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How to Breathe for Optimal Brain Performance with James Nestor

James Nestor is an author and journalist who has written for Scientific American, Outside, The New York Times, The Atlantic, and more. His latest book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, was released May 26, 2020 by Riverhead/Penguin Random House. Breath was an instant New York Times and London Sunday Times bestseller and will be translated into more than 30 languages in 2021. Nestor’s first book, Deep: Freediving, Renegade Science, and What the Ocean Tells Us About Ourselves, was published in 2014 and was a finalist for the 2014 PEN/ESPN Award For Literary Sports Writing, an Amazon Best Science Book of 2014, and more. Nestor has presented his work at Stanford Medical School, the United Nations, Global Classroom (World Health Organization+UNICEF), as well as more than 60 radio and television shows, including Fresh Air with Terry Gross, the Joe Rogan Show, ABC’s Nightline, CBS Morning News, and dozens of NPR programs. He lives and breathes in San Francisco.


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What are the best ways to breathe for optimal brain performance?

Breathing affects everything in your life, from your focus, concentration, mental energy, vitality, immune system, and so much more. Yet, you may not be doing it the right way.

Like many things, such as memory, focus, and concentration, breathing optimally was not one of the things you were taught in school.

Today, we have a breathing expert, James Nestor. He’s a science journalist and author of the New York Times best-selling book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.

This episode has so much packed in, be sure you listen with the intention of teaching someone else. Remember, when you learn something to explain it to someone else, you get to learn it twice.

*** Do you want to stay up to date with every new episode and get my brand new Kwik Brain Accelerator Program? Go to www.KwikBrain.com/podcast to get instant access. ***

" One of the quickest things you can do to help reduce stress is to take control of your breathing."


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Fundamentals Of Breathing

  • Knowledge by itself isn’t power, it’s potential power.
  • Once you start learning about breath, you notice that this very basic biological function controls everything in your body.
  • If you can take control of breath, you can take control over other unconscious things that are happening in your body, including your mind.
  • How you breathe affects your brain in so many ways.
  • In order to be motivated, to focus on a task, you have to first focus on your breathing.
  • Look at meditation. The first thing you do is focus on your breath, or recite a certain phrase meant to control your breathing.
  • By controlling your breathing, you take control of different centers of your brain.

Breathing For Longevity

  • There are so many reasons to prioritize breath. Often when it comes to health, the focus is on food and water, but we can go weeks without food. Or even days with water. But we can only go minutes without breathing.
  • Most people exist in a state of low-grade stress. This means stress is just running in the background all the time.
  • Stress is related to many autoimmune diseases and is behind many chronic illnesses. If you look at the top ten killers in the world, the vast majority are tied to chronic inflammation as a result of chronic stress.
  • One of the quickest things you can do to help reduce stress is to take control of your breathing.
  • When you have unconscious stress in your body, the tendency is to breathe too much.
  • Often, this is an increased amount of breathing through your mouth. This creates a feedback loop. When the body senses you’re breathing too much, your brain starts sending signals and neurotransmitters that put you in a stress state.
  • The first thing you can do is take two big inhales—one on top of the other—and force yourself to sigh on exhale.
  • This technique is from Andrew Huberman at Stanford University.
  • There is a separate subsect in the brain of neurons dedicated to controlling sighing.
  • If you look at animals in the wild, the first thing they do before they go to sleep is they breathe in and sigh.
  • Do this technique, three or four times, and it will send signals throughout your body and brain that will help you relax.
  • It’s a great trick to do before any activity you’re nervous about, or any other time you sense yourself getting stressed or nervous.

Awareness Is Key

  • Awareness is the most important aspect in developing a mindset towards breathing. Be aware of your breath while exercising, relaxing, sitting in front of the television or your computer.
  • Just because you breathe unconsciously up to 25,000 times a day, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to focus on it better and learn to adapt your breathing in different ways that allow your body to function differently—especially your brain.
  • Even the difference between nasal breathing and mouth breathing changes your brain and allows you to remember things more easily.
  • Breathing through the nose is incredibly effective, and yet, people are constantly breathing through the mouth.
  • The brain takes 20% of your energy from your body, and you get the majority of that energy from breathing.
  • You want to learn to use that energy efficiently. Taking control of your breathing is the quickest way of doing that.
  • One common misconception about breathing is that breathing heavier will bring more oxygen into the body.
  • The truth is, when it comes to breathing, less is often more. Breathing slower is more in line with your metabolic needs, which will get more oxygen into your body more efficiently.
  •  When you breathe through your mouth, trying to take in more oxygen, what you’re actually doing is denying your brain circulation.
  • If you don’t believe this, take in thirty big breaths.
  • You’ll likely feel light-headed, or even some tingling in your fingertips.
  • This isn’t an increase in circulation, but a lack of circulation.

The Science Of Breathing

  • The need to breathe is not dictated by a lack of oxygen, but an increase in carbon dioxide, or CO2.
  • People with anxiety and other fear-based disorders are being studied for sensitivity to CO2.
  • When you develop this sensitivity, you’ve consciously and unconsciously taught yourself to over-breathe.
  • As CO2 increases, your body believes it’s being constricted, and that you’re struggling to breathe.
  • By conditioning slower breathing, you can make your chemoreceptors more flexible, which enables them to tolerate normal levels of CO2, and calm your brain
  • Evolution doesn’t always mean progress. If you look at human evolution, our breathing is not progressing.
  • Our ancestors, even 400 years ago, they all had perfectly straight teeth.
  • They had huge jaws, wider airways, and wider nasal aperatures.
  • From this historic skeletal records, we can see that they are able to breathe so much easier than we can.
  • Right now, the majority of the human population has a chronic respiratory problem.
  • This is so prevalent, it’s considered normal. But it’s not.
  • Our ancestors, or any other animal in the wild, doesn’t suffer from these issues.
  • There are a lot of different ways these breathing problems show up in people, so there’s no blanket prescription for everyone.
  • The first thing you have to do is become aware of your breathing dysfunction. Then you need to determine where it’s coming from, and double down on finding and fixing that.
  • Luckily, most of you don’t need surgery.
  • You just need to develop proper habits so that healthy breathing becomes unconscious.
  • Changing habits takes a long time.
  • Focus on conscious breathing and your unconscious brain will learn that this is the way to breathe all the time.
  • Be sure to check out the extended version of this episode on YouTube.

Share With Us

  • Take a screenshot of this episode, tag us on social media (@jimkwik and @mrjamesnestor), and share the one idea, inspiration, or instruction you’re taking away from this episode.
  • I’ll be reposting my favorites and gifting a copy of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art to one lucky listener.
  • Be sure to visit, www.mrjamesnestor.com, for links to buy the book and access to the entire bibliography. There’s videos, research studies, interviews with the experts, archive photos, and much more.
  • Grab your copy of Breath, here.


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