"Breathing through your mouth makes as much sense as trying to eat through your nose." -Unknown
Breathing: it’s not something we typically think about, is it? We take somewhere around 25,000 breaths a day, and our bodies do it automatically, with little to no thought involved unless we purposely practice techniques like deep breathing, yoga, meditation, or we play certain sports. But we recently came across this episode of the Joe Rogan podcast featuring an interview with James Nestor, author of New York Times Bestseller Breathe: The New Science of a Lost Art.
“You’re writing a book about breathing? Why would you write a book about breathing…” is the response James said he was met with by friends and colleagues. When it comes right down to it, it’s not a bad question, right? But both the podcast and book are actually about a very specific element of breathing: nose breathing vs mouth breathing.
25 - 50% of the population regularly breathe through their mouths, which, James explains, contributes to respiratory problems, metabolic disorders, sleep apnea, and more common conditions. The number of chronic conditions that can be tied to mouth breathing is staggering, and it turns out that nose breathing can improve on or even cure, yes, cure, many of them. James says that many medications and approaches treat the problems associated with the core issues of these diagnoses, rather than treating the core issues themselves - which often include breathing. Treating the core issues means addressing where the problem is rooted, rather than simply treating symptoms and masking where or what they originate from.
So what makes nose breathing so beneficial, and how does it improve these conditions? The benefits of nose breathing are endless. When we breathe through our nose, we gain approximately 20% more oxygen than when we breathe through our mouths. In this case, while breathing through the nose takes in less breath, it’s actually taking in more oxygen and optimizing it in our bodies. The air we breathe in through our nose is filtered, humidified, conditioned, and by the time it reaches our lungs, the lungs can absorb the oxygen much easier. Breathing less also brings our heart rate down and keeps it stable, allows us to control our autonomic nervous system, and increases red blood cells. In addition to these benefits, our noses produce nitric oxide - which helps battle off viruses and bacteria. When we breathe deeply through the nose, we gain all of these benefits on top of improving health issues we may have been experiencing for years. Studies have shown that someone with asthma, anxiety, or high blood pressure can see a transformation with proper breathing within only a few hours or less.
Another area where nose breathing is beneficial is in people who experience anxiety and panic attacks. Dr. Alicia Meuret, Director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at Southern Methodist University, says the idea that people should be breathing more when they experience panic is exactly the opposite of what they should actually be doing. When having a panic attack, we don’t need to breathe in more air, we need to breathe more slowly through our nose, allowing the increased oxygen levels we take in while nose breathing to be used optimally. This helps to decrease stress to our autonomic nervous systems, which are responsible for the increased heart rate, rapid breathing, sweating, and other physical symptoms experienced during a panic attack. Slow, deep breathing through the nose helps slow the nervous system and restore the natural breath pattern.
Something to remember when thinking about integrating nose breathing into your life is this: nose breathing doesn’t necessarily come naturally to most people. This is partly because the less we use our noses, the less we’re going to be able to use them. Meaning, the more we use our mouths to breathe, the tissues in our noses begin closing up when they’re not in use. Over time you can find yourself breathing through your mouth not only while you sleep, but as you go about your entire day, from morning until evening. This becomes your default, and something we do without thinking about it. The transformation in your health that can come from putting effort into shifting into a lifestyle of nose breathing is nothing short of amazing, but speaking of sleeping, this includes shifting into nose breathing while you sleep. While that might sound like an impossible feat, there’s mouth tape easily available that has been created for the exact purpose of promoting nose breathing while sleeping. Before you begin picturing sleeping with your mouth duct-taped shut, the tape comes in small strips or X shapes and is manufactured from comfortable materials, so the duct tape stays in the garage and you still get all the benefits of nose breathing while you sleep.
If the benefits we’ve talked about appeal to you but the idea of entirely shifting your breathing feels overwhelming, take solace in James Nestor’s words: “Michael Jordan didn’t start out good at basketball, he got good at it, and breathing is the same.” This is great news for us, it means that over time you can slowly train yourself to breathe through your nose by becoming aware of your breathing and consciously making these shifts, along with utilizing tools like mouth tape for sleeping. Integrating nose breathing into your life doesn’t have to be a painful process, in fact, with the incredible benefits, it should be the opposite. Finding out we have the ability to improve upon common conditions like sleep apnea, asthma, anxiety, and more by simply making some shifts in our breathing is, excuse our pun, like a breath of fresh air.