A Conversation with James Nestor on the Secrets of Breath.

A Conversation with James Nestor on the Secrets of Breath.

No matter what you eat, how much you exercise, how skinny or young or wise you are, none of it matters if you’re not breathing properly. There is nothing more essential to our health and well-being than breathing: take air in, let it out, repeat twenty-five thousand times a day. Yet, as a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences.

Journalist James Nestor travels the world to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. The answers aren’t found in pulmonology labs, as we might expect, but in the muddy digs of ancient burial sites, secret Soviet facilities, New Jersey choir schools, and the smoggy streets of São Paulo. Nestor tracks down men and women exploring the hidden science behind ancient breathing practices like Pranayama, Sudarshan Kriya, and Tummo and teams up with pulmonary tinkerers to scientifically test long-held beliefs about how we breathe.  Modern research is showing us that making even slight adjustments to the way we inhale and exhale can jump-start athletic performance; rejuvenate internal organs; halt snoring, asthma, and autoimmune disease; and even straighten scoliotic spines. None of this should be possible, and yet it is.

In this interview, I speak to James Nestor (author of ‘Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art’) we discuss his extraordinary journey understanding how modern civilisation has forgotten the importance of the most important thing we do, breathing. We discuss the impact that poor breathing has on our health and wellbeing, and the techniques we need to apply to breath better, and improve our lives.

Q: When did we forget how to breathe, and what are the implications?

[James Nestor]: I came to this realization by looking in the mirror, assessing my respiratory issues, and recognizing that the vast majority of the world’s population suffers from some form of underlying respiratory dysfunction. This dysfunction is sometimes overt, manifesting as COPD, asthma, lung cancer, or emphysema. However, for many of us, it is more subtle and often goes unnoticed. It appears as mouth breathing, snoring, exercise-induced asthma—which affects 40% of athletes—or chronic allergies. When you consider the entire spectrum of respiratory dysfunction, it becomes clear that we have lost touch with this fundamental biological function, wreaking havoc on our health.

How did this happen? I spent a long time, a couple of years, tracing the origins, and it starts with industrialized food. This is not a conspiracy theory; it’s a traceable, measurable, scientific fact. As our food supply changed, our mouths shrank, making us the only species with chronically crooked teeth. Consequently, a smaller mouth leads to a smaller airway and various obstruction issues. Compounded by polluted air, which makes us congested, and a sedentary lifestyle where we sit all day, and wearing clothes that are too tight to breathe normally, we have become dysfunctional breathers due to our environment.

Q: How has our physiology impacted our breathing?

[James Nestor]: By measuring skulls from 400 years ago, you’ll find that our ancestors had straight teeth, prognathic faces, and very wide jaws. With these features, they also had wider sinuses, making it much easier for them to breathe. Compare these to modern skulls, which show very slender, narrow faces and small jaws—again, a reason for our crooked teeth. I initially thought this was merely a hypothesis until I personally examined old skulls alongside new ones. It’s all there, plainly evident, yet it seems as though nobody is really talking about this or acknowledging the rapid changes that have occurred over just a couple of hundred years.

Q: Is mouth breathing bad for us?

[James Nestor]: I’ve found studies from 120 to 130 years ago where dentists warned about the damage caused by mouth breathing. There was even an illustrator who documented this, wrote a book on it, and studied the issue extensively. Nowadays, with modern instruments and methods for conducting trials, the same conclusion is repeatedly confirmed: mouth breathing is severely detrimental to our health. Some might say, “Well, I don’t mouth breathe during the day,” but about 65% of the population does so at night. If you’re breathing through your mouth for eight hours, you increase your susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, sleep apnea, snoring, and allergies. You get less oxygen and overwork your body. The list goes on. And this is not just a theory; it has been carefully documented over several decades. Yet, people still believe that air is just air, whether it comes through the mouth or the nose. It most certainly is not.

Q: How should we really see our noses?

[James Nestor]: …what I find fascinating about the nose, which I didn’t know either, is that it occupies a significant amount of space in our heads, and that’s not by accident. The nose is intricate and elaborate. Digging deeper, the nose serves as our first line of defense against viruses, bacteria, and allergies through breathing. Breathing through our noses gives us 18% more oxygen. I could give you 30 different reasons why nasal breathing is beneficial. It could profoundly impact how you think and make decisions, affecting not only your physical health but your mental health as well.

