-The Mouth is For Eating, The Nose is For Breathing
Our bodies evolved to use the nose and nasal passages to maximize oxygen intake, produce nitric oxide, and allow greater efficiency and effectiveness in a plethora of systems.
It may seem trivial, but the way we breathe at night has a huge effect on our health and quality of sleep. Of course, we have only two ways to get air into our lungs: through our nose and our mouth. But they are not equally effective or beneficial.
Let’s pause for a moment and watch a video on the difference between nasal and mouth breathing. If you prefer to read the rest of the lesson and come back, by all means, but this video is a great primer on the topic.
It’s preferable to breathe through the mouth when the body is in an emergency situation and needs the maximum amount of air as quickly as possible, or during a simulation of such events, such as during sports and working out. Beyond that, our bodies are better adapted to breathing through the nose during normal activity, most exercise, and during the main topic of this module: sleep.
So what’s so bad about breathing through the mouth? Mouth breathing should only kick in during emergencies or extreme effort, and it will actually increase the stress response on its own by producing adrenaline. If we mostly breathe through our mouth while we’re sleeping, blood oxygen and CO2 levels begin to drop. These two chemicals have a dynamic relationship with each other and both serve an important role in supplying oxygen to working tissue. When the levels of these molecules drop, our brain stem interprets it as a fight-or-flight situation and makes us release adrenaline and cortisol throughout the night, waking us up periodically and disrupting our sleep patterns discussed earlier in this module.
Sleep apnea, where one actually stops breathing for extended periods during the night, can have the same outcome. Chronic mouth breathing is one of the main factors that can lead to sleep apnea by underutilizing the nasal tissues, causing them to swell, and making the transition back to nasal breathing require a little more practice. The nose is a use-it-or-lose-it organ and not using it can cause a spiraling feedback loop of negative health outcomes.
How do we know if we’re mouth breathing at night? Some of the most common symptoms include:
- Dry mouth (needing water on the bedside table)
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Tooth decay
- Waking up tired and irritable
- Chronic fatigue
- Brain fog
- Dark circles under the eyes
So what is the nose for anyway and why does it improve breathing? The list is long.
First and foremost, the nose and nasal passageways warm, moisturize and filter the air before it reaches our sensitive lung tissue. Furthermore, the vortex action created when air passes through the nose drives the air into the lower portion of the lungs where more blood vessels and surface area can absorb higher oxygen levels into the blood as well as efficiently rid the blood of CO2.
If we continue to breathe through our mouths, the air that reaches our lungs is cold, dry, and contains more environmental contaminants, dust, and allergens. Postnasal drip results from the nasal passages trying to overcompensate for this unfiltered dry air, which causes congestion in the sinuses and can further disrupt daytime and nighttime breathing.
Another benefit of nasal breathing is the production of nitric oxide (NO – one nitrogen atom bonded with one oxygen atom), which is absent during mouth breathing. NO is produced in the sinuses and driven into the lungs with each breath. There, it acts as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and repair agent for our delicate lung tissue. Upon being absorbed into the bloodstream, NO helps repair and protect arterial linings and allows blood vessels to dilate, lowering blood pressure and reducing the risks of cardiovascular disease.
Additional benefits of NO in the body include:
- Increases oxygen transport throughout the body, including inside muscle tissues like the heart.
- Acts as an antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic, and antibacterial agent helping the immune system fight infections.
- Allows for greater oxygen delivery to mitochondria for energy production.
- Helps generate antioxidants.
- Supports healthy blood sugar levels and better insulin sensitivity.
- Regulates blood flow in the brain and supports neural plasticity (our brain’s ability to learn and change).
No production of NO is happening when we breathe through our mouths, so there’s no question if nasal breathing is better for our health.
But the benefits of nasal breathing don’t end there:
- The bottom of the lungs contains receptors that need to be activated in order to prepare for the deepest and most restful stages of sleep.
- Forcing air into the bottom of the lungs requires the entire rib cage to flex, thereby massaging the heart, lungs, and other internal organs. This also helps support and pump lymph through the area. The lymphatic system is a network of tissues, organs, and fluids that rid our bodies of toxins and move infection-fighting white blood cells through our bodies. This system is separate from the cardiovascular system and pumping of the heart, and relies on the movement of our bodies and contractions of our muscles as it’s pump.
