The book that helped me breathe through my year from hell: SARAH VINE reveals how breathing techniques pushed her through a difficult divorce
- Sarah Vine opens up about her difficult divorce and the physical effects from it
- The UK columnist gives tips on how breathing can help your day-to-day life
- She also speaks about her experience with altitude sickness ten years ago
What’s the one thing none of us can live without, not even for the shortest time? Food? Water? No, it’s breathing: cut that off, and we’re gone in a matter of seconds.
Yet breathing is something very few of us ever stop to think about. After all, it just happens, right? In, out, in, out, 22,000 times a day or thereabouts, just one of those miracles of nature we take for granted. Until it goes wrong. I first experienced what it’s like when you can’t breathe properly ten years ago.
Friends had invited my family to Beaver Creek, a ski resort some 8,000 ft high up in the Rocky Mountains of America’s Midwest.
I was beyond excited. I grew up in the shadow of the Italian Alps; skiing was as ordinary as going to a football game. You could catch a bus to one of the cheaper resorts and buy a day pass for the price of dinner and a cinema ticket. I loved the solitude, the clean air in my lungs, the cruel beauty of the mountains, that feeling of intense physical exhaustion at the end of a long day on the slopes.
I hadn’t done it for years, not since the children came along, and I had always dreamt of skiing the legendary peaks of Colorado. I didn’t need to be asked twice. But it wasn’t to be.
Sarah Vine opens up about her difficult divorce and the physical effects from it – and how a book on breathing helped her through the ‘year from hell’
I was fine at first. But as I descended my first run through the crisp, early-morning air, the snow glistening beneath my skis, I began to feel very odd. All energy seemed to drain from my body. I was dizzy and short of breath. There was a ringing in my ears and my heart was beating loudly in my chest. Crikey, I thought, I must be more out of shape than I’d realised.
Other skiers whizzed past as I began to slow down. My back ached, I felt like there was a concrete cloak on my shoulders. An excruciating, hot sort of pain ran down my legs, as though someone were running a lit match along my shins. I slid to a halt and sat down in the snow, trying to catch my breath.
As my heart rate slowed, I began to feel better. I got up and tried to carry on. Again, that same feeling, as though every cell in my body were screaming in agony.
After a few more minutes of misery, I eventually gave up. I unclipped my boots, took off my skis, slung them over my shoulder and walked, slowly and painfully, back to base.
I had altitude sickness, of course. I didn’t realise at first, never once having experienced it — not even on the Matterhorn.
But then you ski much higher in the Rockies and I had only recently recovered from a nasty bout of pneumonia. When I finally went to the resort medical centre, after a couple more days of trying, and failing, to ski, my blood oxygen level reading on the pulse oximeter was 89.
They gave me oxygen and I spent the rest of the holiday in bed. As we descended back to normal altitude to catch the plane home, my symptoms gradually began to dissipate. But I shall never forget that awful feeling of my body being deprived of oxygen. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.
And yet: there are hundreds of thousands of people over the past two years who have suffered precisely this fate.
Coronavirus attacks the lungs, and in severe cases prevents oxygen from getting around the body. It is this that, in turn, places the internal organs under intolerable strain and which can lead, ultimately, to death.
Even those who recover from this severe form of the illness find themselves left with serious health problems. Witness poor Derek Draper, the husband of Good Morning Britain presenter Kate Garraway.
I think this was one of the reasons I was drawn to James Nestor’s book Breath: The New Science Of A Lost Art.
Watching harrowing news footage of Covid patients gasping for air, or hooked up to oxygen masks and ventilators, reminded me of my own miserable experience all those years ago. I shuddered to think what they were going through, and Nestor’s book struck a chord.
I was gripped from page one. It’s not just that Nestor can actually write — a bit of a rarity in the category of science literature, which is, I suppose, where this belongs.
He has such infectious enthusiasm for his subject and such a way with words there isn’t a dry passage in the whole book.
He brings a complex subject alive with humour and humanity, and takes the reader on an unexpected journey of self-discovery.
