This is about breathing, something we all constantly do, and have to do. It is as important to breathe right as it is to eat right, still most people never give it a thought. The article is more scientific than those I usually publish on this platform, and quite long at that. Perhaps you don't understand all the terms, but don't let that scare you away.
Most people don't pay much attention to how they are breathing. That is a mistake. There are right and wrong ways to breathe and the consequences of which you choose are enormous. Indeed, most people breathe in a wrong way.
First we have the question if it is correct to breathe with the chest or with the belly. Cultural aesthetic preferences, not wanting to expand the lower abdomen, have made people breathe with the chest. But that is entirely wrong. The lung volume is better utilised by breathing with the diaphragm. You get more oxygen, better detoxification, and beneficial intestinal massage, important for proper bowel function. You also stimulate the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve which facilitates communication between the various organs and the central nervous system.
The most important discrepancy, however, is between breathing through the nose or through the mouth. Before discussing the consequential differences, let's just state that the ability to breathe through the mouth is an emergency function only. The correct way to breathe is through the nose and one should strive always to breathe through the nose as much as possible. We will soon see why.
Among land-living mammals, humans alone have the ability to breathe through the mouth. The others have a windpipe from the nose to the lungs, and a gullet from the mouth to the stomach, and they never coincide. The palate separates nose and mouth. Some of them, however, can relax their sphincter muscle, and draw down the windpipe into the mouth temporarily. Dogs are one example. That is what makes them able to bark. We, however, have no sphincter muscle at all. Our windpipe ends already in the throat, and the rear palate is always wide open. That makes us disposed to choking by food or beverage simply getting the wrong way. It also dramatically confuses our sense of smelling, which is disturbed by taste. That's something that would be life-threatening for many mammals, since they are dependent on their sense of smelling to discover dangers, also while they are eating. On the other hand, it is a precondition for our ability to speak.
We are not alone of this design; whales, sea-lions, and seals have it too. It is an evolutionary advantage only for an aquatic existence. On land it is just a weakness. The advantage in water is for breathing. It is possible to take in so much more air by some fast breaths through the mouth than would be possible through the nose. This is important if you have a few moments to breathe before going down beneath the surface again.
Breathing through the mouth fills the lungs faster and with less effort. However, apart from the extreme scenario of hard swimming/diving, or something else requiring a very fast and easy intake of extra oxygen, one should avoid breathing through the mouth. Although breathing through the nose is slower and offers about 50% higher resistance, it comes with enormous benefits. Indeed, even the increased resistance itself provides direct advantages. It creates extra pressure in the lungs during exhalation. The air in the lungs becomes denser; the level of oxygen becomes higher in a volume unit of air. The exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide through the alveolar membranes (between lungs and blood) is improved. Absorption of oxygen occurs during exhalation, which is slower during nose breathing. That gives extra time for oxygen absorption.
During inhalation, the extra resistance increases the amount of oxygen that is transported by increasing the vacuum in the lungs.
Of course this resistance can be too high, so oral breathing becomes necessary in order to get enough oxygen. That can be the result of illness, such as a common cold, tonsillar or adenoidal hypertrophy, or a number of other ailments – in which case the ailment should be treated. It can also be a result of that the passage in the nose is naturally grown too narrow. The latter is often treated surgically, although that is not always necessary. Sometimes the passage can be expanded simply by forcing correct nasal breathing for a time. To a large extent organs adjust by how they are used. It doesn't always help, but it is worth a try before submitting to surgery (which might result in bad side-effects).
It is also a fact that swelling is diminished by nasal breathing, and that many bad bacteria which can be found in nose, mouth, teeth, and throat are a direct result of oral breathing. Forced nasal breathing might help to reduce and step by step eliminate acute and chronic inflammatory processes in nose, mouth, and throat.
Nitric oxide is an important substance. It boosts the immune system, combats harmful microbes and regulates blood pressure. It is formed in the sinuses and is further brought to the body by breath. But only if you breathe through the nose.
Interestingly, humming at a low pitch during nasal exhalation increases the airflow in the sinuses, and the level of strongly antimicrobial nitric oxide almost 20-doubles. Humming during 100 exhalations, 4 times a day, can reduce the symptoms of chronic sinusitis, and in many cases it has shown to completely eliminate the symptoms in a few days.
