You are doing it wrong
There are many things that you and I throughout most of our lives have been doing wrong.
Most of us are aware that we’re not eating as well as we should be.
Fewer of us are aware that we aren’t walking correctly. Maybe you walk with your feet pointed outwards, maybe you have a dysfunctional gait cycle.
Because of how simple these things are on a practical every day level, we tend to assume that we must be doing them correctly. After all, everyone else around us seems to be managing just the same.
But breathing properly is something that most of us are doing incorrectly.
Take a moment to notice your breathing right now. Are you breathing in through your nose or your mouth? Is your chest rising, or your abdomen expanding? Are your breaths short, shallow and irregular? Or gentle, slow, and rhythmic?
There are physiological and evolutionary reasons why we evolved to be nasal breathers but our modern lifestyles have disrupted our airways, sinus cavities, jaws and mouths to create defective ways of breathing which exacerbate the growing list of ‘diseases of civilization’.
“Despite the advances of medical science, the diseases of modern civilization continue to increase, and it could be argued that we are passing responsibility for our health to pharmaceutical companies rather than making changes to our lifestyle and diet to prevent illness in the first place. Each year, more and more people are developing asthma, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.”
The simple process of breathing is much more complex than most of us realise, there are many things happening on a biochemical level. Our body is constantly measuring different gasses (their concentrations and pressures), modulating countless other processes, altering hormones etc.
Just as grip strength is an important indicator of overall strength, lung capacity is an important indicator of overall health and longevity. Breathing rate and volume affects so many different aspects of our health.
But there are distinct differences between nasal breathing and mouth breathing.
Proper breathing is done in and out through your nose, with slow, even, and gentle breaths into the abdomen.
In his book Oxygen Advantage, Patrick McKeown explains what happens to the air we breathe in through our nose;
As air enters through the nose, it is swirled through scrolled spongy bones called turbinates, which condition and guide inhaled air into a steady, regular pattern. The internal nose, with its culs-de-sac, valves and turbinates, regulates the direction and velocity of the air to maximise exposure to a network of small arteries and veins and to the mucous blanket in order to warm, humidify and sterilise the air before it is drawn to the lungs.
The large amount of space in the skull devoted to the nasal cavity gives an indication of how important the functions of the nose are.
Taking a look at the animal kingdom – cheetahs and horses breathe through their noses when running at full speed. While dogs pant, it is their method of heat regulation. At all other times most dogs naturally breathe through their noses.
It is us humans that are trying to go against millions of years of evolution.
The Benefits of Nasal Breathing
The benefits of breathing through the nose can be tracked in the short term and long term, with heart rate monitors, pulse oximeters, and by subjective measures of how you feel.
The nose has many functions that go unnoticed in the course of our day, but which are very important.
Our noses clean the air by filtering it as we breathe, and then moistens it.
Like many systems in the body, one organ system can affect one lower or higher up the chain.
Nasal breathing for some can be a factor in erectile dysfunction. Having less nasal hair density increases your likelihood of having asthma, as nasal hairs are part of the filtration process. And a woman’s menstrual cycle and PMS can be affected by impaired breathing.
A study by the Mater Hospital in Brisbane found that when breathing volume of a subject with asthma decreased from 14 liters to 9.6 liters per minute, not only did their symptoms reduced by 70%, but the need for relief medication decreased by 90% and the need for preventative steroid medication decreased by 50%.
Nasal breathing can cause sweeping changes to our system such as lower heart rate, reduced stress, and lower blood pressure which cause the rest of our body to work better.
Below are just a few of many benefits of nose breathing:
- 10-20% more oxygen intake
- Removes a significant about of germ and bacteria from the air you breathe
- The nose acts as a reservoir for nitric oxide (more on that below)
- Can help those who suffer from anxiety and panic attacks
- Increased lung capacity (lung capacity is an accurate marker for life span)
- Improves sleep quality
- Lower stress
The best way to look at how our modern lifestyles have made us poor breathers is to look into our past and our ancestors in order to understand what is and isn’t normal for us.
“Some cultures ate nothing but meat, while others were mostly vegetarian. Some relied primarily on homemade cheese; others consumed no dairy at all. Their teeth were almost always perfect; their mouths were exceptionally wide, nasal apertures broad. They suffered few, if any, cavities and little dental disease.”
― James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
Hunter gatherer tribes all across the world don’t have excessive dental crowding. Nor do they have the prolific rate of cavities and gum disease that plagues the modern ‘civilized’ man and woman.
Most of the food we eat now is soft and processed. Even if it is ‘healthy’. Nut butters, smoothies, soups, oatmeal, white bread. By comparison, our ancient ancestors spent hours each day chewing, which led to wide, strong, and pronounced mouths, teeth, throats, and faces.