Sarah was drawn to the book, Breath, by James Nestor, after seeing people gasping for air on harrowing news footage of Covid-19 wards (file photo)
In essence, his message is this: we humans have lost the ability to breathe properly. Forget air pollution and tree pollen; it’s not what we breathe but how we breathe that’s making us sick.
He talks about how the strains of modern life can cause a form of stress apnoea; and how our habit of breathing through our mouths rather than our noses is contributing to so many of the modern ailments that plague us, from insomnia and brain fog to high blood pressure and even asthma.
‘Mouth-breathing’, as he calls it, can even alter our physical appearance, causing dark shadows under the eyes, an elongated long face, a high narrow palate, gum disease and tooth decay.
Nestor even conducts an experiment on himself to document these effects. It’s painful, but fascinating.
Our noses are designed to protect our lungs from the outside world — pathogens, pollutants — and yet between 25 and 50 per cent of the population are ‘mouth-breathers’.
This leads to a much lower oxygen intake, and can even trigger certain automatic stress responses, with the result that we develop all sorts of problems, ranging from the annoying (bad breath and hoarseness) to the downright debilitating (snoring, irritability, tiredness, sleep apnoea, and so on).
An astonishing 60-70 per cent of the population sleeps with an open mouth, which, says Nestor, probably accounts for why so many of us wake up feeling more exhausted than we were when we went to bed.
There’s much more to the book than that, of course — and I really do recommend it as an absolutely fascinating read, full of tantalising little nuggets of science and astonishing facts. But what I took away from it was the benefits of mindful breathing — and how it can transform not only the way we feel, but also our overall health.
I’ll be honest. It’s been a difficult year for me emotionally. My husband and I finally decided to go our separate ways, and however amicable our separation, it’s still been a painful process. You don’t unravel 20 years of marriage without experiencing a few long, dark nights of the soul — especially when, given who we both are, half the world is pointing and laughing.
There have been times when keeping the show on the road has felt hard. And when this happens, for some reason I feel it most acutely in my chest.
Even opening a tricky email, or having a mildly difficult phone call can trigger it.
My throat tightens in a bolus of worry, the muscles either side contracting. I struggle to fill my lungs, my breathing becomes quick and shallow, and my mind and body feel restless and irritable.
I sleep a lot, but I don’t sleep well. My children tell me I snore, and I wake often in the night with a dry throat, almost choking on the air in my bedroom.
Sarah added that James Nestor talks about how the strains of modern life can cause a form of stress apnoea; and how our habit of breathing through our mouths rather than our noses is contributing to so many of the modern ailments that plague us
It’s as though there’s something pressing down on my solar plexus, a sense that the breath is being squeezed out of me.
When I was young, I was a swimmer. A really good swimmer. I could take in a huge lungful of air and go whole lengths underwater, or dive deep in the sea, confident that my lungs could carry me anywhere. But lately, I’ve felt as though I was drowning. Then I read this book.
Nestor has taught me that, through simple exercises, I can reclaim my breath — and with it control over my life and emotions. Thanks to him, I understand the science and principles behind such breathing techniques as Nadi Shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) or the Wim Hof method, yogic breathing and more.
I understand now that they are not just silly woo-woo ideas practised by hairy eccentrics in loincloths (although, let’s face it, they often are), but real, practical solutions to the everyday stresses and strains of life.
But perhaps the most useful technique I’ve learned from Nestor, the bit of the book that has been most transformational for me personally, is mouth- taping. Yes, it sounds bonkers, I know; but this simple technique for stopping my mouth falling open while I am sleeping has made a huge difference to my quality of life.
I realised after reading Nestor’s book that I must have been a mouth-breather from a young age. All my life, I’ve suffered from throat infections and other upper respiratory diseases, and despite rigorous oral hygiene, my teeth had been pretty much destroyed by the time I reached the age of 30: all clear symptoms.
And so I took his advice. I went online and bought myself a packet of mouth-tapes — these are little strips made out of surgical tape that gently seal the lips during sleep.
At first, I tore them off after a few minutes. But I persisted, and after a few nights they were no more intrusive than a mouth guard or brace.
I am under no illusions: I must look utterly deranged, lying there with tape on my mouth. In fact, it’s probably just as well that no one has to share a bed with me any more.
