The importance of breathing through your nose

Not all breathing is created equal. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at the differences between nose and mouth breathing as well as the advantages of breathing through your nose.

Around 1500 BCE one of the oldest medical texts ever discovered – the Ebers Papyrus – offered a description of how nostrils, not the mouth, were supposed to feed air to the heart and lungs.  Since then, countless texts have outlined this concept and the science behind it, however, most of us are unaware that we are designed to breathe through our noses.

The human body has evolved to breathe through two channels for a very specific reason, it increases your chances of survival.  Should your nose get obstructed, your mouth becomes a back-up ventilation system.  Whilst both your nose and mouth lead to your throat, which carries oxygen into your lungs, there are important differences between nose breathing and mouth breathing.

The problem with mouth breathing

It’s estimated that about 30 to 50 percent of adults breathe through their mouths, and whilst temporary mouth breathing will have no long-term effects on health, chronic mouth breathing is different, as the body is not designed to process raw air for hours at a time.  Your mouth is designed to help you eat, drink, and talk and whilst you can also use your mouth to breathe, but it doesn’t have many of the unique features that your nose has for this purpose.

Studies have shown that breathing through the mouth significantly increases your chances of snoring and sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Dehydration is another disadvantage of mouth breathing, especially during sleep.  Mouth breathing changes the bacteria in your mouth, resulting in bad breath, and dry teeth, gums and tongue which lead to complications such as cavities and gum issues.

If you lead an active lifestyle and engage in sports, breathing through your mouth can inhibit your performance. This is because every time you inhale and exhale through your mouth, there’s less oxygen absorption into your lungs. In other studies, scientists have found a correlation between asthma and mouth breathing as well as ADHD, abnormal posture, facial structure and respiratory function.

Mouth breathing is terrible.
James Nestor

In his book Breathe, James Nestor and his partner subject themselves to 240 hours of mouth breathing by plugging their noses. As a result of breathing only through their mouths stress-related hormones spiked, blood pressure was through the roof and heart rate variability plummeted.  The soft tissue in their throats softened causing nocturnal suffocation, snoring and bouts of sleep apnea. They also experienced tiredness, irritation and anxiety, bad breath, spaciness and stomach-aches.

Mouth breathing is closely connected to your fight or flight response since it tends to pull air into the upper and middle lobes of the lungs, which are covered in sympathetic nerve endings and rarely pulls air into the lower lobes, which have a lot of parasympathetic nerve endings.  Chest breathing also leads to shallower breaths resulting in lower blood oxygenation. Additionally, air that enters and exits the mouth can do so at a relatively rapid rate, which limits the time your lungs have to extract oxygen from it, further decreasing your body´s oxygen absorption.

The benefits of breathing through your nose

Since your nose was specifically designed to help you breathe, nasal breathing has many advantages. Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage, teaches the Buteyko Method to help people manage asthma, rhinitis, anxiety, insomnia and other ailments. His method suggests that nose breathing, primarily from the diaphragm, will benefit you by experiencing “easier breathing, deeper sleep, more energy, reduced asthma and nasal congestion along with increased feeling of calm.”

Nose breathing filters air
Your nose is designed to help you breathe safely and efficiently by filtering out foreign particles such as dust, allergens, and pollen, which helps prevent them from entering your lungs. Mucus and nose hairs also catch potentially harmful bacteria, protecting you from illnesses such as pneumonia.

Nose breathing regulates the nervous system
Breathing has a significant impact on the nervous system and the vagus nerve. When breathing correctly through your nose, the body naturally switches between breathing through the right and left nostrils – linked to the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems – this cycle occurs every four hours and plays a critical role in the balance of your biomarkers, hormones and even brain function.  Breathing through the right nostril feeds more blood to the opposite side of the brain, specifically to the prefrontal cortex, which has been associated with logical decisions, language, and computing. Left-nostril breathing shifts blood flow to the opposite side of the prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in creative thought, emotions and formation of mental abstractions.

Nose breathing increases oxygen absorption
When you breathe through your nose, the nostrils regulate how much air can enter your lungs.  Additionally, because air exits your lungs more slowly through your nose when you exhale, they have more time to extract oxygen from it.  The nostrils also produce nitric oxide, a vasodilator, which helps to widen blood vessels and improve oxygen circulation in your body, further increasing the lungs’ ability to absorb oxygen.

Nose breathing protects the lungs and airways
One of the primary benefits of nose breathing is that the turbinates in your nose warm and humidify inhaled air, ensuring that it does not damage the airway or the lungs. Alternatively, breathing in dry, cold air – as happens when we mouth breathe – can irritate the airway and lungs, leading to wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

Nose breathing improves physical and cognitive performance
As mentioned earlier, nose breathing increases the body’s production of nitric oxide. Among other things, nitric oxide lowers blood pressure, boosts the immune system, improves exercise performance, increases brain function, fights erectile dysfunction and many other health-related issues associated with blood flow.

Nose breathing promotes superior oral health
Saliva continually washes away bacteria and keeps the protective membranes healthy inside our mouths. However, when you mouth breathe, that saliva dries up, leaving your teeth and gums susceptible to bacteria. The proliferation of these harmful bacteria can kill the oral microbiome, leading to gingivitis, periodontitis, receding gums, cavities, oral decay and halitosis.

Nose breathing prevents nasal congestion
Although it seems intuitive to think that a stuffy nose causes mouth breathing, it’s actually the other way around in most cases. Mouth breathing encourages over-breathing which results in production of mucus, in an effort to slow the rate of breathing rebalance your O2-CO2 levels.

Nose breathing improves athletic performance
Nose breathing during exercise can improve your performance by enabling your lungs to extract as much oxygen as possible from the air you inhale, this in turn lowers your heart rate.  In addition, nose breathing helps you to recover quicker by slowing down your breathing and heart rate.

Where Should I Begin?

Yogis, biohackers, and athletes are all aware of the benefits of nose breathing and have become masters of incorporating it into their practice, training and day-to-day lives. The journey begins with becoming more aware of your breathing – when you’re sitting at your desk, in the car, or out for a walk – make a conscious effort to keep your mouth closed, forcing yourself to inhale and exhale through your nose.

One of the most powerful ways to incorporate nose breathing into your life is during sleep. On average, we spend one third of our lives sleeping, so using this time to take advantage of nose breathing can eliminate the problems that come with mouth breathing. Many people who begin nose breathing while they sleep notice an improvement in energy levels, mental clarity and overall health after just one week. This can be achieved by taping your mouth closed when you sleep, encouraging breathing to occur through the nose – try it, it’s not as strange as it sounds!

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