A Nose By Any Other Name
Think it doesn’t matter whether you breathe through your nose or your mouth? Think again. You breathe through your mouth at your peril,
A Nose By Any Other Name
Our noses are finely tuned breathing machines. Each nostril has nasal turbines that streamlines and propels the air efficiently into our lungs. We breathe more slowly through the nose and take in less volume. The airflow is also heated and humidified to ease stress on the body. On exhale, the nostrils retain some of the moisture and heat from the breath.
Our noses provide the first line of defence in our battle with bacteria, viruses and pollution / irritants. The cilia, or little hairs, along with the mucus membranes trap particles from the air and direct them to our pharynx from where they are carried to the stomach to be killed. And our sinuses produce nitric oxide an antimicrobial that kills bacteria and viruses that have evaded the cilia.
Nitric oxide is also a vaso-dilator that dilates the airways and blood vessels. This means the air flows more freely and oxygen is transferred more efficiently to the blood. Nitric oxide also aids perfusion or gas exchange as it encourages the blood in the lungs to rise up and not just pool in the bottom third of the lungs. More oxygen is thus exposed to blood.
Our mouths, by comparison, bring nothing to the breathing party. They are there as a fail-safe only in case of nasal blockage or extreme exertion, such as running away from a tiger.
When we breathe through the mouth we breathe faster. There are no turbines to streamline and direct the flow. The air is more turbulent and does not reach as deeply into the lungs as through the nose. So when we breathe through the mouth we tend to breathe into the upper chest. This means we lose tone in the diaphragm and core strength, leaving us more susceptible to injury. Additionally the diaphragm helps move the lymph through the body as well as massaging various organs including the heart. It is also a driver of the parasympathetic nervous system, our rest and relax setting.
The shape of our lungs dictates that the majority of the blood is in the bottom part. Breathing into the upper chest thus reduces the efficiency of breathing. Consequently we breathe more and expend more energy doing so. When we breathe more – whether that’s faster or more volume – we don’t match out breath needs to our metabolism, a bit like over-eating. The balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide is lost, and a whole host of health consequences result. More on that here.
Mouth breathing makes other conditions worse. It can heighten sensitivity to pain as it activates our stress response. It compounds stress in the same way. Inefficient breathing leads to fatigue, poor oxygen delivery to the brain causing brain fog, and inadequate sleep. It can alter our body’s pH levels, encourage premature ageing, lead to poor digestion and strip us of vital minerals. It will adversely affect athletic performance.
Our front-line defence against infection and pollution is removed by mouth breathing. The further down our airways particles descend the greater our risk of infection or inflammation. Mouth breathing also does nothing to clear the mucus produced in our noses every day, and if the mucus isn’t cleared out we risk sinus and ear infections.
Nitric oxide is also removed from the breathing equation when we breathe through the mouth. Aside from losing another line of defence against microbes, you’re also losing out on its broncho-dilating properties. Breathing is thus less efficient and requires more effort. Mouth breathing also provides no warming preparation of the air. Breathing in cold dry air via the mouth increases the strain on already narrowed airways. This increases the risk of inflammation in order to repair damage. This may lead to swelling and further constriction of the airways.
Mouth breathing also evaporates saliva leaving your teeth more open to decay. Our tongue’s natural resting place is in the roof of the mouth which relates to our posture via the deep front line (see Thomas Myers). When we breathe through the mouth the tongue falls to mid or lower mouth. This runs the risk of the face becoming narrower and the teeth more crooked. This is particularly problematic for children whose faces are still developing and, unchecked, can lead to a host of health problems throughout their lives. Mouth breathing also affects posture by causing the head to shift position. In order to breathe through the mouth we have to shift the position of our head forward. It is a route to text neck or forward head position. And when you get here, things become very difficult to reverse.
So with all of the benefits of nose breathing, why do people breathe through the mouth?
Congestion can be a big factor – hay fever, allergies, pollution can all cause a congested nose. They trigger inflammation that releases histamine in large quantities. Histamine, an immune response, contributes to increased mucus production and contraction of the smooth muscle in the airways.
However switching to mouth breathing actually makes things worse. The nose stops functioning properly. Reduced airflow through the nose results in lowered air pressure which degenerates and decreases the size of the nasal passages. We lose the dilating properties of nitric oxide and carbon dioxide as mouth breathing causes us to breathe too much. We also lose moisture when we mouth breathe and as we become dehydrated, levels of histamine rise.
Long term mouth breathing can actually narrow the upper jaw (maxilla) which makes the sinuses narrower. Congestion thus becomes an even bigger problem.
Breathing through the nose when congested can help. The following exercise is worth trying. Inhale through the nose, exhale then pinch your nose and move your head from side to side, forward and back. When you need to inhale, release your nose and continue (don’t hold the breath for so long that you need to gulp in air afterwards – hold for a comfortable amount of time so that the following inhale is relaxed). Do this 5 or 6 times.
Yoga danda is also useful – if your right nostril is blocked, place your right hand under your left armpit and squeeze and breathe (and vice versa). The nostril should start to unblock.
Structural issues with the nose and airways (deviated septum, polyps, enlarged turbinates, the shape of the nose, the size of the jaw, enlarged tonsils or adenoids) can also encourage mouth breathing as it can feel easier. Patrick McKeown of Oxygen Advantage says that if you can breathe through your nose for a minute you can do it for the rest of your life. Whilst the mouth might feel easier, in the long run the impact to your health will be substantial. Stick with the nose if you can. If surgery has been suggested, do your research and definitely check out empty nose syndrome (ENS).
Stress and anxiety can also lead to mouth breathing as it activates the sympathetic nervous system encouraging shallower and more rapid breath. The nose can feel too slow to accommodate this level of breath, causing a switch to mouth breathing.
Snoring through the mouth counts. You might spend all day happily breathing through your nose but if you’re spending 8 hours a night mouth breathing you are still open to all the health pitfalls that go with it. Additionally sleep will be disrupted and its health benefits diminished. Sleep apnea may also develop. For more information about mouth breathing at night see here.
A Word of Warning
And a final word on the subject. It is vitally important to establish a pattern of nose breathing as quickly as possible for a child. If not corrected they can develop crooked teeth, narrow mouths, and high palate arches. They are likely to sleep poorly at night because of blocked airways and this will have a negative affect on their growth and academic ability. Quite often they are wrongly diagnosed with ADHD and hyperactivity.