If you’ve visited us for treatment or training or even just followed our newsletter/blog with any regularity, you’ll know that proper breathing is a huge focus for us here at Backs Etc. Quite simply, breathing retraining is a game-changer. So we were very excited when we heard about James Nestor’s new book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Being fans of his previous book Deep which centred around freediving, a book by Nestor focusing directly on the art of the breath sounded right up our alley. And, with one exception, it didn’t disappoint. Frustratingly, there was no mention of the role of breath in creating Intra-Abdominal Pressure, the foundation of core stability. But even with this omission, there is a wealth of great information, so definitely worth a read.
But this post isn’t just a book recommendation. Today we’d like to focus on one aspect of proper breathing technique that is discussed at great length in the book: nasal breathing.
If you’ve ever watched a baby breathing, you may have noticed that, barring any developmental issues or a cold, they will always be breathing in and out through their nose. This is instinctive and it is the way we are designed to breathe. Yet, so many of us seem to have lost this over the years, and the effects can actually be quite serious. Perhaps this is why the term “mouth breather” can be used as a pejorative, just as Mike does in Stranger Things.
Breath starts out with a bang. The first chapter is entitled The Worst Breathers in the Animal Kingdom, and you can probably guess who is being referred to. Spoiler alert: It’s us! If a vet or farmer come across an animal that is mouth breathing (except for a few that pant to reduce heat), that is a pretty good indication that the animal is sick, but humans mouth-breathe for years with no idea that something is wrong.
After learning about humanity’s poor breathing epidemic, Nestor and fellow pulmonaut (as those who have stumbled on the power of breathing are referred to) Anders Olsson embark on an experiment casting themselves as guinea pigs. For 10 days, the two men were forced to breathe solely through their mouths, even whilst eating, exercising and sleeping with earplugs wedged firmly in their noses. Phase 2 of the experiment had them repeat the exact same activities, but with nasal breathing as well as some specific breathing exercises. At the beginning, middle and end of the experiment, their blood gasses, inflammatory markers, hormone levels, sleep, pulmonary function, and more were thoroughly tested, and of course, they also documented how they felt throughout.
The results were pretty spectacular. With his nostrils blocked, Nestor’s snoring and sleep apnea events increased dramatically, his blood pressure spiked at an average of 13 points higher than usual, and indeed all of the markers tested indicated increased dysfunction, some quite seriously so, and these effects started almost immediately on around day 2 of the experiment. Anecdotally, though no less significant, he and Olsson felt simply awful, with Nestor describing the experience as being “trapped in some sad sitcom in which nobody laughs, a Groundhog Day of perpetual and unending misery”. Conversely, the 2nd phase of the experiment where the two men breathed exclusively through their noses, produced dramatic improvements in every marker tested, and consequently, they slept far better and felt energetic and mentally sharp.
So, why is nasal breathing so much better than mouth breathing, you may ask. The answers to this are so powerful and numerous that they could probably have their own book, but since you’ve stuck with us this long, we’ll give you a taste:
Nasal breathing produces nitric oxide. This is hugely important as this molecule 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. In fact, Viagra works by releasing nitric oxide into the bloodstream which opens the capillaries in the genitals and elsewhere. The effect of nitric oxide on the immune system is especially crucial during the pandemic we are currently experiencing, and some people theorise that proper breathing can make the difference between being mildly symptomatic and getting very sick if you are exposed to SARS COV-2. If you mouth-breathe you are completely missing out on the benefits of nitric oxide.
Nasal breathing filters the air. The nose is lined with cilia, tiny hairs that can trap potentially harmful particles which would otherwise enter the body. These cilia also help regulate the temperature of the air before so protecting the lungs, helping improve proper lung function. They also moisturise the air, which helps to reduce the risk of respiratory conditions. If you wake in the morning with a dry mouth that indicates that you have probably been mouth breathing during the night and so would benefit from taping your mouth at night as described in the book.
Nasal breathing can calm the mind. By stimulating parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nerve receptors, nasal breathing can reduce anxiety and improve our mood. It’s interesting to note that each nostril works independently. The right nostril stimulates the sympathetic nervous system and the left activates the parasympathetic nervous system. If there is an imbalance, alternate nostril breathing, such as that practised in certain yoga techniques, can be helpful.
Nasal breathing can improve facial structure. Nasal breathing allows for your tongue to rest on the roof of your mouth resulting in the proper development of the jaw, sinuses and teeth. This is particularly critical in children for proper facial development. The tongue-up position also acts as an anterior support for the head, without which there is an increased likelihood of neck pain, headaches and a forward head posture.
Mouth breathing is dysfunctional. Amongst other issues, mouth breathing can increase blood pressure, create sleep disorders (including snoring and sleep apnea), and cause dental health issues and facial deformities. It also allows unfiltered, dry air to be delivered to our lungs increasing the risk and severity of respiratory infections.
Mouth breathing can make us dumber. A Japanese study showed that rats who were forced to mouth-breathe developed fewer brain cells and took twice as long to make their way through a maze than those who nose-breathed. Studies on humans also showed mouth breathing to potentially increase the risk of ADHD.
The scientific evidence is overwhelmingly clear that breathing through the nose can greatly affect our health and wellbeing. We should be able to nose-breathe during the day and night and even during exercise, yet so many of us seem to have lost the ability to do so. The good news is that pretty much everybody can relearn to breathe the way we were born to. Even if your nose often feels blocked, you can still learn to breathe correctly. Breathing retraining plays a big role in the treatment and training we provide at Backs Etc. and can be done in-person or remotely. For a brief primer, check out our video here, and If you are interested in working with us directly to learn to breathe properly, please follow your nose and get in touch.