James Nestor is fascinated by the shape of the human skull — or more specifically, how it has changed over time. When writing his latest book, Breath, published by Penguin, James looked through the Morton Collection, a collection of human skulls housed in the basement of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to learn how humans have evolved across centuries. What he found surprised him.
“All of our ancestors from around 300 to 400 years ago, and back to a million years ago and longer, all had perfect teeth. And that really frightened me. I wondered what else we’ve lost in our ability to function normally. It turns out, a lot,” he says.
The perfectly straight teeth of our ancestors are a sign something changed for the worse. James saw a remarkable difference between the shape of human skulls back then compared to now, particularly within hunter-gatherer communities: wider noses, larger jaws, clearer nasal passages. This indicates that our ancient ancestors likely had an easier time breathing.
“Over the past few hundred years, our mouths have grown so small that our teeth no longer fit, so they grow crooked,” James explains. “And if you have a small mouth, you’re going to have a smaller airway, which means you’re going to be much more likely to have breathing difficulties.”
James’ research took him to Paris, where he crawled through the city’s illegal catacombs, a series of subterranean passages and chambers deep below the streets. Ever since cemeteries became overcrowded in the 18th century, millions of Parisians were buried in abandoned limestone quarries, with some skeletons over a thousand years old. Unlike what he saw in the Morton Collection, the skulls he found here are more like our own, influenced by city life and modern industrialisation, which brought about rapid changes to the human diet through the introduction of processed foods — another reason why our skulls changed shape and our jaws grew smaller.
James never intended to write a book about breathing. “A lot of my friends who are authors and journalists were really mocking me at the beginning for having an interest in this. And I didn’t blame them. It sounds like such a simple subject. Why would anyone need to know how to breathe?” he says.
But breathing isn’t a binary thing, he continues. It isn’t as simple as saying that when you aren’t breathing, you’re no longer alive. “It’s how we breathe that is so important to our mental and physical health, longevity, and so much else,” says James.
So how do we breathe the right way? James finds answers in age-old belief systems, in ancient practices like Pranayama and Tummo, as well as the latest scientific research on breathing and the human respiratory system. He put his own body through the science, participating in science-led experiments, including one at Stanford University, where his nose was plugged for 10 days to see what effect mouth breathing has on the body compared to breathing through the nose. Spoiler alert: it’s really bad for you.
The negative impact of mouth breathing informs a number of scientific studies James covers in Breath. This is understandable, given it’s a common problem many people face, with a large number of us affected by sleep apnoea, allergies or nasal obstructions — all making nose breathing difficult. In Australia, for example, a study shows that one in 10 Australians suffers from undiagnosed obstructive sleep apnoea and struggles to breathe while sleeping.
So what happened during the Stanford experiment? “Everyone was quite shocked by how quickly the damage came on and how severe it was,” says James. His blood pressure increased and he started snoring and suffered episodes of sleep apnoea. Other health issues began to present themselves — the beginning of a sinus infection, a drop in heart rate variability, and anxiety.
“We have 50 years of science showing that mouth breathing is damaging to health, damaging to neurological functions, damaging to metabolism, damaging to the shape of your face. So that was all known. But the reason we did the experiment is because nobody knew how quickly that damage came on. Did it come on after a decade or a few years or several months? Nobody knew because nobody had tested it in humans.”
For James it’s important to understand the science from the inside, so he signed up to the experiment, knowing it was going to be a difficult and uncomfortable 10 days. “One of the greatest pleasures of my job is that I have the ability to go out in the field to spend time with experts and learn from them,” he says.
“That is not something I would want to just report on by simply reading their study and then summarising it. To me that’s not really fulfilling my duty as a journalist. I need to truly understand this stuff. And with breathing, I wanted to experience these different breathing methods to understand what’s happening to my body. I wanted to write about it so I could explain to other people what was happening to their bodies.”
The way we breathe affects every part of our body and mind. This isn’t a new-age idea. It’s backed by scientific evidence and research that all point to the importance of developing good breathing habits. “No matter what you eat, how much you exercise or what your genes are, if you’re not breathing correctly, none of it matters,” says James.
Brooke Boland is a freelance writer based on the south coast of NSW.