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“Breath” – A Game Changer

It’s been a few months since I’ve read this book, but I was recently reminded of how impactful it has been on my life. Like many men my age, I’ve been diagnosed with sleep apnea. As some of my friends can attest, I snore…loudly. Let me give you an example:

Many years ago, I was invited to attend the Intel Sales and Marketing Conference (ISMC), in Las Vegas. It was Intel’s annual sales conference, and roughly 10,000 Intel employees from all over the world were invited to hear Intel’s leaders give inspiring messages and receive their marching orders for the upcoming year. During the last few years, Intel has since, canceled the event, focusing on reducing expenses rather than increasing revenue, but back in the day, it was a weeklong party. This particular year, my manager at the time, R. Ramaswamy, or “doctor” as we called him, had decided at the last minute that he would also attend. Unfortunately, there were no more rooms available, and he asked if he might crash in my room. I had scored a suite in the Bellagio, and welcomed him, but warned him about my snoring. He laughed and said that he was a sound sleeper and assured me that I wouldn’t disturb him. I laughed and told him that I had heard that before. It turned out that my room had a fold-out bed in the sitting area of the suite. There wasn’t a separate closed-off room, but he had his own bed. After the first night, I asked him how he slept. I still get a laugh at his response. In a strong Indian accent, he implored, “Scott, you really must see a doctor.”

I have another fifty or so stories, like that one. What Ram didn’t know was that I had already seen a doctor. In my early forties, I had undergone a sleep study, which revealed that I woke up something like 13 times a minute when I slept. I never realized I had a problem. I thought of myself as a world-class sleeper, getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Others complained (sorry wife), but I slept great! If sleeping were an Olympic event, I’d be a multi-gold medal winner. But the science said otherwise and instead of a gold medal, I was awarded a bulky sleep-apnea machine, complete with tubes and a full-on face mask. The first night I wore the damned thing, I knew it wasn’t for me. I was claustrophobic and slept horribly. I tried using it for months, but eventually put the machine away and went back to tried and true, good old-fashioned, unprotected sleep.

As the years passed, some of my friends also developed sleep apnea. When we got together, we compared notes and argued who had the worst sleep apnea. Many of them knew how badly I snored, and joked about sleeping arrangements. Nobody wanted to sleep in the same room as me. After my father had a health scare, and was prescribed a CPAP, I went back in to complete another sleep study. The results were the same, and I was issued a new machine, with a new and improved mask. Different mask, same results. I reasoned that sleep apnea was a scam. Humans, and likely our monkey ancestors, had snored since the beginning of time I reasoned. Why did we all of a sudden need air pumped into our lungs to sleep?

And then my son (see Kublaii) turned me on to “Breath – The Science Of A Lost Art”, by James Nestor. He had been doing mindful meditation for a while and had picked up this book to learn some new breathing exercises. What I read was mind opening, and has since opened up a new world of spirituality that I won’t go into here, except for how it relates to this story. The book explains that humans have become mouth breathers, which works, but is actually unhealthy. When you breathe in through the nose, the oxygen is filtered, washes over your brain, eventually delivered to your lungs for distribution to the rest of your body. As you exhale, your body expels warmed-up carbon dioxide, which helps maintain a cleaner, healthier exit path through the nose. An over-simplification, but if you want to learn more you’re going to have to read the book.

The most meaningful exercise the book recommended, at least for me, was to tape my mouth shut when I slept. Very strange, but a profoundly obvious solution to snoring. At first, I was afraid (I was petrified). What if it stopped me from breathing completely, and it killed me? I asked my wife to keep one eye open that night. When I awoke the next morning, I had enjoyed a surprisingly restful sleep. Peeling off the duct tape was painful, but the results made it worthwhile. What’s more, I hadn’t snored! For the next few weeks after that, I put a few inches of duct tape over my mouth when I slept and woke up none the worse…actually some the better. Eventually, I no longer needed the tape.

I guess that I still have sleep apnea, and snore occasionally, but not nearly as bad as the earth-shaking rhoncus (look it up) of my youth. At the very least, if you read the book, I think you’ll find the author’s, and his pulmonautic friends, experiments interesting.

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