Breathing is a missing pillar of health, and our attention to it is long overdue. Most of us misunderstand breathing. We see it as passive, something that we just do. Breathe, live; stop breathing, die. But breathing is not that simple and binary. How we breathe matters, too. Inside the breath you just took, there are more molecules of air than there are grains of sand on all the world’s beaches. We each inhale and exhale some 30 pounds of these molecules every day — far more than we eat or drink. The way that we take in that air and expel it is as important as what we eat, how much we exercise and the genes we’ve inherited. This idea may sound nuts, I realize. It certainly sounded that way to me when I first heard it several years ago while interviewing neurologists, rhinologists and pulmonologists at Stanford, Harvard and other institutions. What they’d found is that breathing habits were directly related to physical and mental health.
Today, doctors who study breathing say that the vast majority of Americans do it inadequately. […] But it’s not all bad news. Unlike problems with other parts of the body, such as the liver or kidneys, we can improve the airways in our too-small mouths and reverse the entropy in our lungs at any age. We can do this by breathing properly. […] [T]he first step in healthy breathing: extending breaths to make them a little deeper, a little longer. Try it. For the next several minutes, inhale gently through your nose to a count of about five and then exhale, again through your nose, at the same rate or a little more slowly if you can. This works out to about six breaths a minute. When we breathe like this we can better protect the lungs from irritation and infection while boosting circulation to the brain and body. Stress on the heart relaxes; the respiratory and nervous systems enter a state of coherence where everything functions at peak efficiency. Just a few minutes of inhaling and exhaling at this pace can drop blood pressure by 10, even 15 points. […] [T]he second step in healthy breathing: Breathe through your nose. Nasal breathing not only helps with snoring and some mild cases of sleep apnea, it also can allow us to absorb around 18% more oxygen than breathing through our mouths. It reduces the risk of dental cavities and respiratory problems and likely boosts sexual performance. The list goes on.