- Full rib cage activation allows for greater flexibility and elasticity of the head, neck, spine, and lower back.
- Lowers heart rate more than mouth breathing during day and night.
- Increases alpha brain wave activity which promotes relaxation and meditative states, whereas mouth breathing promotes beta brain waves more associated with the stress response.
- Better performance during easy to moderate aerobic exercise.
If you find yourself with any of the symptoms of mouth breathing at night, there are a number of strategies that can help reteach your mind and body to breathe primarily through the nose.
Here’s one strategy you can implement the next time you go for a walk, from Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage:
- Breath in and out through your nose, pinch your nose and hold your breath.
- Walk as many steps as you can, building up until you feel a medium to strong desire to breathe.
- Breathe through your nose to calm yourself. Your aim is to be able to calm yourself within just two to three breaths. If not, you’ve held your breath for too long.
- Breathe through your nose for about a minute and repeat.
- Repeat six times.
After getting comfortable with the above, I suggest trying to consciously breathe through your nose during all but your most extreme activity levels. Unless you’re sprinting or working very hard for an extended period, your oxygen intake and NO production are more efficient during nasal breathing. It can also help calm and recenter you when trying to recover from or during exercise, such as reaching the top of a hill when running or when caught in someone’s side control when rolling Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Set a repeating chime or alarm while working out so that whenever it goes off, it reminds you to check how you’re breathing. Or become conscious of how you’re breathing when a new song starts in your headphones. At first, you may feel like you need to gasp for air while exercising, but once you get more comfortable with the practice it will pay off as your ability to nasal breathe moves into the rest of your waking hours and then into the night.
One popular strategy for training yourself to breathe through your nose during the night is to use tape over your mouth while in bed. There are many tips and strategies online, but it all comes down to self-experimentation and finding a method that works for you.
If the thought of taping your mouth shut makes you feel agitated or claustrophobic, practice during the day first. There’s no need to cover your entire mouth either. You can simply use a small piece vertically over the lips to just act as a reminder to your brain to keep your jaw shut. If you really needed to, you could still easily open your lips a little to breathe or push the tape away with your tongue. The point isn’t to stop all possibility of breathing through your mouth, but to act as a reminder not to. As you get more comfortable during the day, try doing it when you go to bed. Even if you find that you remove the tape after a while, keep trying until you’re able to wear it through the night.
This lesson is going to be the only one on breath, but the topic is rich with its implications, so I’ll leave you with another excellent short video that summarizes some of these main topics, as well as advice on taping your mouth during the night. You can also check out the books The Wim Hof Method, by Wim Hof, and Breath, by James Nester, for further reading on the topic.
Given that we take over 26,000 breaths per day, we can’t afford to take our breathing for granted. Our bodies evolved to use the nose and nasal passages to maximize oxygen intake, produce NO, and allow greater efficiency and effectiveness in a plethora of other systems. If we find ourselves breathing through our mouths, it’s a great opportunity to work on an easily attainable habit that can have immediate benefits to our overall health and sleep.
Here’s to breathing through our noses and all its benefits.
Today’s Assignment – Breathwork
Bronze – To practice nasal breathing, do this breathing exercise right now:
- Inhale through your nose for four seconds, filling your lungs with air and allowing your abdomen (stomach) to expand. Keep your shoulders down and relaxed. Breathe into your belly, not into your upper chest and shoulders.
- Hold your breath for seven seconds.
- Breathe out for eight seconds. Push all the air out by bringing your belly inward.
- Repeat for a few minutes.
Silver – Try one of the strategies described in this lesson to train yourself to breathe through your nose. Try the breath, hold and walking method, set a repetitive reminder for yourself while exercising, or try taping your mouth if you’re ready.
Gold – Commit to and begin a meditation practice. Almost all meditation methods require nasal breathing and are a great way to train your brain to breathe through the nose.
You’ll need enough space for 30 paces for this workout.
Warm up for at least 10 minutes.
Then complete the following:
- 30 bodyweight squats
- 30 jumping jacks
- 30 walking lunges (15 on each side)
- 30 mountain climbers (15 on each side)
- 30 jumping jacks
- 30 walking lunges back to starting position
Repeat 6-8 times without rest in between. Rest is only necessary when your form isn’t perfect.
Cool down and stretch.