Breathing through the mouth makes us lose carbon dioxide, which, in turn, leads to swollen tissues and increased production of mucus. That is a defence mechanism; the body tries to stop further loss of carbon dioxide. Ironically, the result of these symptoms is that the airway in the nose is partially blocked by swollen tissue and mucus, nasal breathing becomes increasingly difficult and oral breathing increasingly dominant – followed by more swelling and more mucus. A vicious circle, which must be broken by forced nasal breathing.
The loss of carbon dioxide disturbs the pH of the blood, which is dependent on a proper exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. It will also decrease oxygen absorption.
During nasal breathing, the air is filtered through cilia, tiny hairs in the nose. Estimately, they filter away about 20 million bacteria and particles of dirt every day. They also humidify the air and bring it closer to body temperature before it reaches the windpipe. This whole mechanism is bypassed when breathing through the mouth.
The walls of the windpipe are covered with mucus, where more particles are caught before the air reaches the lungs. Once in the lungs, the air finally enters the alveoli, small sacks deep in the lungs, where they are at the end of the pathway. Through the alveolic membranes, oxygen enters the blood, which transports it to every cell in the body – and carbon dioxide leaves the blood and enters the lungs, in order to be removed from the body through exhalation.
Brainwaves are synchronised with breathing patterns – and it has been shown that inhalation through the nose enhances cognitive functions, such as memory recall. In fact, breathing through the nose co-ordinates electrical activity in the brain. This effect is weak or absent when breathing through the mouth. Respiration through the nose directly affects the olfactory bulbs in the nose, which are extensions of the hypothalamus.
Stupid people are often caricatured with their mouth hanging open, and I think we all agree that someone with the mouth hanging open looks stupid. What if there really is a connection? Not that stupidity causes the mouth to drop open, but the other way around: that breathing through the mouth inhibits the development of intelligence! Nasal breathing stimulates the development of mental functions, oral breathing does not.
Indeed, there is a profound connection between nasal breathing and brain. Research is still insufficient, but there are numerous scientific studies confirming this connection.
“The nasal cycle, which is part of an overall body cycle, is controlled by the hypothalamus. Sympathetic dominance on one side causes nasal vasoconstriction of the ipsilateral turbinate, while parasympathetic dominance on the other causes nasal vasoconstriction of the contralateral turbinate. Increased airflow through the right nostril is correlated to increased left brain activity and enhanced verbal performance, where as increased airflow through the left nostril is associated with increased right brain activity and enhanced spatial performance.”
(Shannahoff-Kalsa, 1993. The ultradian rhythm of alternating cerebral hemispheric activity. International Journal of Neuroscience 70.)
Contrary to what many sources say, one should try to breathe through the nose also during heavy exercise, both inhaling and exhaling. Breathing through the mouth will make it possible to take a larger number of breaths per time unit, but it strongly reduces the amount of oxygen absorbed through every breath, and it causes hyperventilation, which has a negative effect on the cardiovascular system – heart and blood pressure. If you cannot avoid breathing through your mouth under the peak of strain, you must try to minimise the time you are doing so. Be aware that it is wrong and force yourself to nasal breathe as quickly as possible. In theory, breathing through the mouth is always wrong – unless your life depends on it.
There can be many reasons why people breathe through the mouth. As I already mentioned above, they can be born with too narrow airway in the nose, something can be wrong with how the teeth are grown – and there are various illnesses and ailments blocking free flow of air through the nose. Then the root cause should be treated. Yet remember that forced nasal breathing in many cases can solve the problem. It is a solution to consider first, before doing something more drastic.
Then there are a lot of people who simply have bad breathing habits. They open their mouth when they focus on something, or it is just a habit without any obvious reason. They simply need to train nasal breathing and to breathe with the diaphragm. They need to replace a bad habit with a better one.
Remember that normally the mouth should be closed, except when eating, talking, or managing dental and oral hygiene, If you discover yourself with the mouth open, consider if it should be so; if not, close it and breathe through the nose.
Snoring is connected to mouth breathing during sleep. As this is an erroneous way to breathe, the breathing is never in touch with the nerves regulating the breathing rhythm, which are found in the nasal passages. This causes an irregular breathing pattern, which, in turn, might lead to heart problems or sleep apnea. It is very serious and can be life-threatening. There are various ways to deal with snoring, some good and some not so good, we will not discuss them here and now, but basically, it is necessary to get back to nasal breathing during sleep.
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