Ever had a stuffy nose, gone to sleep and woke up with a dry mouth? Chances are, your respiratory system was forced to “mouth breath” instead of breathing through your nose. It’s uncomfortable at best, and additionally doesn’t provide you with a great night of sleep. But there’s more. According to a 2020 book from James Nestor titled “Breath: The New Science of A Lost Art,” it turns out that mouth breathing is more harmful than we thought.
In addition to that dry mouth mentioned above, breathing through your mouth as you sleep can cause snoring, bad breath, irritability, chronic fatigue and brain fog. It can also lead to lower levels of oxygen in the blood and decreased lung function.
In fact, the only time it should be absolutely necessary to breathe through your mouth is when you’re doing intense exercise or if your nose is blocked from congestion, a cold, or allergies. According to Nestor, humans have evolved to become “the worst breathers in the animal kingdom,” partly due to our increased tendencies to mouth breathe.
How did this happen?
Over the past few centuries, our mouths have become smaller and smaller. And one of the side effects of having a mouth that’s too small for its face is that there’s less room for our airways, which makes it harder to breathe. And this had led to chronic respiratory issues, sleep apnea, asthma, and to compensate at night, mouth breathing. Eventually, it can become habitual, and the litany of ailments caused by mouth breathing increases to include lower oxygen concentration in the blood, which could lead to high blood pressure and heart failure.
But we can learn to breathe better.
During Nestor’s research, he was introduced to patients who suffered from autoimmune problems, high blood pressure, anxiety, ADHD, gut issues and more. But when these patients were trained to harness and focus on their breathing, “they were able to develop their bodies’ internal organs, take control of faulty nervous systems, stimulate their immune response, and in some extraordinary cases, even change their skeletal structure,” says Nestor. “They were able to blunt or sometimes reverse the symptoms of what had long been considered incurable diseases.”
And that starts with the first small step: Breathing through your nose. When we’re newborns, we breathe through our noses almost all the time. And nose breathing provides a variety of benefits to the body.
1. It serves as temperature control for the lungs, and humidifies the air you breathe.
2. It filters out debris and toxins before they can enter the lungs.
3. It helps to release a huge boost of nitric oxide, a molecule that plays an essential role in increasing circulation and delivering oxygen into cells. Immune function, weight, circulation, mood, and sexual function can all be heavily influenced by the amount of nitric oxide in the body.
4. It helps to increase blood oxygen levels (about 18% more) more than mouth breathing.
How can I get better at nose breathing?
In Nestor’s research, he arrived at what he called a “perfect breath.” Breathe in through your nose for about 5.5 seconds, then exhale for 5.5 seconds. That’s 5.5 breaths a minute for a total of about 5.5 liters of air.
“It’s slow, consistent, fluid breathing, and when we breathe this way, through the nose, I’ve seen my blood pressure go down by 10 to 15 points after doing this, and that’s the body working in a state of efficiency,” says Nestor. “It allows us to think more clearly.”
That should be motivation enough to close your mouth and practice controlled breathing through your nose.
James Nestor is on Instagram. He posts about old cars, new research around breathing and occasional invites to breathing retreats.