We take 23,000 breaths per day on average, so we must have mastered it by now, right? Assuming the ever-popular 10,000 hour theory of skill mastery is correct, surely you’ve unlocked Grand Master status after decades of breathing to stay alive. Although breathing is a function of the autonomic nervous system (meaning we don’t need to consciously think about it to do it), there is absolutely a right and a wrong way to breathe. As a personal trainer who has worked with hundreds of clients, I argue that the overwhelming majority of people in the modern era are actually breathing incorrectly. In fact, if you find yourself perpetuating poor breathing mechanics, you are inevitably setting yourself up for a whole host of health issues.
Take a moment to focus on your breath. Are you breathing through your mouth? Do you feel tension in your neck and chest when you inhale? Do you find your breaths to be shallow and rapid? Do you notice that your nose is congested? Breathing through your chest versus breathing through your ribs and belly will have completely different outcomes on your health. Similarly, breathing through your nose versus breathing through your mouth will have opposing effects on your central nervous system. By changing your breathing patterns you can ultimately create physiological and morphological changes within the body.
Poor breathing habits cause a milieu of complications. If you look at many other mammals like dogs, horses, or cats, you’ll notice that those animals breathe almost exclusively through their noses barring cases of overheating or intense physical exertion. Humans are no different, yet as we have distanced ourselves from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we have also vastly changed our lifestyle habits. With this increase in sedentarism, we note a veritable shift in our physiology and a significant rise in the incidence of chronic illness. I surmise that breathing patterns (and subsequently the development of the facial bones/airways) may contribute to many of these chronic illnesses. Now close your mouth, take a deep breath through your nose and read on…
Well over 5 million American currently wear braces. Perhaps even more with the recent advent of invisible orthodontic appliances. I was one of those kids in high school—I was cursed with crooked teeth, or at least so I thought at the time. I spent nearly 5 years of my life in and out of the orthodontist’s chair subjecting myself to what felt like a form of Medieval torture. Between braces and tooth extractions, I went through it all. What I didn’t realize at the time though, was that this torturous period of my life might have been abated simply by changing my breathing habits.
Dr. Mike Mew, an orthodontist based out of the United Kingdom has spent his entire career trying to improve oral posture and breathing mechanics in his patients. He believes that part of the reason why braces are pervasive in the 21st century is because many people maintain an open-mouth position throughout the day. Further, he maintains that kids who place their tongues properly on the roofs of their mouths will certainly have better facial growth and airway development than their mouth-breathing counterparts. The tongue acts as the foundation for the growth of the bones in the face (like the teeth, the maxilla and the mandible). When the tongue is pressed against the palate, it encourages the palate to grow wider over time, and the teeth will also grow neatly into place around it. For individuals who keep their tongues relaxed on the bottom of their mouths, the palate stays narrow and their teeth grow in crooked.
Braces can temporarily mediate this by moving the teeth back into their proper positions, but they won’t treat the root of the problem. This is why so many children have to wear retainers for the rest of their lives after getting braces: they don’t change their lifestyle habits.
Don't be a mouth breather like Napoleon Dynamite!
Simply by mouth breathing as a child, you can negatively influence the growth of your teeth, your mandible (lower jaw) and maxilla (cheekbones). When the mouth is open, the mandible has to stay in a lengthened position and the muscles, ligaments and tendons adapt to accommodate that. Studies have found that individuals who breathe through their mouths tend to have longer faces and more recessed chins than people who breathe through their noses. When the muscles and bones of the face don’t develop properly, this will necessarily restrict the airways, as the tongue has to sit back further than it should. Thus, respiratory problems may also be attributed to an open mouth posture.
When it comes to exercise performance, nasal breathing serves many advantages over mouth breathing. For one, the nasal passages are responsible for the filtration and temperature regulation of the oxygen you inhale. If you’ve ever run in the winter time, you have probably felt that horrible burning sensation in your chest from breathing the cold air. By breathing through your nose in lieu of breathing hard through your mouth, your nasal passages will effectively heat and humidify the air you inhale, lessening the discomfort.
For individuals who are suffering from exercise-induced asthma, nasal breathing can actually reduce the incidence and severity of their attacks. This is partly because mouth breathing facilitates the process of bronchoconstriction (meaning your airways tighten). On the contrary, nasal breathing stimulates bronchodilation (opening of the airways), which allows for greater total delivery of oxygen to the brain. You don’t have to be a medical professional to understand that more oxygen to your brain is undoubtedly a good thing. If you want to regulate your respiration and your heart rate on your morning run, you should keep your mouth closed.
