The Importance of Nasal Breathing

We should all be making every effort to breathe through our nose the majority of the time. Our nose is made for breathing for important reasons, some of which I will highlight here.

Breathing is one of the most powerful things we have control over that can impact multiple areas of our health. It is often overlooked. Every breath has the potential to have either a positive or a negative impact on our body.

Believe it or not, in research it has been well established that normal breathing should be through the nose more than 90% of the time. Ideally, 96% of the time. Nasal breathing has been well documented to provide many health benefits.

To start the conversation, realize that mouth breathing directly affects dental health by causing the drying of oral structures and the decrease of saliva production. It also causes a decrease in the pH of the mouth (more acidic) which allows the bad bugs to thrive. Saliva acts to neutralize acid in the mouth and helps to flush away bacteria. Without saliva and its beneficial protective mechanisms, risk of decay and periodontal disease increases. During sleep, mouth breathing decreases intra oral pH as compared to normal breathing. This lowered pH can lead to erosion of tooth surfaces, increased sensitivity of the teeth to temperatures and susceptibility to tooth decay.

The nose is a complex filtering device with a built in air purifier with blood vessels lining the mucosa providing early onset immune function and mounting a systemic response much sooner to pathogens than if you are bypassing this system and using your mouth.

One of the most important reasons for nasal breathing is the production of nitric oxide. Nitric Oxide is produced in our nasal cavities and we can absorb up to six times more nitric oxide by breathing through our nose. Nitric Oxide plays a vital role in many biological events including regulation of blood flow, platelet function, immunity, and neurotransmission. Nitric oxide enhances the lungs capacity to absorb oxygen – we can, on average, absorb 18% more oxygen with nasal breathing compared to mouth breathing. The best oxygen exchange, the most blood perfusion in the lungs, is in the lower lobes of the lungs. Nitric oxide allows oxygen to be taken lower in the lungs, allowing for better oxygen exchange.

Stanford Medical School discovered there is a pacemaker in your brain that monitors your breathing. If you breathe fast, that pacemaker sends signals of agitation to your brain. When we are breathing through our mouth, we are mainly ventilating the upper chest. It is believed by breathing experts that most of us are chronically breathing faster and taking in more air than we actually need, typically through the mouth. This stimulates a fight or flight response in the body which means that the sympathetic nervous system is activated; stress hormones are being produced. Over time, our body acclimates to this and it feels “normal” though your system is constantly in a level of sympathetic stress resulting in too much cortisol (stress hormone) being constantly released leading to what has been called “adrenal fatigue”.

Nose breathing slows down the breath. Long slow breaths are relaxing. Nasal breathing carries the air deeper into the lungs (nitric oxide) and activates the diaphragm. A typical adult engages as little as 10% of the range of the diaphragm when breathing, which overburdens the heart, elevates blood pressure, and causes circulatory problems. Studies show that extending those breaths to 50-70% of the diaphragm’s capacity will ease cardiovascular stress and allow the body to work more efficiently. Diaphragmatic breathing reduces heart rates, increases insulin, reduces glycemia, reduces free radical production, increases antioxidant status, decreases cortisol, and increases melatonin. This is the result of activating the parasympathetic nervous system (relaxation).

The athletic benefits of nasal breathing are many. It helps improve endurance, allows for shorter recovery times, helps us lose weight, and maintains hydration. Nasal breathing helps ensure we are mostly exercising in the optimal aerobic zone, whereas if you are predominately mouth breathing you are in the anaerobic zone.

Nasal breathing benefits don’t just occur during waking hours. When breathing and oxygenation are even subtly compromised during sleep, it increases your body’s stress response. Nasal congestion can worsen subjective sleep quality and can be a major contributor to sleep disordered breathing, including obstructive sleep apnea.

There is nothing complicated about nasal breathing. The first step is making sure you CAN breathe through your nose (and if you can’t, you MUST fix that) and then getting used to breathing through your nose with your mouth closed. There are tools and techniques out there to help you breathe better, night and day, and thus improve your (and your patients) well-being and health.