Q: Why should we be thinking more about lung capacity?

[James Nestor]: We get more energy from air than from food or drink. So, if we’re absorbing that energy inefficiently, it’s bound to catch up to us. Athletes understand this, as even a 1% or 0.5% advantage over an opponent can be significant. We might manage to function despite breathing dysfunctionally through our chests and mouths; we can compensate. But that doesn’t mean we’re healthy. A useful analogy is food: you can survive on a diet of 12 cookies a day, getting enough calories, but it’s not nourishing, nor does it allow your body to operate efficiently. Many people think they’re doing just fine because they’re alive and breathing. However, they don’t realize that this very dysfunctional breathing habit is significantly overtaxing their bodies in other ways.

Q: What are some of the most powerful learnings you have had about breath?

[James Nestor]: Well, there were two key insights. One was the idea that how you breathe affects your posture, and vice versa. I discussed this with Dr. Andrew Wilde, a well-known, innovative doctor in the US. He posed a question: “Why do people get scoliosis?” Given that a significant portion of the population has scoliosis, I admitted, as a doctor, that I didn’t know. He pointed out that nobody really knows; people just get it. His theory suggests that dysfunctional breathing early in life can lead to a curvature of the spine, especially if there’s more focus on one lung than the other. He provided various examples to support this.

On the flip side, it turns out that for the last 100 years, adopting proper posture and breathing habits, and focusing on the breath, can literally straighten the spine and correct scoliosis. This is a profound example of how breathing impacts the physical body. Since my book came out, I’ve heard hundreds of such stories. People have been told that asthma is an incurable condition, that they’ll need to stay indoors and rely on a bronchodilator every few hours for life. But that’s just not true. The way you breathe is deeply connected to asthma symptoms, a message that asthmatics rarely hear from anyone. These two examples may seem extreme, but they demonstrate the potential of learning to breathe more efficiently and observing the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

Q: How do we know something is going wrong with our breath?

[James Nestor]: This is no longer subjective. It’s not just about feeling better because you’re breathing differently; we now have the tools to provide hard data. For a few hundred dollars, you can get a pretty accurate wearable that monitors your heart rate variability, sleep quality, and even blood oxygen saturation. We have solid evidence showing what happens to our bodies when we change our breathing patterns. It’s no longer subjective or wishy-washy—it’s tangible and real.

You could ask a corporate leader if the quality of their sleep affects their physical and mental performance during the day. Most would agree that with only 2 hours of sleep, they’re a wreck, but with 8 hours, they feel good. Similarly, the quality of the food you eat impacts your daily functioning—everyone knows that. Yet, many overlook the crucial component of breathing. Even if you’re eating right, exercising regularly, and getting enough sleep, dysfunctional breathing can still hold you back. This frustration is common; people say, “I’m on 12 supplements every 2 hours, I’m doing everything right, here’s my bloodwork.” But they aren’t considering their breathing, something we do tens of thousands of times a day. If it’s dysfunctional, your body will eventually make you pay the price in terms of health and focus.

Q: What can we do to improve our breath from tomorrow?

[James Nestor]: This is where people expect me to reveal some magical formula I’ve discovered in the caves of Indonesia. You’re going to be disappointed. I’m about to tell you some of the simplest, most mundane things in the world. They’re so basic that many people don’t even want to bother with them. But trust me, these basics are far more important than attending a breathwork class three times a week or engaging in more elaborate methods.

The very first step, and this is a tough one for many, is to become an obligate nasal breather. None of the other techniques matter if you can’t do this. For some, this might mean undergoing surgery. For most, it means practicing more. I swear by sinus rinses; I always have my Neti pots. The first thing I do when I get off a flight and reach my hotel room is rinse out my sinuses to start afresh. When I say “nasal breather,” I mean during the day primarily. It’s fine to breathe through your mouth occasionally when you’re laughing or talking—no big deal. But at night, you must breathe through your nose. Remember, about 60-65% of the population breathe through their mouths at night. You need to tackle this first, before anything else. People complain that it’s boring or too much work, but it’s essential. Once we master this, we can focus on other techniques.

