Nose Breathing for better health

'Noses are for breathing, mouths are for feeding'

672,768,000. That’s the average number of breaths a person will take in a life-time spanning 80 years. I think we can all agree that anything done that frequently should be done well. We were designed to breathe through our noses. Unfortunately, so many of us breathe through our mouths and this has a range of health implications.


Bacteria and toxins are all around us and in the air that we breathe. Nose breathing gives us the best possible chance of dealing with this challenge. This is because within the nasal passages there are many filtration mechanisms at play. These are: the fine hairs in the nose, the adenoids, turbinates, and mucous membranes of the sinuses. When we utilise these, we can warm, filtrate and humidify the air that we breathe. This reduces the likelihood of allergies, hay fever, enlarged tonsils and other chronic respiratory problems. If we bypass these filtration mechanisms, we rely on the tonsils as our ‘last line of defence’. This can enlarge the tonsils, increase the chances in infection and cause difficulty breathing at night.


Breathing through our nose instead of our mouth is also important for our organs and an uninterrupted sleep. When we think of breathing, we often think of oxygen. However, carbon dioxide (CO2) is just as important. Breathing through our noses means that the CO2 level in our lungs is more likely to be balanced and we are less likely to ‘over-breathe’. When we ‘over-breathe’, CO2 levels decrease and it makes it difficult for oxygen to be released from the blood stream into our tissues for use. This means that many of our tissues and organs are oxygen deprived and cannot operate efficiently. This imbalance in CO2 can also lead to disrupted sleep and even waking up at night to urinate. Low CO2 via mouth breathing can cause smooth muscles to contract or squeeze.  Your bladder is one such organ that is made of smooth muscle and therefore if you are mouth breathing you are more likely to wake up and need to urinate. Often, poor breathing at night is a factor that is overlooked when investigating the reasons for frequent night time urination or even ‘bed-wetting’.


In addition, breathing through our noses stimulates the production of nitric oxide in the naso-pharyngeal air space (nose and throat region). Nitric oxide is a potent vasodilator and body regulator. This means that breathing through your nose can lower your blood pressure. Nitric oxide is also a bactericide (kills bacteria) and therefore helps to keep the sinuses free from infection. Mouth-breathers tend to miss out on these benefits and will generally feel a sense of congestion in the sinuses and have more frequent infections.


Nasal breathing also reduces your risk of dental decay and gum disease. When we breathe through our nose, our mouth is closed and our saliva bathes our teeth and gums. Saliva is important because it lubricates the oral tissues making oral functions such as speaking, eating and swallowing possible. Saliva also has a flushing effect and helps to clear out oral debris and noxious agents. Its enzymes also help to neutralise acid challenges in the mouth which can decay teeth. It can also reduce your risk of halitosis or ‘bad breath’.


When we breathe through our noses, our tongue is at the roof of the mouth. Doing this from a very young age can reduce our need for orthodontic treatment or ‘braces’ when we get older. It can also reduce or even prevent ‘relapse’ after orthodontic treatment is finished. The tongue exerts more force than the cheeks. Therefore, if the tongue is on the roof of the mouth it will always override the forces of the cheeks pushing the teeth inwards. If we mouth breathe our tongue drops off the roof of the mouth to the floor of the mouth and the cheek forces can cause teeth to crowd. Nasal breathing can potentially save you thousands of dollars in orthodontic treatment.


Nasal breathers are less likely to have obstructive sleep apnea. This is because the tongue is on the roof of the mouth rather than dropping to the lower jaw and blocking the airway. Sleep apnea can lead to a range of long-term health issues such as high blood pressure, heart attacks, arrhythmias, stroke, diabetes and an increase risk of road accidents. Sleep apnea doesn’t only affect adults, it is common in young children too.


Posture is also affected by mouth breathing. We always need to have an open airway and our eyes in line with the horizon. The only way for a mouth breather to achieve this is to adopt a ‘head forward posture’. A ‘head forward posture’ can lead to an increase in muscle tension around the neck, head and jaw, as well as headaches and migraines. In our daily lives, we do enough of this sitting in front of computer screens at work or looking down at our smartphones. We don’t need to add to this postural stress via mouth-breathing.


Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we will be far better off emotionally if we breathe through our noses. We know that we can control feelings of stress and anxiety via deep nasal breathing. This is the basis of many meditation practices. However, the underlying mechanism behind this was not clear. Previous research has shown that electrical activity in the brain changes with the breath. However, a recent study was far more specific. It focused on the areas of the brain that regulate memory emotions. Participants in the study were shown photographs of faces that exhibited surprise or fear and asked to name the emotion while researchers recorded their breath. It was shown that participants could more accurately identify fear whilst inhaling through their nose. Separately, participants were asked to recall objects shown to them earlier.  Overall, memory was shown to be more accurate during nasal inhalation. These findings suggest that that there is a revolutionary advantage to nasal breathing during times of distress. Fast breathing through the nose during such times may have a positive impact on brain function and result in a faster response to danger.


In our dental practice we are constantly looking for signs of mouth breathing and re-training our patients to breathe through their noses. As you can see, you cannot be healthy, unless you are breathing the way that nature intended us to: through the nose. 


Lewis Ehrlich