Here we learn about using breathing to deliberately induce stress via a practise called Tummo. Apparently surfers use this to get amped before sessions, which I know a lot of surfers and this doesn’t impress me as much as it sounds like it wants to. How it does this, apparently, is by hacking into the vagus system; this is the thing that makes you faint when your body is overwhelmed, and in my case (vasovagal syncope[3] , look it up) causes me to pass out at the sight or mention of blood.

Reader, I want to believe, but as always he’ll use a single nonagenarian as evidence that some thing is good for you/isn’t bad for you, and I can’t tell if he’s trying to trick me or himself but it’s not useful.

The book closes with a chapter called “Hold It”, which I thought would about that, but was instead about administering high doses of CO2, which sounded unpleasant. I guess he already wrote about normal breath-holding in his free diving book. And then the last chapter is a short history lesson on yoga and prana and hand-wavy ideas about the mystical Indus Valley Civilisation and I’m not really interested.

So, um. I’m going to try the mouth-taping a bit more, and build some more conscious slow-exhale breathing into my daily routine. I might buy some gum.

2/5 thanks for listening to my Ted talk.

[1] go back I just slogged through two-thirds of Infinite Jest[2], and if I don’t get to make at least one in-the-know literary reference then what was the point.

[2] (The footnotes are part of the in-joke.)

[3] go back My optometrist diagnosed me with this 15 years ago, so take it with the same salt shaker as everything else in this review.