Do you need to breathe through your mouth to take in enough air? If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Estimates on the prevalence of mouthbreathing tend to range from five to 75% of the population.
However, breathing through your nose is the natural way to breathe. Mastering nasal breathing is a simple technique that can make a big difference in how you feel.
This article explores how to breathe well, the methods, and the consequences of not breathing well.
Who might benefit from better breathing?
Since the typical respiratory rate in humans is considerably faster than what’s considered good for a healthy stress response (12–20 breaths per min compared to the more optimum 6-10 breaths per minute), most of us could potentially benefit from slower breathing through the nose.
Breathing therapy might also be helpful for people with cardiovascular disease.
Slow breathing at around 6 breaths per minute is linked with improved response to stress caused by low oxygen levels and the preservation of healthy blood pressure responses in well individuals, people at high altitude, and people with heart failure and hypertension.
Slower breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the calming arm of our nervous system. Measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), the beat-to-beat fluctuations in time between heartbeats may help you observe the calming influence of mindful rhythmic breathing.
There are tools (with earpieces or chest straps) that can measure HRV in real time as we breathe. You can find out more here.
Very rarely, breathing at a rate of fewer than 12 breaths per minute can signify conditions such as poisoning/overdose/head injury. Please consult a medical professional if you’re feeling otherwise unwell with a slower breathing rate.
Why you should practise nasal breathing?
Nasal breathing has some major advantages over mouth breathing.
- Filters out dust, bacteria, virus and other airborne particles from inhaled air. Sensors in your nose can also release antimicrobial chemicals, such as cathelicidins, when detecting microbes in the air.
- It’s important for your sense of smell and your ability to ‘sniff out’ and remember both good and bad odours in the environment, which generally has implications for memory.
- It may improve cognitive function. Studies have found that controlled nasal breathing can lead to an improvement in some cognitive processes, leading to faster response times.
- Keeps your nasal lining moist. The mucous lining and small hairs called cilia in your nasal and respiratory passages constantly clear your airways of inhaled particles. For this process to work, it needs to be moist.
- Warms, humidifies and pressurises the air as you breathe which improves your ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide in the lungs.
- Studies indicate that it can boost nitric oxide concentrations. Your nose and sinuses produce the antibacterial, antiviral, anticoagulant (prevents blood from clotting) gas called nitric oxide (NO).
- Nitric oxide lowers your blood pressure and enhances your oxygen uptake by dilating your blood vessels which is important for your cardiovascular health.
- Combined with slow breathing and prolonged exhalation, it can improve carbon dioxide levels leading to better oxygen deliverability and improved blood circulation.
- There’s roughly a 50% greater resistance to the flow of air when you breathe through your nose which stimulates the diaphragm into action.
One of the easiest ways to regulate your autonomic nervous system is to take control of your breathing as often as possible. That means breathing through the nose and controlling the diaphragm.
Why you should avoid breathing through your mouth?
There are major disadvantages to breathing through your mouth.
- Bypasses are the protective functions of your nose, such as warming, humidifying, and filtering inhaled air.
- Produces less nitric oxide.
- It is shallow and inefficient.
- Dries out your mouth – removing your first defence against oral bacteria can lead to dental infections, bad breath, and dental and tooth decay.
- It causes your body to lose 42% more water by exhaling from your mouth than by breathing through your nose.
- It is linked to reduced exercise capacity, snoring and sleep apnoea, facial abnormalities, allergies and asthma.
- Some researchers suggest that breathing through the mouth at a faster rate during childhood may contribute to developing constricted facial features such as crowded and crooked teeth.
While research in adults is limited, in a study amongst mouth-breathing children, 86% slept with their mouth open, 79% snored, 77% had itchy noses, 62% drooled on the pillow, 62% had nighttime breathing difficulties or restless sleep, 49% had blocked nose, and 43% showed daytime irritability.
Causes of mouth breathing
Mouth breathing can be caused by a chronically blocked up nose, for example, due to allergies, infection, nasal septal defects, or enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Other causes include stress, inflammation, air pollution, dry indoor air, or lower duration of breastfeeding as an infant.
Consequences of over-breathing – also known as hyperventilation
When we breathe through our mouth, we tend to over-breathe. Over-breathing can be defined as hyperventilation (i.e., breathing too fast and too deep). It’s a normal response to sudden danger or stress which can become habitual. If you regularly breathe through your mouth, especially when resting, it’s likely you’re over-breathing.
What happens when we over-breathe?
- Overbreathing can lead to too high a concentration of oxygen (O2) relative to carbon dioxide (CO2), which causes small airways and blood vessels to constrict.
- In contrast, higher carbon dioxide concentrations open your airways and dilate your blood vessels.
