Book Review: Breath

Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I have a favorite class of book, which I refer to lovingly as “my ungabunga bullshit” that usually consists of nutritional or fitness claims drawing on shaky evolutionary science to advance an agenda that, ultimately and disappointingly, leads to pawning supplement placebos. Despite how insulting to the intelligence these tactics are, I can’t help but love the paleo quasi-science they’re pushing. Pull virtually anything from the Joe Rogan recommended reading list and you’ve got a 1 in 3 chance of stumbling on the kind of literature I’m talking about.

These books usually lean heavily on anecdotal evidence (like the entire Carnivore diet), or what we believe may have been how primitive man lived based on the fossil record and modern hunter-gatherer societies (like the Primal Blueprint or the Awakened Ape), and they universally reference our man Weston Price, peregrine dentist, and his discoveries on the miraculous effects of not eating carbohydrates (Good Calories, Bad Calories, the Obesity Code, anything keto or paleo related, et cetera ad nauseum).

I might sound dismissive, but it comes from a place of love. I like what they’re pushing, but I know the limitations of the science and I resent them trying to sucker me into buying “Primal Calm” sugar pills, especially with them saying, in the same breath, that sugar is the Great Western Devil.

In the same breath, bringing us back to the topic at hand. James Nestor is a journalist with disastrous dentition and a mouthbreathing habit that has left him, to hear him tell it, physically deformed. He looked like a normal dude to me, but maybe that’s the problem. Breath takes the same tone and theme as the rest of my ungabunga bullshit books, but rather than suggesting that the answer is “shit in a squatting position and deny the Demon Wheat”, Breath suggests that all of our problems, as highlighted by Price’s hundred year old tribal dentistry journals, are caused by the fact that we breathe through our mouths (and, to a lesser extent, don’t chew enough).

The science is young, but the few studies he referenced seemed legit. A lot of the book was more of a memoir of him serving as guinea pigs in these breathing experiments alongside crazed foreigners who were likewise convinced that proper breathing was the key to immortality, with the craziest and most foreign being Wim Hof, just for context.

I was especially intrigued by the perfect sociopath with the damaged amygdala experiencing fear for the first time in her life when forced to breath carbon dioxide at greater concentrations than usual, which is an effect mimicked in the body by “overbreathing” or not fully pushing the air from your diaphragm on the exhale. The exercise studies suggesting greater athletic capacity when breathing properly (that is, through the nose and emptying the lungs) were interesting, but highly anecdotal, and relied too much on the emotional language of the participants for my own comfort.

There’s also the whole Mewing thing, the glue that holds this collection of yoga techniques and self-report questionnaires together, and that isn’t empirically tested either.

End of the day, there’s not much in Breath that qualifies as actual science. On the same token, “breathe deeply and close your mouth, you stupid animal” isn’t bad advice. It’s like that folk wisdom you hear so much about.



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