Q: What is the power of breath-hold and improving our CO2 concentration?

[James Nestor]: When you breathe normally and then hold your breath, your CO2 levels rise. This causes all your blood vessels to dilate, allowing the oxygen in your red blood cells to detach and nourish your cells. This is a fundamental aspect of human biochemistry and breathing. When you overbreathe, however, the oxygen remains trapped in the bloodstream and fails to reach the cells, merely circulating without being utilized.

Holding your breath and building a tolerance for CO2 is one of the best things you can do to enhance focus, boost athletic performance, and even prepare for sleep. You’re definitely on the right track with that practice.

To add to that, while I’ve mentioned nasal breathing, I typically reserve breath-holding exercises for the latter stages, like phase 2 and phase 3, because I want to establish a solid foundation first. Many people, particularly men more so than women, are paradoxical breathers. This means they suck in their stomach when they inhale, whereas they should be doing the opposite. When you inhale, your stomach should be relaxed and gently expand. If you observe a dog or any other mammal in the wild, this is how they breathe. Unfortunately, most humans, especially those in urban environments, do not breathe this way.

Q: How are our air conditioning systems and climate control affecting us?

[James Nestor]: The impact of indoor air quality, specifically carbon dioxide levels, is enormous and it’s something I began exploring after my book was published. Everyone is focused on outdoor CO2 levels and global warming, which is undeniable. However, the situation indoors is alarming. We are often in environments with poor air circulation, largely because many hotels and offices have cut costs by not installing proper HVAC systems. Consequently, we are breathing in each other’s exhalations to an extent that there is scientific evidence showing it causes kidney calcification, serious cognitive dysfunction, and irritation in the nose and throat.

The more I looked into this, the more I realized we have a serious problem. Some hotels have air quality around 2,500 parts per million of CO2, meaning one in every 17 breaths you take is someone else’s exhale. Even in some of the nicest hotels I’ve stayed in, windows can no longer be opened due to efforts to control the indoor climate and cut costs, resulting in horrendous air quality. Studies have shown a 50% decrease in cognitive performance at CO2 levels over 1,500 parts per million. I now carry around a carbon dioxide meter and am appalled by what I’m discovering in our environments. This isn’t just a hypothesis; it’s documented science.

Q: It feels like forgetting how to breathe means we’ve really lost something?

[James Nestor]: In the first part of your question regarding awareness and breathing, you’re absolutely right. We are reactionary as a species; we often don’t pay attention until we lose something. Four years ago, we lost our ability to breathe optimally, which led many to realize, perhaps for the first time, how crucial breathing is. Even though the science has long existed and researchers have dedicated decades to this field, it took that loss for awareness to spike significantly.

Regarding how to live healthily in an industrialized world, I don’t want to retreat to a cave or forage for my daily sustenance. While some may choose to live off the grid, and that’s perfectly fine, there’s much about this industrialized world that I cherish, like the ability to fly around the planet and utilize technology. The challenge is finding balance. What I’ve observed in health circles is a trend towards allowing the body to return to its most natural state—the state in which it evolved. For example, at night, we now encourage people to turn off blue lights and surround themselves with warm orange and red lights, mimicking fire and sunsets, which greatly enhances sleep. We advise against ultra-processed foods, urging a return to whole foods, similar to diets from a thousand years ago, which works incredibly well. This trend towards naturalism isn’t about outsmarting nature; it’s about letting the body heal itself by returning to what it naturally does best.

As for breathing, it’s the same principle. Let the body do what it’s designed to do. Relax your stomach, breathe in and out through your nose—this isn’t complicated. Yet, we’ve made health seem overwhelmingly complex. Returning to a more natural state restores balance and promotes healing.

Looking back about 20 years, there was a macho trend of bragging about how little sleep you got or how little you ate. While you might manage this in your 20s and still perform impressively, it’s unsustainable; you’ll likely burn out and face significant health issues by your 30s. If you want longevity in your career and life, finding balance is crucial, and proper breathing is certainly a key component of that balance.


Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.