If I was to start an operating manual of the human body to be given out to each of us at some point in order to figure out how to optimise the magical machine we were given without any real instructions, breathing would be a pretty early chapter. Within that chapter I would go through how important breath is in the modulation of our inner physiology and psychology, how the system we use for breathing is so important in posture and back pain and immunity. But the first thing I would go through is which hole the air is meant to go in and out of.
It seems like a bit of a ‘who cares’ type point and if I gave that manual to pre industrial man they would laugh at the idea that we need to be told where to breathe in and out of. You see, we used to be nose breathers, we used to have relatively straight teeth without orthodontics, we used to have a much stronger jaw line and larger sinuses. The reason I say ‘used to’ is, when we had less processed foods we had to chew more, this strengthened our jaw and kept it in a better position for breathing. As our food got softer and softer our mouths became smaller and smaller, our jaws shrunk and grew weaker so we started breathing more out of our mouths that were hanging open more.
Now don’t get me wrong, some people will be breathing in through their nose at rest naturally. If you are, firstly, I congratulate you on your superior genetics, secondly, this technique can still help you. We will discuss why throughout the article, but you’ll have to stick with us inferior folk for a little bit first.
Since this change has set in, we have had an increase in reported cases of mental health issues, increased sinusitis, respiratory illnesses and malfunctions such as asthma and increase in sleep apnoea.
The good news is, all of the negatives of mouth breathing can be negated through nose breathing. Our nose was made for air to go in and out of. It has a cleaning system to filter out dirt and dust, it has a humidifying system to ensure that it is at the right level of humidity for optimum lung function, and also it releases a chemical called nitric oxide that has a vasodilating effect allowing for more blood to go through the blood vessels which lowers the blood pressure and the need for higher heart rate. We have a huge area in our skull that does all of this for us, and unfortunately even this group of cavities have shrunk over the last few hundred years. These are our sinuses and they take up about as much volume as our heart can pump blood, so it’s no small amount. However, these too can be changed, opened and utilised more if we breathe through our noses more. Studies have shown that the facial structure actually changes depending on where we breathe from, if we breathe through our nose, our nasal cavity opens more readily and our sinuses become more preferentially used for air storage and conditioning.
Let’s talk about technique. Now, theoretically we should know how to breathe in through our nose. ‘Close your mouth, suck in air! We get it, stop belittling us!’ I can hear you all screaming at me. Well again, we on a whole have gotten really bad at even this. Try this out, give yourself the biggest overbite you can, really pull your jaw back towards your neck, and take a breath. It may feel a little restricted. Now, stick your jaw slightly more forward, put your tongue against the roof of your mouth, gently close your lips. Now take a breath in through your nose. This should feel a lot smoother. As I mentioned at the start – some of you may do this already and you will be sitting there thinking: why am I still reading this, this is obvious and already how I breathe. But the secret to nose breathing isn’t just doing it at rest, but doing it under stress.
When we are stressed – a good way to think of it is under physical stress ie. a workout – we are prone to breathing through our mouths. The reason we think we do this is different from why we actually do it. Breathing and oxygen release is regulated not by our need for oxygen but to release CO2, the ironic thing is, the more CO2 we have the higher our blood oxygenates. When we breathe in and out through our mouth, we do this to blow off CO2, not to bring in more oxygen. So, when we breathe quickly through our mouth, we are reducing the ability of the oxygen to reach the cells that need it because we don’t have enough CO2 in the system.
When we breathe through our nose, studies are that we breathe in the same amount of oxygen, we know – from what we learnt above – that it should be absorbed more, now the question is, why don’t we do it preferentially. The answer to this is a deep rabbit hole, but essentially, other than our natural tendency to breathe through our mouths, we have a really poor CO2 tolerance. It makes us feel light headed and sometimes tingly so we blow it off really quickly.
So, next time you are focussing on your breath, slow it down and close your mouth and if you are of a superior human gene pool and already breathe through your nose, try keeping a slow breathing pattern through your nose under stress. See how long you last!
As you can tell there is a lot to nose breathing, but if this is chapter 1 in the ‘human body user’s guide’ we would need to have a much deeper understanding than what we do. So, we will leave it there. If you have any more questions, please let us know, I will be happy to answer them or direct you on to somewhere that can.
Sources for further reading and learning:
James Nestor’s https://www.mrjamesnestor.com/breath
His book ‘Breath’ is fantastic and he has compiled a huge amount of resources on his website.
Patrick Mckeon – https://oxygenadvantage.com/
The oxygen advantage is a fantastic book and he has heaps of incredible videos and resources.