When discussing the soft, processed foods we eat now, in industrialised societies, Nestor says…
“This is why so many of those skulls I’d examined in the Paris ossuary had narrow faces and crooked teeth. It’s one of the reasons so many of us snore today, why our noses are stuffed, our airways clogged. Why we need sprays, pills, or surgical drilling just to get a breath of fresh air.”
― James Nestor, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art
Whether in the desert or rainforest, hunter gatherer tribes are living the way they have for thousands years, and they simply don’t have the same rates of the diseases of civilization that we suffer from.
American explorer, artist, and author George Catlin visited Native American tribes in the 1800s. Catlin documented how mothers would gently press the lips of the babies closed every time they opened their mouths to breathe, and that the tribes spent the majority of their time nasal breathing. Catlin remarked that the tribespeople had lower rates of sickness than Europeans.
In his 1882 book, aptly titled ‘Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life’ he recounted how these mothers encouraged nasal breathing, and contrasted it to the hot, stuffy, unventilated rooms that babies of the European settlers were nursed in, with their mouths open and gasping for air.
Many ancient cultures including ancient Tibet, China, and India emphasized slow gentle breaths and reduced breathing. They did so through their practices such as Tai Chi or Yoga, and in their classical texts including the ancient yogic texts and the ancient Chinese texts. This is very much the opposite of what many of us do today, going through our day with shallow breathing, or heavy, constrained breathing, short irregular breaths, mainly in the upper-chest.
The practice of breath holding and nasal breathing exercises is not new, nor is the knowledge of nasal breathing. It has simply been forgotten. This is a main theme of the book Breath by James Nestor.
As you can see, nasal breathing is a forgotten aspect of a normal healthy lifestyle. One known and practiced in both the East and the West, by our ancient ancestors.
In contrast to nasal breathing, mouth breathing is often shallow (restricted to the upper chest), fast, and strained.
Mouth breathing may cause reduced oxygen intake, so it will come as no surprise that habitual mouth breathers suffer from poor energy, moodiness, and difficulty concentrating.
Chronic mouth breathing is often associated with illness in humans, mouth breathing is also associated with illness in livestock.
Remember, healthy breathing is quiet and gentle. A good example of dysfunctional breathing is the pug – noisy, shallow and laboured.
Check out this fantastic video on how breathing less is better for heath: LESS Breath: Better Health? | Mouth Breathing vs. Nasal Breathing
CO2 Controls Breathing, not Oxygen.
Most people think that it is the need for oxygen that causes the body to instinctively breathe in and out.
However, our red blood cells are saturated with between 95 and 99 percent, and stay consistently at this level (unless you are very ill).
What determines how much oxygen your body can use, is the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood. Carbon dioxide allows the release of oxygen from the red blood cells to be metabolised from the body. This mediated by the Bohr effect.
When breathing correctly, we have a sufficient amount of carbon dioxide. Our breathing is quiet, controlled, and rhythmic.
When we over-breathe, we end up exhaling too much carbon dioxide. Our breathing is heavy, more intense, and erratic, and our body is literally gasping for oxygen.
Big Breaths ≠ More Oxygen
I mentioned above how, unless you are very ill, your red blood cells are saturated with between 95 and 99 percent, and stay consistently at this level.
Taking a large breath into your lungs will not increase oxygen content. It is physically impossible.
It is due to this misconception that many athletes adopt the practice of intentionally taking deep breaths during rest and training. By doing this, they actually end up limiting and sometimes even diminishing their performance – without even realising it.
Breathing exercises are a huge part of any yoga practice, however you will often find it taught incorrectly in the West. Modern yoga teachers will encourage students to take big breaths, rather than focus on regular, calm, nasal breathing.
Nestor differentiates between authentic yoga practitioners who have a deep knowledge of breathing and how it affects physiology from the typical western yoga practitioner or teachers who don’t and who instruct students to breath hard in order to ‘remove toxins’.
The benefits of nasal breathing are without question. One difference with nasal breathing is the increased release of the important gas – NO – which helps regulate circulation and deliver oxygen into the cells.
Immune function, circulation, mood, weight, and sexual function are all influenced by this gas.
Viagra (Sildenafil) works primarily by releasing NO into the bloodstream which opens capillaries and helps blood flow where it’s needed.
Nasal breathing can increase NO significantly, and increase oxygen absorption.
The Problems with Mouth Breathing
Chronic mouth breathing can cause a variety of health ailments and other issues, including:
- Being more susceptible to respiratory ailments
- Mouth breathing from a young age can actually change the face shape, including the jaw, which can lead to a “crowded” mouth
- Poor concentration
- Bad mood
- Elevated stress and anxiety levels
- More dental cavities and gum disease
- Increases of snoring and sleep apnea
Snoring and Sleep Apnea
Snoring and sleep apnea are accepted as normal these days, but most people don’t realise how unhealthy it really is.