- The net effect of a buildup of oxygen relative to carbon dioxide is a reduction in oxygen delivered to the tissues and organs, which can contribute to cellular damage and inflammation.
How to breathe well: Low and slow and through the nose
The power of breathing has been known for thousands of years around the world, and there are hundreds of different techniques, traditions and methods of breathing, for example, pranayama and yoga. Some new interpretations of ancient breathing techniques include Buteyko, Wim Hof, and Soma.
Constantine Buteyko was a Ukrainian doctor who, in the 1950s, watched how sick people breathe and noticed the sicker they were, the worse their breathing became. The Buteyko breathing techniques (BTT) he developed mostly involve breathing through the nose, breathing less and breath holding.
Progress is monitored by tracking breath-hold times in a controlled way. Buteyko attributed the resolution of his hypertension to the BTT he developed. Also, the Buteyko Breathing Technique might be an effective way to manage asthma symptoms.
On the other hand, Soma Breath is a system of breathing developed by Niraj Naik, who, similarly to Wim Hof, teaches breathing techniques based on traditional yoga breathing practices.
Notice how you are currently breathing
- Bring your attention to your breath and notice the flow of air as you breathe in and out.
- Try it in front of a mirror. Place one hand on your stomach between your navel and lower ribs and the other on your chest. Take a deep breath in and notice which hand rises first.
When breathing in through the nose (physiologically natural), the belly should rise first, with minimal upper chest movement. Abnormal breathing is observed as an increased movement of the upper compared with the lower chest.
Steps for nasal breathing
How to breathe through your nose and engage your diaphragm?
Engaging your diaphragm, also called diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, increases the volume of air you inhale while reducing the number of breaths per minute. Breathing ‘ow and slow’ and exhaling slowly buys time and allows CO2 to build up before the next inhalation.
Get started with nasal breathing
- Stand or sit up straight with shoulders relaxed.
- Close your mouth (lips and teeth together) with your tongue touching the roof of your mouth.
- Place one hand on your stomach between your navel and lower ribs and breath in gently through your nose into the area behind your hand. Your belly should rise naturally.
- As you breathe out through your nose, you let go effortlessly, allowing your belly to fall, as your diaphragm (the muscle which separates your chest cavity from your abdomen) returns to its domed resting position around the abdomen.
- Your breath should be gentle, smooth and silent and not forced or effortful.
- Focus on a slow “out and in” rather than up and down, breathing from your belly. Feel your belly expand as you breathe in and relax as you breathe out. Your back and sides should also expand, and your chest should remain relaxed.
- If you find yourself breathing in a jerky way, mildly resisted breathing can help control your diaphragm. Place a book on the area around your navel whilst lying down. Once you’re comfortable with that, try a heavier one. If you have problems with gastro-oesophageal reflux, practice in a semi-reclining position.
- Practice makes perfect – if you’ve been breathing through your mouth for a long time, it might take a bit of getting used to.
Time-honoured breathing techniques from yogic, Buddhist chants and the Catholic rosary all seem to support a pattern of about 6 breaths a minute (or approximately 5.5 seconds inhale and 5.5 seconds exhale).
This is further supported by modern studies, which have found that this breathing pattern may reduce anxiety, improve blood pressure and greater ventilation of the lungs.
How to stop mouth breathing at night?
Whilst not for everyone, one approach that has been suggested is to consider gently taping your mouth at night.
If you want to give mouth taping a go, try placing a small 1-2 cm wide strip of tape placed across both lips in the centre of the mouth. This should act as a prompt to keep your mouth closed, but for safety reasons should not completely cover your mouth. You should be able to remove the tape easily with your tongue.
Even those with sleep apnoea or people who use a CPAP machine are thought to be safe to try mouth taping.
Good air quality is crucial for healthy lungs, so investing in an air purifier can also be beneficial.
Babies and very young children should not mouth tape. However, it can be generally safe for older children provided the mouth is not fully covered, and they can open their mouths to talk and breathe if they need to. Only a small strip of tape in the middle is required to serve as a reminder to keep the mouth closed.
If you have severe claustrophobia or allergies, a deviated septum or if you’re pregnant, sick or congested, we strongly recommend you speak to your GP before considering mouth taping.
If you have any nasal blockage, it can be valuable to think about possible causes. For example, a dusty bedroom or mould issues in the home can all contribute to nasal congestion. If you’re struggling to resolve the source of your congestion, please consult a GP or suitable healthcare practitioner.
Take control of your breathing
Now you have had some insight into the benefits of nasal breathing, why not give one of the breathing techniques mentioned above a try, if you haven’t already, and see if you notice a difference in how you feel?
Close your eyes, breathe in through your nose, into your belly. Five seconds in and five seconds out. And repeat.
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