Confessions of a Mouth-Breather

Modern science meets ancient breathing techniques

For a long time, growing up, I didn’t realize that there was anything unusual about the way I breathed. Sure, I probably looked puzzled when people described the rich, wild aromas of spring air with a tone of rapture. I got in trouble for chewing with my mouth open more than most kids, it’s safe to say, and while I’m grateful to the grown-ups in my young life for the foundation of etiquette I rely on still, I knew somehow there was something a bit unfair about the whole arrangement. Would you ask an elephant to carry coconuts in his trunk? Or strap a fedora over a dolphin’s blowhole? In either case, you’d be greeted with powerful resistance. All creatures that breathe seek oxygen first, and other concerns – sensation, sustenance, and etiquette among them – come in a distant second.

Minor hints of unfairness aside, though, I knew my problems were small in comparison to the rest of the world’s, and learned to “suck it up,” as the hard-nosed survivors of less sympathetic times would say. I had food and I had air, so, like many others, I learned to live with the inability to breathe through my nose (most of the time). For many years, I rarely thought about it.

Still, there was a built-in affront which occasionally surfaced in the term, “mouth-breather.” It’s not as if anyone actually called me a mouth-breather, at least not to my face. It was more an insult you’d hear once in awhile, applied at a distance, referring to someone who supposedly wasn’t “overly endowed with mental gifts,” and didn’t deserve much sympathy for that fact. Like most insults, it was presumptuous, dismissive, and usually dished out from a position of uninformed arrogance. But whenever it came up, I’d wonder: “Hey, I breathe through my mouth … is that supposed to make me stupid?” Several other insults reserved for the dim, like slackjaw and fly-catcher, seemed to evoke the same assumption.

Still, most of the people I’ve spoken with who identify themselves as mouth-breathers (even if they don’t embrace that somewhat slanderous term) rarely gave it much thought. They’d begun breathing by mouth as an infant or toddler because that’s where the oxygen was getting through, and you just don’t go without that stuff, not even to look cool in front of your classmates in the 3rd grade. We’ve all been breathing since we were born, long before we had the words to discuss it, and the process has become pretty much automatic, taken for granted. Why bother talking about it? Mostly, people don’t. The resulting blind spot is one of the problems which James Nestor discusses in his best-selling book, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.

“That’s what makes these scientists, these researchers, so frustrated,” says Nestor. “We have 50 years of rock-solid science here, showing the problems with mouth-breathing, showing the problems with snoring and sleep apnea, but no one’s really been paying attention. We’re treating all these separate problems that are associated with these core issues, and we’re not looking at the core issues. So many of these conditions could be either improved upon, or sometimes outright cured, by switching the pathway in which you breathe.”

In addition to snoring and sleep apnea, Nestor lists neurological problems, metabolic disorders, and shifts in facial structure among the consequences of improper breathing in general, and mouth breathing in particular. But what causes all this? What, specifically, is the difference between breaths drawn through the nose and the mouth?

The nose and sinus cavities, which together are somewhere around the size of your fist, ”evolved this way for a reason,” Nestor explains. “The air that comes in through the nose, it’s slowed down, it’s filtered, it’s humidified, and it’s conditioned, so that by the time it gets to your lungs, your lungs can really absorb that oxygen so much more easily.” Specifically, he goes on to say, these systems allow us to gain about twenty percent more oxygen.

Some of these benefits are due to Nitric Oxide, a molecule produced by enzymes in the nose and the sinuses. “Nitric Oxide, this wonderful molecule, is a vasodilator that plays an essential role in oxygen delivery, and also helps battle off viruses and bacteria, and other pathogens. The nose really is the first line of defense.”

So, all that business about being a mouth breather? It’s beginning to make sense after all. The more we learn, the more we find out that proper oxygen levels translate to higher performance, whether athletic, emotional, or mental. Sure, I did well enough in my studies, and on the soccer team. But who knows how much sharper I could have been during all those exams, how much faster on the field? Even our body’s ability to defend and repair itself is bolstered powerfully by proper breathing. Who knows how many cases of the cold and flu I might have avoided? In an era where sinus, ear, and throat infections are nearly pandemic, who wouldn’t want the extra protection?

The culture-wide tendency to mock those who can only breathe through their mouths may be childish and cruel, but in an odd sense, it also pointed me down the road toward the remedy of proper, healthy breath. Still, even once we know the advantages of deep, nasal breathing, what then? How are we supposed to suddenly start breathing through our noses, those of us born with deviated septums, smitten with allergies, or else living with poorly recovered broken noses? (And there are many of us, I’ve come to realize over the years). How can we take advantage of these benefits?

For many, sinus surgery has made a world of difference. For others, myself included, the neti pot (or any of a number of other nasal irrigation systems) offered the first glimpse of a life enriched by full and deep breathing. The best news of all on this front, though, is a point which Nestor makes: “The more that you breathe through your nose, the more your nose is going to open up. The more you use it, the more you’re going to be able to use it … When people start to habitually breathe through their mouths, their noses are going to start to close up.” And this is why mouth-breathers are often discouraged when they begin to try to breathe through their noses again. So if you’ve ever been through this challenge, take heart: efforts will yield results!

Of course, the benefits of nasal breathing vs. mouth breathing is just one of the many layers of Nestor’s book. In it, he also traces the origins of conscious, healing breath back to the medicinal and spiritual practices of several cultures, including Indian, Russian, and Tibetan, and discusses recent scientific findings which corroborate the benefits of breathwork. He talks about the experiment he himself underwent, in which he sealed his nostrils and breathed only through his mouth for ten days, and also presents a number of techniques we can use to improve our lives through breath.

All in all, Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art rounds up and presents a compelling body of evidence as to the diverse and profound benefits to be gained from adopting a conscious breathwork practice. As he puts it, “I think that breathing has to be considered along with diet and exercise, as a pillar of health, because even if you eat keto, vegan, paleo, or whatever, and even if you exercise all the time, if you’re not breathing right, you’re never really going to be healthy – we know that to be true.”

Brought to you by the International Center for Breathwork. 

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