But the results have been remarkable. The tape encourages me to breath through my nose, with notable effect.
I don’t wake up repeatedly in the night, gasping for water. When my alarm goes off, I no longer feel like I’m being roused from the dead, my legs and joints aching and stiff.
Instead of feeling like an old phone whose battery will never take a full charge, no matter how long you leave it plugged in, I feel restored.
My children even tell me the snoring has stopped. It’s more of a ‘snorfle’ now, my daughter says. I’ll take that.
Better sex, great teeth and an end to snoring — how mastering your breathing can transform your life
Author James Nestor shares his life-changing guide to breathing.
We assume, at our peril, that breathing is a passive action, just something we do: breathe, live; stop breathing, die.
But the way you breathe can have a huge impact on everything from snoring and blood pressure to dental health and migraines.
Sarah Vine says she was ‘hooked’ from the very first page of James Nestor’s Breathe
Even if you’re fit and healthy, knowing the right breathing techniques could improve your performance in the gym, keep you calm in stressful situations, or simply help you fall sleep more easily. No matter what we eat, how much we exercise, how skinny or young or wise we are — nothing matters unless we’re breathing correctly.
FALL ASLEEP QUICKLY WITH 4-7-8 METHOD
- Take a breath in, then exhale through your mouth with a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a count of four.
- Hold for a count of seven.
- Exhale through your mouth, to the count of eight.
- Repeat this cycle for at least four breaths.
- Stay calm with Box Breathing
This is simple but so effective that Navy SEALs — the U.S. equivalent of the UK’s Special Boat Service (the sea-based version of the SAS) — are taught this technique to stay calm and focused in tense situations.
- Inhale to a count of 4; hold 4; exhale 4; hold 4. Repeat.
- Try at least six rounds, more if necessary.
YOGA TECHNIQUE TO BEAT STRESS
This is a well-known yoga breathing method to improve lung function as well as lower blood pressure and stress.
- Place your right thumb over your right nostril and the ring finger of that same hand on the left nostril. The forefinger and middle finger should rest between the eyebrows.
- Close the right nostril with the thumb and inhale through the left nostril very slowly.
- At the top of the breath, pause briefly, holding both nostrils closed, then lift just the thumb to exhale through the right nostril.
- At the conclusion of the exhale, hold both nostrils closed, then inhale through the right nostril.
- Continue alternating breaths through the nostrils for five to ten cycles.
STOP SNORING BY USING YOUR NOSE
Breathing through your mouth, not your nose, is thought to be a cause of both snoring and sleep apnoea.
Part of the reason is that keeping the nose constantly in use trains the tissues inside the nasal cavity and throat to flex and stay open.
There are other advantages too. ‘One of the many benefits of nose-breathing is that the sinuses release a huge boost of nitric oxide, which plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells,’ explains Dr Mark Burhenne, who has been studying the links between mouth-breathing and sleep for years.
‘Immune function, weight, circulation, mood and sexual function can all be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body.’
So, how do you do it?
You can start by making the effort to breathe only through your nose during the day, but at night, try taping your mouth shut. The most straightforward way to do this is to use a postage stamp-sized amount of surgical tape across the centre of your mouth at night.
You’ll probably hate it at first, but persevere and you’ll soon reap the benefits.
BREATHE SLOWLY TO IMPROVE HEALTH
In the 1950s, a Russian doctor called Konstantin Buteyko found that all the patients in the worst health seemed to breathe too much, often inhaling and exhaling through the mouth, packing in 15 litres or more of air per minute.
Conversely, the healthiest patients inhaled and exhaled only ten times a minute, taking in five to six litres of air.
Today, you’re considered medically normal if you take from a dozen to 20 breaths a minute, with an average air intake of six to ten litres.
Heart disease, ulcers, and chronic inflammation are all linked to disturbances in circulation, blood pH, and metabolism. How we breathe affects all of those functions.
Breath by James Nestor (£9.99, Penguin Life). To order for £8.99 (offer valid to 31/1/22; free UK delivery on orders over £20), go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.
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