Athletes of all sports can benefit from maintaining proper oral posture during training and competition. While this position may be difficult to maintain under fatigue, their oxygen uptake will be far more efficient than that of their mouth-breathing opponents. At an elite level of sport where competition is tight, tiny advantages matter. Improved bronchodilation and oxygen uptake could potentially mean shaving seconds off of your split.
Breathing through the mouth also has a fundamentally different effect on the state of the central nervous system than breathing through the nose does. Mouth breathing activates a “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system response. When the sympathetic nervous system is called into action, the breath becomes shallow, the heart rate increases, and your body’s hormonal chemistry changes (adrenaline and noradrenaline are released). Historically, the sympathetic nervous system was reserved for situations of extreme stress like being chased by a predator or times of food scarcity. That being said, in the 21st century, many of us live in the sympathetic nervous system for nearly our entire lives. Between tight work deadlines, constant push notifications, sleep deprivation, and financial woes, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed with stress on a daily basis.
You will notice that when you breathe through your mouth, you instinctually will overuse the muscles in your neck and chest. Excessive tension in the neck muscles is a common side effect of stress.
Conversely, by choosing to breathe through the nose, we are able to mitigate some of the physiological effects of stress. Nasal breathing encourages diaphragmatic activation (a large umbrella-shaped muscle that sits under the ribcage), slows down the heart rate, and allows for you to take full, deep breaths. This simple change will quickly shift you body into the parasympathetic (rest and digest) nervous system. Experienced meditators are masters of their own central nervous systems.
If you ever find yourself feeling stressed or anxious, monitor your breathing. Chances are you are breathing through your mouth and overusing the muscles in your neck and chest. Simply opting to spend 2-3 minutes focusing on slow, controlled nasal breathing can have a profound effect on your emotional state.
A lot of the clients that I have worked with throughout the course of my career are prone to excessive mouth breathing. The current body of literature supports my notion that mouth breathers may be more prone to sleep apnea, maxillofacial problems, allergies, chronic stress, and oxygen deficits. With that in mind, it’s never too late to change your habits! Make an effort to monitor how you’re breathing and adjust accordingly. This small change in your routine just might be a catalyst for improving your overall health and wellbeing.
1.) Bresolin, D., Shapiro, P. A., Shapiro, G. G., Chapko, M. K., & Dassel, S. (1983). Mouth breathing in allergic children: its relationship to dentofacial development. American Journal of Orthodontics, 83(4), 334-340.
2.) Harari, D., Redlich, M., Miri, S., Hamud, T., & Gross, M. (2010). The effect of mouth breathing versus nasal breathing on dentofacial and craniofacial development in orthodontic patients. The Laryngoscope, 120(10), 2089-2093.
3.) Jefferson, Y. (2010). Mouth breathing: adverse effects on facial growth, health, academics, and behavior. Gen Dent, 58(1), 18-25.
4.) Keck, T., Leiacker, R., Meixner, D., Kühnemann, S., & Rettinger, G. (2001). Warming inhaled air in the nose. HNO, 49(1), 36-40.
5.) Löth, S., & Petruson, B. (1996). Improved nasal breathing reduces snoring and morning tiredness: a 6-month follow-up study. Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 122(12), 1337-1340.
6.) Löth, S., Petruson, B., Wirén, L., & Wilhelmsen, L. (1999). Better quality of life when nasal breathing of snoring men is improved at night. Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, 125(1), 64-67.
7.) Mangla, P. K., & Menon, M. P. S. (1981). Effect of Nasal and Oral Breathing on exercise‐induced Asthma. Clinical & Experimental Allergy, 11(5), 433-439.
8.) Newman, A. B., Nieto, F. J., Guidry, U., Lind, B. K., Redline, S., Shahar, E., ... & Quan for the Sleep Heart Health Study Research Group, S. F. (2001). Relation of sleep-disordered breathing to cardiovascular disease risk factors: the Sleep Heart Health Study. American journal of epidemiology, 154(1), 50-59.
9.) Sinha, A. N., DeePAK, D., & Gusain, V. S. (2013). Assessment of the effects of pranayama/alternate nostril breathing on the parasympathetic nervous system in young adults. Journal of clinical and diagnostic research: JCDR, 7(5), 821.