In my very first blog post I wrote about the importance of correct mouth posture for proper development of one’s facial features. Mouth posture, and its effects on facial development, is a result of the way we breathe. Nose breathing causes proper mouth posture. To recap from the first blog post: mouth breathers have open mouths with their tongues resting on the bottoms of their mouths, and the cheeks compress the jaws from the sides, resulting in long, narrow faces. Nose breathers have closed mouths with their tongues resting on the roofs of their mouths. The force of the tongue drives the facial features forward, resulting in prominent cheekbones and wide jaws. In this post I want to talk about the health benefits of nose breathing, but first, a quick visual of how facial structure and breathing are intimately connected:
The upper jaw, or maxilla (highlighted in green), houses the sinuses.
Whether or not the jaws grow narrow or wide directly affects the size of the airways. Forward growth of the face is essential for wide airways consisting of the nose, nasal cavity, sinuses, and throat. You can imagine by looking at the above skull how having a long, narrow face would compress the nasal cavity from the sides, and there would be less room for airflow, making it difficult to nose breathe. I experienced this first hand because when I first started nose breathing, it was a bit challenging because I felt like my nostrils weren’t wide enough. Now I have no trouble breathing through my nose and I think this is because when I changed my mouth posture from open to closed, it widened my face and made more room for my sinuses.
As someone who was a mouth breather for 24 years and only started nose breathing in the past year, I’ve now experienced what it’s like to breathe primarily through your mouth and primarily through your nose. There are some interesting differences, and it turns out that the way we breathe has a huge impact on our health. Nose breathing is essential not only for proper facial development, but its positive effects on health.
Is Mouth Breathing Normal?
I always thought some people were just mouth breathers, and never really questioned the fact that I was one. Mouth breathing seemed harmless and unassuming, and even like a better way to breathe since you can take in more air through your mouth. Reapplying chapstick to my dried out lips what felt like every hour was just part of life. When I would go to the dentist and they would say “your front gums are really inflamed…are you a mouth breather? Yes? We have a special moisturizing mouth wash for that” it just reinforced the notion that mouth breathing was normal.
However, no one should be a mouth breather. We’re supposed to start nose breathing automatically at birth, as this is the only way we can breast feed and breathe at the same time. The nose is specifically designed for breathing. For various reasons, many people develop a mouth breathing habit in childhood that becomes chronic. Food or environmental allergies cause a permanently stuffed up nose, forcing people to breathe through their mouths. Even when the allergy is gone, the habit can remain. In my case, my parents told me I had a lot of sinus issues as a baby; even though they resolved I still remained a mouth breather out of habit.
So, why should we all want to be nose breathers? Is there really that big of a difference breathing though your nose versus your mouth?
How The Nose Helps Us Breathe Better
Our sinuses produce a gas called Nitric Oxide (NO). When we breathe in air through our nose, it mixes with NO on its way to the lungs. NO does a lot of helpful things– it acts as an antibacterial, killing pathogens and keeping infections at bay. It’s also a vasodilator: it relaxes the walls of blood vessels, increasing blood flow. When you breathe through your nose, NO is carried into the lungs with the air, where it dilates blood vessels in the alveoli, allowing for a greater increase in blood flow and a higher oxygen uptake. Our nasal cavity also contains a thin layer of mucus which traps dust, viruses, and pathogens before they can reach the lungs. When we breathe through our mouths we can’t make use of the NO available to us in our sinuses, and we directly inhale all those nasty, unfiltered particles.
Another very important gas that is affected by nose breathing is Carbon Dioxide (CO2). We tend to think of CO2 as a waste gas (we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide) but actually we cannot properly oxygenate our tissues without adequate CO2. In what’s called the Bohr Effect, CO2 allows the release of oxygen from red blood cells into our tissues. So, maintaining high enough levels of CO2 is very important. If there’s not enough CO2 in your body, your red blood cells will hold onto oxygen and not release it to your tissues. This lack of oxygen is what causes the tingling feeling and dizziness in especially bad panic attacks. While it would seem like you would be breathing in more oxygen if you’re mouth breathing, you’re also constantly breathing out too much CO2, so there’s not enough left to release enough oxygen into your tissues, leaving your body in a permanently de-oxygenated state. Proper oxygenation of every cell is essential for good health.
This low-oxygen state can have effects ranging from headaches, poor concentration, fatigue, and constantly feeling like you can’t take a deep enough breath (this was a big one for me), to name a few. Just like NO, CO2 is a potent blood vessel relaxer. If you have low CO2, your body will respond by constricting your blood vessels. This can increase blood pressure and put more stress on the heart. This also reduces blood flow to the brain, heart and lungs, leaving your body in a permanently stressed out state.
Breathe Less for Reduced Stress!
The biggest difference I’ve noticed from nose breathing instead of mouth breathing is a greater overall sense of calm. When you breathe through your nose instead of your mouth, you automatically breathe a lot less and a lot more slowly, and it’s near impossible to breathe out too much CO2 through your nose. Without going into too much detail, I used to get awful panic attacks where I would hyperventilate, feel like I couldn’t get enough air, get dizzy, and get pins and needles in my hands. This started happening all the time–when I was driving to and from work, when I was rock climbing, at the grocery store, eating at a restaurant with my family. At the time I just thought my anxiety was out of control, but now I know that it’s because I was mouth breathing–all the symptoms I was having correlate perfectly with hyperventilating. When we get anxious, we tend to start breathing faster and more heavily, and we can quickly lose too much carbon dioxide and feel all the above symptoms of oxygen deprivation. I haven’t had a single panic attack since I started nose breathing! I know now that physiologically, if I breathe through my nose and maintain my levels of carbon dioxide, it’s unlikely that I will ever get to that point of hyperventilation again.
You know the old trick of breathing into a paper bag to calm down? The whole point there is to get back all that carbon dioxide that you breathed out too much of. Holding your breath for a few seconds does the same thing. When you hold your breath, CO2 can build up in your body. Basically the faster we breathe, and the deeper we breathe, the more carbon dioxide we are releasing and the dizzier we get from increasing lack of oxygen to our tissues.
Sidenote: this also explains why some marathon runners suddenly drop dead of a heart attack in the middle of a race, despite being very fit. They’ve been breathing too heavily through their mouths and have reduced the amount of oxygen to their heart to dangerous levels. By breathing out so much C02, the resulting loss of oxygen constricts their blood vessels and reduces blood flow and oxygen to the heart.
One More Reason To Nose Breathe: Mouth Breathing is Bad for Oral Health
Mouth breathing also dries out your saliva. Saliva is your mouth’s number one defense against cavities and protects the health of your gums. It washes away food particles and neutralizes acids produced by the bacteria in your mouth that feed on sugar (the acids eating away at tooth enamel is how tooth decay happens). Acid-producing bacteria thrive in the absence of saliva. The acids these bacteria produce break down your teeth and irritate your gums. Saliva acts as buffer against the production of acid.
The Nose Knows
There are so many benefits to nose breathing that I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of. For me, the greater sense of calm and cessation of panic attacks once I started nose breathing made me want to research more what it is about nose breathing that leads to a more relaxed body state. From what I can tell, the most important factors of nose breathing are breathing less to maintain normal levels of carbon dioxide, and utilizing the NO in our sinuses. The combined effects of CO2 and NO ensure adequate blood flow and oxygenation of all tissues. Because you breathe more when you mouth breathe and don’t get the benefits of NO, you breathe out too much CO2 and live in a permanent state of slight oxygen deprivation, which negatively affects the whole body. By breathing through our noses instead of our mouths, we can breathe our bodies into a healthier, calmer state.