Breathing, more specifically, nasal breathing has become an increasingly popular health topic. From the adorable viral video of a young boy showing his even younger brother how to calm himself with breathing techniques to witnessing my mother give similar advice to my 100 year old grandmother it has become obvious that people are finally recognizing the benefits of proper breathing and breathing exercises. If those weren't enough to indicate people's growing interest then the fact that a book solely about breathing making the New York Times Best Seller list is surely a sign. It was time I finally read the book I had saved in my Kindle library, Breath by James Nestor.
This is what I learned. Shut your mouth. Yep, that's it. Shut it. Approximately 40% of the population has problems with chronic nasal obstruction and about half of us are habitual mouth breathers. Prolonged mouth breathing brings along with it an abundance of problems. In children, it can lead to dental malocclusion (large overbite and crowded teeth), poor growth, poor posture and an ability to concentrate. As mouth breathers grow into adulthood they are susceptible to low oxygen concentration in blood which is associated with high blood pressure and heart failure. It can also lead to obstructive sleep apnea disorder which can lead to many more health risks.
The very straightforward lesson of shut your mouth is not a new one. Nestor retells the story of George Catlin who travelled the world learning from Native Americans and other indigenous cultures of the Americas about their breathing habits and why, despite no proper dental care, they ad perfect teeth and few chronic health problems. Catlin wrote about his adventures in his book The Breath of Life published in 1862. Over 150 years and we still haven't learned the importance of keeping our mouths shut.
Chew your food, preferably with your mouth shut. The lack of dental problems noted in the indegenous cultures encountered during Catlin's travels may not solely be due to their breathing habits. Just as nasal breathing prevents face narrowing and elongation, chewing firmer foods decreases problems with teeth crowding and malocclusion that can lead to nasal pathway narrowing. It is believed that our modern dental and orthodontic problems began 12000 years ago when we changed from a hunter gatherer diet to one based on agriculture. It has worsened over the years as our modern diet becomes more processed and softer.
Nestor's book is full of interesting facts about breathing from many different cultures and scientific areas. He takes the reader through his own journey toward improved breathing trying a multitude of breathing techniques and some gruesome testing. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good read or for those who want to learn more about breathing including instruction in some specific breathing techniques. I learned a lot from reading his book but I realize now that the most important lesson I learned about breathing came unwittingly from my mother when I was a child, "keep your mouth shut and chew your food."
Effect of nasal and oral breathing on airway collapsibility
If you are not quite convinced that nasal breathing is the way to go then let’s take a look at recent evidence that demonstrates the collapsibility of the airway in those with obstructed sleep apnea who breath through the mouth. Computed tomography (CT) scans of the airway were taken at intervals for nasal breathing with closed mouth, nasal breathing with open mouth and open mouth breathing for individuals while awake. They utilized these scans to digitally construct 3D models of the airway and performed airflow simulations on them. Analysis of the measurements llowed the authors to conclude that "oral breathing is the primary condition leading to pharyngeal (airway) collapse in the three breathing conditions." In other words...shut your mouth. Read more below about the technology used in the study as well as some of their other findings.
The first step in fixing a problem is determining if you have a problem. Snoring has been at the center of so many jokes over the years that it has led to many being embarrassed to discuss or admit that they may snore. Well meaning spouses may even lie about a loved one’s snoring in order to spare their feelings. Unfortunately, this does more harm than good. Snoring that wakes a bedmate or can be heard through a bedroom door is a leading indicator of sleep apnea risk. When left untreated, sleep apnea can lead to problems such as depression, memory loss, acid reflux, mental confusion, adult asthma, weakened immune system, breathing troubles, high blood pressure, liver problems, heart problems, low blood oxygen levels, decreased sexual desire, abnormal cholesterol, fatigue and high blood sugar levels. The STOP Bang Questionnaire is an evidencce based survey that can help determine if you are at risk for sleep apnea. If you score in the moderate to high risk categories then see a specialist about a possible sleep apnea diagnosis and find out what can be done to help. If you're at lower risk but want to work on strengthening your throat musculature to prevent obstructive sleep apnea, take a look at the Myofunctional Therapy handout for great exercises.
Three basic breathing practices for better health, anxiety relief and relaxation.