Take a Breath: November 6

On the importance of 👃 and proper breathing.

Happy Friyay! After the all the nail-biting, news-watching, vote-counting we have endured this week, I think we should all take a collective breath:

In through the nose…

Out through the mouth…

K, now that we are more zen. Let’s talk about — breathing!

Mouthbreather: more than an insult

We might think that Eleven from Stranger Things brought back the term “mouthbreather,” but nose vs. mouth breathing has been a hot topic amongst bio-hackers and health & wellness peeps these past few years. (And apparently, it’s enjoyed some decades-long popularity in the recesses of internet forums where body-builder-types practice a technique called “mewing” to create more masculine jawlines…). Now, there are companies that sell mouth-tape (you guessed right, to tape your lips shut to correct mild sleep apnea and snoring) and even Goop did an episode on Wim Hof and holotropic breathing (they’re on the cutting edge of sCieNcE, right?).

But personally, this nose-breathing thing is top-of-mind since I have started Audible-ing “Breath” by Jason Nestor. He weaves in clinical research, archeological data, historical and religious traditions, and anecdotal (personal) experiments in an engaging and entertaining way, to show that everyone (not just bio-hackers, internet forum bros, and celery-juicing hippies) can benefit from re-learning how to breathe properly.

TL;DR Intro — Start Reading Here

You’re probably wondering 🤨

How much of a difference could it make be to breathe through the mouth or the nose? Isn’t the point to just breathe?

I mean… yes, if we agree that point is to not die, then mouth-breathing achieves that. But, proper breathing can actually enhance your state of aliveness. It’s about improving quality of life.

A few examples of how mouth-breathing is deleterious to our health, thereby reducing our quality of life:

  • Dentists care about mouth-breathing because of its correlation with cavities, bad breath, and other periodontal deformities

    • It makes the environment in the mouth more acidic, making it more hospitable to cavity-producing bacteria

      • A study shows mouth-breathing is the number one cause for cavities (ahead of sugar consumption and poor dental hygiene)!

    • When examining ancient skulls, experts say that our human ancestors had wider palates and almost universally straight teeth. In contrast, we modern-day humans are mouth-breathing more and more (due to air pollution and mold growth that cause nasal congestion and other respiratory conditions such as asthma). This “dis-evolution” is evident in our much narrower and curved (dome-shaped) palates and propensity for crooked teeth (and dorky braces).

      • The book mentions a scary but not-surprising statistic that 90% of children have acquired some form of deformity in the mouth or nose…

  • Mouth-breathing negatively affects facial development

  • Mouth-breathing causes sleep disturbances like snoring and sleep apnea

    • 45% of US adults snore occasionally; 25% of US adults snore constantly

    • 25% of US adults over 30 choke on themselves because of sleep apnea

  • Mouth-breathing reduces performance, both mentally and physically

    • Mouth-breathing makes the breath more shallow, which means reduced efficiency, as every breath through the mouth (compared to a breath through the nose) brings in less oxygen to the cells in our brain or muscles

    • In contrast, nasal breathing ensures that the air we breathe goes deeper and reaches the bottom part of the lungs, where there are many many more capillary blood vessels, which leads to more efficient oxygen distribution to the rest of the body

    • Mouth-breathers or people with asthma have a tendency to “over breathe” (gasping for more air) which turns on the sympathetic nervous system of “fight-or-flight” and increases anxiety and stress

Things You Didn’t Know About Your Nose

Other than smell, and the very important functions filtering, moistening, and warming up the air we breathe, what are our noses up to?

  • Use it or Lose it: noses become less functional when we don't use them

    • When people are congested, they start breathing through their mouths, and after some time, the nasal passages start narrowing, which makes them rely more on mouth-breathing in a self-reinforcing fashion 

  • Our noses have erectile tissue (yes, same as the other organs in our body that we associate with the term erectile)

    • Our nostrils get turned “on” or “off”, such that at all times, there is always one dominant nostril we are breathing through (alternating in 30-minute to 4-hour intervals, not sure why such a large delta…). Try it! Mine’s the left nostril now.

    • The nose produces nitric oxide, which, if you remember from this post, regulates blood vessel dilation and constriction, and thus processes such as blood pressure, digestion, and sexual arousal

    • One way to boost nitric oxide production is by humming! This also explains why saying “ommmm” is therapeutic

  • Our nostrils are connected to the right and left brains in an inverse relationship. Thus, single-nostril breathing can be used to activate different brain regions. 

    • The right nostril acts a gas pedal, because breathing through it activates the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate and body temperature

    • Inversely, breathing through the left nostril is calming, so you could try it after a big meal to promote digestion

  • Counter-intuitively, when it comes to increasing oxygen availability in the body, exhaling is more important than inhaling. As you may know, we breathe in oxygen (O2) and breathe out carbon dioxide (CO2). But, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty mechanics, CO2 has the crucial role in ensuring the O2 molecules (shuttled by hemoglobins) actually get detached from the shuttle and delivered to the cells that need them.

    • How is this knowledge relevant to our daily lives?

      • When stressed or anxious (or experiencing an asthma attack), it’s more calming to focus on lengthening the exhales (rather than gasping to breathe more air in)

      • When running or otherwise performing cardio, you’ll get better distance and endurance by a) breathing through the nose and b) extending the exhales (.e.g. if jogging, inhale for 3 steps and exhale for 5 steps, or whatever pattern works for you as long as the exhales are longer)

      • Another curious fact about CO2 is that it accounts for most of “weight loss.” For every 10 pounds of fat lost, 8.5 pounds are in the form of CO2 leaving the body, and the rest is water via sweat and urine.

  • Slow breathing is key. Instead of frequent short breaths, taking fewer and slower breaths is more efficient in terms of O2 distribution in the body. It also activates the parasympathetic nervous system of “rest and digest.” 

    • Interestingly, the Ave Maria prayer (in Latin) and many Sanskrit mantras have the same pattern: 5-6 seconds in-breath and 5-6 seconds out-breath

    • A good breathing exercise is 5.5 x 5.5 (meaning, 5-6 seconds in-breath and 5-6 seconds out-breath), which yields about 5.5 breaths per minute!

Phew, thanks for reading (and breathing) along!