We enter the world with a breath and the process continues automatically for the rest of our lives. Although breathing is an involuntary function, the manner in which we breathe has an enormous effect on our health. Breathing is an innate bodily function which most of us take completely for granted – it only gets our attention when it’s not up to par.
Yet, day to day and night to night many of us are not breathing correctly, which compromises our health, productivity, learning and sleep. Through my involvement with sleep scientists, medical and dental sleep experts, and having recently taken a 4-day Breathing Re-Education training with renowned breathing expert Patrick McKeown, I realized that the manner in which we breathe demands some attention. Actually, lots of attention. Although, breathing is a 24/7 operation, how you breathe during the day is critical to how well you breathe during sleep.
When I ask people if they breathe through their nose or mouth, many don’t know or haven’t thought about it. There are both misconceptions and lack of awareness about the best way to breathe. For example, yoga training to breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth can be misleading. At Linked In, Global Wellness Director Michael Susi created a wellness framework based on 6 Tenets of Wellness, one of which is breathing. Recognizing the importance of healthy breathing supports the company’s commitment to programming that fosters a comprehensive and impactful approach for employees to thrive.
As I learned from Patrick McKeown, the nose performs at least thirty functions on behalf of the body.1 Along with providing a sense of smell, the nose is nature’s way of preparing air before it enters the lungs. As the nostrils are much smaller than the mouth, they slow down breathing resulting in a 10-20% greater oxygen uptake in the blood.2 Breathing optimally through the nose not only increases blood oxygenation, but also increases the amount of oxygen delivered to tissues and organs.3
The way we breathe and breathing volume have a direct impact on our sleep quality, as well as on how we function during our waking hours. Healthy breathing should be through the nose, driven by the diaphragm, calm, and almost undetectable. Unhealthy breathing, involves breathing through the mouth or having noticeable breathing during rest. These seemingly innocuous habits literally disrupt biochemistry and deprive the body of oxygen. Nasal breathing results in a higher concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood thereby providing optimal distribution of oxygen to your muscles and organs including the heart and brain. While often thought to be a waste gas, CO2 is the key variable to allow the release of O2 from the red blood cells to be metabolized in the body. A key determining factor of how much oxygen your body can use is actually the amount of CO2 in your blood.
Many people over-breathe, meaning they take in more air than required which in turn causes too much carbon dioxide to be exhaled, leaving the body gasping for O2. It’s a vicious cycle. Over breathing can also cause our airways to narrow, further limiting the body’s ability to oxygenate properly. Most people are unaware of this as the signs are not always obvious. According to Patrick McKewon in his book, The Oxygen Advantage, even pro athletes can be over breathers. For them, the body may be very strong, but due to improper breathing, the lungs and breathing muscles give out long before the arms and legs.
Mouth breathing is another common breathing problem whereby the person bypasses critical functions of breathing through the nose. Be it from habit or because of clogged nasal airways due to allergies or a deviated septum, the impact is negative for your health and well-being. Improper daytime breathing can result in breathing actually stopping during sleep, a condition known as obstructive sleep apnea. When this happens, there are many associated health risks. Furthermore, the “hunger” hormones leptin and grehlin are influenced which leads to unwanted weight gain.
So you may ask, how did this happen? What is causing us to breathe incorrectly if our anatomy was structured to do it differently? Environmental culprits such as allergies, structural issues, our diets, and/or poor habits acquired during childhood or adulthood can all lead to mouth vs. nasal breathing. The bigger question is HOW TO CORRECT YOUR BREATHING? Here are some tips:
● Be aware. Ask yourself if you are breathing properly. Observe your breathing and that of your family. Do they breathe using the upper chest or through an open mouth? Peek in on your kids at night and observe their breathing during the day.
● Recognize signs that suggest breathing needs to be corrected such as fatigue, snoring, asthma, regular sighs or sniffing or yawning, heavy breathing at rest or during physical exercise.
● Engage in breathing lessons with a skilled practitioner such as your physician, an ENT, a Buteyko breathing specialist, orofacial myofunctional therapist or physical therapist.
● Asthma sufferers, who are generally more tired than their non-asthma counterparts, should take heed and explore breathing training in conjunction with medical treatment as a pathway to potential minimization of symptoms and improved health.
· Take necessary action to correct your breathing NOW! Try Spire, a great device to become familiar with your breathing patterns and how they relate to stress, anxiety, activity, calm, and more.
· HELP! Seek examination from a medical professional to evaluate any nasal or airway obstruction that can be causing improper breathing including mouth breathing, as well as to receive diagnosis and treatment for a potential sleep disorder. If you are being treated for Obstructive Sleep Apnea with a CPAP or Oral Appliance, be conscious of how you are breathing during the day as well.
● Experience what it FEELS like to breathe well through the nose. Try MUTE by Rhinomed, a nasal dilator which is both comfortable and effective to increase nasal air-flow. I have witnessed many people, including myself have an AH HA moment when they put in the device and experience increased nasal airflow immediately. MUTE is designed for sleep to increase nasal airflow and minimize snoring. The TURBINE, also by Rhinomed, is for athletes to wear during exercise. In fact, Chris Froome, four time Tour de France winner, has worn it during his wins. Just that moment when you realize how much better you can breathe, well there’s no turning back!
Proper breathing both during the day and night is central to our health. We are designed to inhale and exhale through our nose, from our very first breath to our very last. Become familiar with how you breathe. If mouth breathing is evident, it is important to take steps to evaluate why. Make some notes of your observations and share them with your family physician to identify the cause. Expert help is available to get your breathing on track for your health, well-being and optimal functioning…24/7.
- Timmons B.H., Ley R. Behavioral and Psychological Approaches to Breathing Disorders. 1st ed. Springer; 1994. Page 77.
- Lundberg J. Nitric Oxide and the paranasal sinuses Anat Rec (Hoboken) 2008 Nov;291(11):1479-84
- Lundberg J, Weitzberg E. Nasal nitric oxide in man. Thorax 1999;54:947-952
As The Sleep Ambassador® and Director of CIRCADIAN® Corporate Sleep Programs I am dedicated to optimizing sleep for the public. Serving on the National Institutes of Health Sleep Disorders Research Advisory Board, Steering Committee of Myapnea.org, and the Board of the Foundation for Airway Health, I am exposed to leaders in the field of sleep and respiratory function who have been focusing on healthy breathing over many years.
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