Breathe this way
(No. 41) One of the simplest steps towards better health, by Stephen P. Williams
And now, this: the best makeup techniques for an aging face.
Engage your nose
Photograph by M Yashna from Grand Port, Mauritius - Commons Wikimedia
Did you know that your nose contains erectile tissues just like those found in your genitals? That, in fact, some people have orgasmic sneezes when they are sexually aroused?
To those of you who are still reading, I’m trying to emphasize just how much influence our noses have on our bodies. For instance, hormones and other systems are hugely influenced by whether we breathe through our nose or our mouth, especially while sleeping.
I’m coming to this knowledge late in the game, after many cough-filled winters in New York City where I tend to get wickedly sick with bronchitis, and even pneumonia once the dry heat radiators kick in. Both my mother and my father died from diseases of the lungs that sapped their ability to take in satisfying breaths. So I’m wary.
Lately I’ve been wondering why I should accept deteriorating breathing and winter coughs as a fact of aging. It doesn’t seem right.
I recently found some answers in a book called Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, by James Nestor. The author travels the world to discover how breathing affects your mind, body and soul. I bought it last May at the height of the coronavirus crisis in New York City, but only read it recently. With coronavirus cases surging, most of us could probably benefit from good breathing right now. The book has great lessons for improving the respiratory health of aging bodies -- which is every body over age 20 or so.
“No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how resilient our genes are, how skinny or young or wise we are—none of it will matter unless we are breathing correctly,” Nestor writes.
A free nose is the key to a healthy winter Photo by Fezbot2000
While the book offers a variety of techniques for breathing better, my most important takeaway was the idea that we ignore our noses at our peril. Over half of Americans breathe primarily through their mouths, says Nestor. Far better if we breathe through our noses, which filter, warm and moisturize the air before it enters our lungs. Many people avoid nose breathing because it’s uncomfortable -- they feel like their sinuses are too clogged.
Curiously, mouth breathing makes it even harder to nose breathe. Mouth breathers create less carbon dioxide in the lungs, even though it’s a vital component of good health. Apparently the mouth breather’s brain reads this lack as too much carbon dioxide being lost from the nose (when in fact it’s not being created at all, and stimulates the production of mucous to clog up the nose and slow down the breathing (that isn’t really taking place in the first place.) The clogged sinuses makes people breath through their mouths more. It’s a system out of whack.
This mouth breathing can cause dry mouth, bad breath, too much oxygen in the lungs and even chemical and hormonal imbalances that cause people to wake up thirsty, having to pee.
Paradoxically, however, breathing through the nose actually widens the airways and sinuses, in time, helping to clear up all the problems that keep us breathing through our mouths. It also increases blood levels of carbon dioxide. So if it’s hard to breathe through your nose, just keep at it until it gets easier. It will, and sooner than you imagine.
I have never been told I snore much, but I do suspect that I breath at night through my mouth. And I often wake up coughing. So I bought some mouth tape to keep my lips closed while I sleep. I also got some adhesive strips that are meant to only keep the lips shut, not cover them. I’ve had great luck with both, meaning that now I usually sleep through the night, for about 7 hours, and wake up feeling good. It’s a tossup as to which type of adhesive tape works best.
The book, Breath, also taught me the value of breathing deeply and more slowly than I have in the past. This offers the right mix of oxygen and carbon dioxide for the body, and tends to calm anxiety and other moods. The ideal rhythm, the author found, was to breathe into your belly for 5.5 seconds, and then breathe out, expelling the air from deep in your lungs, for 5.5 seconds. That works out to 5.5 breaths per minute -- you can’t ask for more perfection than that. This basic breathing technique harmonizes the functioning of the heart, lung and circulatory system, and should make you feel better, the more you do it.
Nothing in Breath is revelatory; most of the practices have been used for centuries in various parts of the world. But taken together they can influence our modern lives for the better. Personally, I believe the book is actually changing my life. That’s how much I recommend it.
I’d also like to offer you this link to a New York Times article outlining a number of other breathing exercises that will benefit anyone who’s feeling the effects of age on their lungs. Learning to breathe well is a useful tool in the age of coronavirus.
Remake of a classic (in retrospect) quarantine song, featuring blasts from the past.
More info for curious people
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Harvard Medical School scientists inserted three youth restoring genes to reverse glaucoma in mice.
Soft health drivers
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