Why Breathing Through Your Nose is So Important
On average, you will take more than 20,000 breaths today. Did you know that with every one of those breaths, more molecules of air will pass through your nose than grains of sand on every beach in the world? Every breath is an interaction with life. It sustains us, and it keeps us in touch with our environment. But how we take those breaths is of utmost importance.
The health benefits of nasal breathing are undeniable and now well established. Firstly, the nose is a filter, humidifier and conditioner of the air moving into the lungs. When we breathe through the nose, we prepare the air for use by the body. The nose is also the first line of our immune defense, with fine hairs and a mucosal lining to trap pathogens before they enter the body. Nasal breathing also enhances oxygenation, which is the fuel source for all of the cells of the body. The nose is also intimately linked to the branches of the nervous system, giving us the ability to regulate how we are feeling. One of the most amazing benefits of nasal breathing is the production and utilization of a special molecule called nitric oxide.
Nitric Oxide (N.O) has the unique property of being anti-bacterial, antifungal and interestingly anti-viral. In fact clinical trials are currently underway in the UK for a Nitric Oxide nasal spray to fight COVID-19. But this nasal spray is simply replicating a natural process that occurs with every breath you take (IF you breathe through your nose). Nitric oxide also reduces blood pressure and improves oxygenation, so all in all, a pretty handy molecule! How do we benefit from the production of nitric oxide? We have to use our nose! Local nitric oxide is produced in the paranasal sinuses (surrounding the nose) and is drawn into the airways and body only when we breathe through the nose. Systemic nitric oxide is also produced by the inner layer of blood vessels (endothelial cells) regulating blood pressure and flow and can be increased by breath holding practices.
How Nasal Breathing Keeps You Balanced
Our bodies are driven to find balance, or homeostasis. Temperature, blood pressure, pH are all regulated and kept in a fine balance. One very interesting mechanism of nasal breathing is balancing the two sides of the brain and the two branches of the nervous system. Breathing through the right nostril stimulates the sympathetic nervous system increasing circulation and blood pressure and body temperature. It activates the left side of the brain and makes us more alert. Breathing through the left nostril reduces blood pressure, lowers body temperature, relaxes the nervous system and stimulates the right side of the brain. The body naturally switches nasal dominance about every 90 minutes to maintain balance in the body. When we breathe through the mouth we deny our body the ability to self regulate.
Breathing and the Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is sort of what’s running the show in the background. Levels of alertness, sleepiness, stress, relaxation and energy are all dictated by the ANS. Interestingly, the ANS takes a lot of direction from the breath. Are we breathing fast or slow? Shallow or deep? Is the inhale or the exhale longer? And very importantly, are we breathing from the nose or the mouth? In simple terms, mouth breathing is associated with stress / action / survival - think about how you breathe if running away from something (rapidly, in and out of the mouth). On the other hand, nasal breathing is associated with relaxation / safety / recovery. This goes as far as regulating our blood flow, digestion, hormones and levels of alertness.
Nasal Breathing and Sleep
We (hopefully) all now know the importance of quality sleep for our health and longevity. It’s of critical importance for recovery, repair, restoration and assimilation of memory and knowledge. Whether it be stress or from something else, so many people report interrupted, poor quality sleep. A large scale global study reports almost 1 billion people are affected by sleep apnea with prevalence exceeding 50% in some countries.
So how does our breathing affect our sleep? As previously mentioned, when breathing through the mouth, we stimulate the active part of the nervous system, preparing the body for action. Because of poor breathing habits, many people default to mouth breathing during the night, which prevents them from dropping into the deeper more restorative states of sleep. If you wake up feeling groggy, with a dry mouth, it is likely that you default to mouth breathing. Mouth breathing also affects our blood chemistry by shifting the levels of carbon dioxide. This can be a ‘trigger’ to the brain again instructing it to wake up as something needs to be done about changing CO2 levels.
What to do? The best practice is to try and breathe nasally at least 95% of the time, but especially as we approach bedtime. To ensure nasal breathing throughout the night, many people find mouth-taping to be extremely effective. Placing a small piece of tape vertically over the lips provides a gentle reminder to breathe through the nose. It may be uncomfortable for the first few nights but the benefits will start to be felt quite quickly. The idea is not to completely seal off the lips, just to gently keep the mouth closed, and the nose open!
Practical Application of Nasal Breathing
The benefits of nasal breathing go on, and on, and on! For such a simple practice, the return on investment is huge.
1. Start by noticing when you breathe through your nose versus your mouth. Aim to breathe nasally upwards of 90% of your day. 2. Try to adjust your exercise intensity so that you can maintain nasal breathing rather than huffing and puffing through the mouth. 3. Try gently taping your mouth closed at night to encourage nasal breathing. Make small incremental steps and you will see compounding benefits. Learn more with my 5-week online course, which covers nasal breathing. Free trial available here. Or, if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me or find me on Instagram.
Remember, the nose knows!