According to James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, how you breathe affects more than you realize.
Two months ago, how I breathed was not on the list of things I wanted to change about my life. I mean, I’d been doing it since birth — automatically — without any thought at all. Air comes in, air goes out. Nothing complicated there.
If I’d made it this far, why should I pay any attention to it now?
When it comes to new ideas, I’m pretty skeptical. I need a lot of evidence to change my perspective or behaviour. So, when I learned about a book entirely about breathing, a process so mundane and boring I barely even notice it, I needed some convincing to be interested.
A buddy I wall climb with had read the book and suggested I try climbing while breathing only through my nose. I was shocked by the immediate difference it made. I bought the audiobook days later.
James Nestor, author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, makes a compelling case for why breathing matters, not just because it literally keeps us alive, but because how we do it impacts numerous, important aspects of our health and wellbeing. According to Nestor, the breath can affect everything from snoring and sleep apnea to anxiety and whether we need to pee in the middle of the night.
Does that sound impossible?
Two months ago, I didn’t think it could be that simple. So, I decided to test one of Nestor’s claims: can nose breathing decrease or prevent snoring entirely?
The evolution of the human nose
Before going any further, it’s useful to understand how evolution and our eating habits have shaped the oft-neglected nose.
For us humans, we tend to breathe through our mouths, especially when we’re exercising. There’s a good reason for this.
As the brains of our ancient ancestors grew in size, our skulls pushed outward. To compensate for this growth, our nasal passages shifted from a horizontal arrangement (snout) to a vertical one (nose). This changed the size and shape of our nasal passageways, which has made it more difficult for us to breathe through our noses.
Nature made a trade-off between intelligence and breathing. But, this wasn’t much of a problem until relatively recently.
With the industrial revolution came soft, processed foods that require very little chewing. Chewing, it turns out, builds muscle and bone in the face, and changes its shape. In the absence of sufficient chewing, the face grows long and narrow, which decreases the size of the already small nasal passageways.
But, there’s hope. The size of our nasal passageways can increase simply by using them. In general, we struggle to breathe through our noses because if we don’t use it, we lose it. That means we can train the nose to become better at breathing.
Armed with this knowledge, I was ready to test Nestor’s snoring claim.
While Nestor’s claim is fairly straight-forward, I’ve been around long enough to know that even simple things can be hard. So, wanting to give this idea a fair shot, I decided to try to consciously breathe through my nose as much as possible, but in particular, while exercising.
I figured that breathing heavily during exercise would put the most pressure on my nasal passageways, which would then give them a good reason to change. I decided that during all my runs and home workouts I would consciously breathe through my nose as much as possible.
At first, breathing exclusively through my nose during exercise was difficult. I never felt like I was getting enough air, so I had to regularly fall back onto mouth-breathing. Thankfully, this got easier over time.
But, it did feel a little ridiculous. Breathing through the nose can be surprisingly noisy. Early on during a workout in the basement, I was so forcibly pushing air out of my nose that my girlfriend could hear it from the first-floor bathroom while the fan was on!
What was interesting, though, is that nose-breathing during exercise produced a different experience compared to mouth-breathing. The best way I can describe this is that nose-breathing made it easier for me to enter “the zone”. This has been especially true for running and wall climbing. I’ve found breathing through my nose to be both calming and energizing — which is a strange combination. It’s decreased the number of thoughts and feelings that once distracted me, and has allowed me to simply focus on my performance.
If for nothing else, I’d recommend you try nose-breathing during exercise just to experience this altered state of mind.
But, this wasn’t the point of my experiment. What I really wanted to know was whether nose-breathing would have any impact on my snoring, which, as my girlfriend frequently reminded me, was deafening.
Amazingly, after only a few weeks of consciously breathing through my nose, my snoring markedly decreased. I have no data to back up this claim, except that the smacks and shoves that once rained down upon me in the middle of the night have decreased to almost zero. And, most importantly of all, we both feel more well-rested, as a result.
Breathe through your nose
The past couple of months has been a reminder of how adaptable the human body is. I would never have thought that how I breathed could impact my snoring and yet the evidence is incontrovertible.
Will breathing through the nose decrease everyone’s snoring? No, I’m sure it won’t. But, I’d bet a good sum of money that it would help most of us.
As tough as it is to develop a new habit, this one is definitely worth the effort. Sleep quality has an enormous impact on our (and our partner’s) overall wellbeing. And breathing through the nose isn’t much of a sacrifice, except that it can be uncomfortable during intense workouts.
Give it a try! You’ve got nothing to lose and the benefits could be life-changing.
Thanks for reading!