Dr Ann Kearney, a doctor of speech-language pathologist at Stanford University’s Voice and Swallowing Center, helps rehabilitate patients with breathing and swallowing disorders and uses mouth taping as part of her treatments.
Kearney noticed that after examining the noses of 50 patients who had undergone laryngectomies (the medical procedure where a hole is cut in the throat), that from within a couple months to a couple years they would have complete nasal obstruction.
The nose has tiny muscles inside that are used during breathing and like any muscle if you stop using it, it will naturally atrophy. This spills over and negatively impacts these patients’ sleep, exacerbating snoring and sleep apnea.
Nasal breathing is the cheapest and simplest intervention you can do to radically improve your nighttime breathing which has an effect on your hormones, organ health and functioning during the day.
In the same way that eating certain foods can affect our gut microbiome, how we breathe can affect our Nasal microbiota. Bad bacteria thrive when you are mouth breathing, which can cause an infection or congestion. This creates a positive feedback loop because being congested may cause you to mouth breathe more.
Cavities and other Dental Issues
According to Dr. Mark Burhenne and many other dentists, mouth breathing is a main cause of excess cavities.
Dr. Burhenne has stated that mouth breathing contributes to periodontal disease and bad breath and is the number one cause of cavities, even more so than sugar consumption, diet, or poor hygiene.
Many people have had excessive cavities – despite regular and proper brushing, flossing, and using mouthwash. But once they changed their breathing to be mostly nasal breathing, then they no longer had chronic issues with cavities.
Despite a history of advances and setbacks – more and more dentists are beginning to become aware of the importance of nasal breathing and how it impacts our health.
Can nasal breathing improve athletic performance
High altitude training has been used by many elite endurance athletes to improve their performance, as it improves their blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, as well as increasing the maximum volume of oxygen they can use.
But getting to higher altitudes to train is not always feasible, but there are ways that athletes can mimic this effect using nasal breathing and breath holding exercises.
Nasal breathing has been used by Olympic athletes either as hypoxic training or to simulate high altitude training.
Then there are the outliers who are taking the possibilities presented by breathing exercises and nasal breathing even further than we thought possible. There are the freedivers staying over 8 minutes under water on a single breath, and adventurers like Wim Hoff doing extreme feats.
Wim Hoff used Tibetan breathing practices to create his own breathing system. He used this breathing system to set various world records, most often combining endurance fitness with cold exposure, such as a barefoot half marathon on ice and snow and swimming beneath ice sheets.
Although this post is about nasal breathing, freediving deserves mention as it represents the extreme end of reduced breathing, and is part of the historical story of our breathing.
For thousands of years humans have held their breath to dive down and hunt for fish, and to explore or harvest from the ocean floor.
It should be noted that freediving exercises – when overdone – can cause damage to the organs, and is a more extreme type of training that needs a thorough understanding and guidance to be done safely.
(Consult with your medical doctor before trying any freediving breath holding exercises.)
Why haven’t you heard of it
There are likely two big reasons why you don’t hear much about nasal breathing.
- Nasal breathing challenges the medical orthodoxy.
- There is no money in nasal breathing treatments.
Experts are very reluctant to change, especially in the field of medicine, when new evidence challenges outdated assumptions. Just look at how long the medical community pushed back against cigarettes being harmful, and how much manipulation and gas lighting around the evidence there was. And especially when it challenges the ego investments of ‘experts’.
Nasal breathing is hard to monetise, there is no magic pill to make your breath better. No breathing product that is one size fits all to improve your breathing better than you can do on your own at home without any equipment.
There is also the fact that it goes against the popular talking points of ‘health and fitness’ movements that encourage trendy, alternative ‘healing’ and ‘toxin removing’ solutions rather than evidence-based research.
Additionally there is less media coverage and education around it because there is no incentive from big pharma which is known to influence advertising to benefit their profit margins.
I am not against the wonders of scientific research and medicine – but against the lack of liability and the abuse of information that Big Pharma has been guilty of many times, for many medical products.
I am also against the wanton use of prescription drugs even after they are no longer needed.
The more medication you are on, the more likely you are to need more. As you age and accumulate more health issues you need more, but a drug often causes new symptoms that you need to be managed by another drug and so on. It reminds me of the saying;
“First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald
Of course if you actually need medication take it. But as a society currently we tend to overprescribe. Just look at what we’ve done with antibiotics – being wantonly prescribed. We now have antibiotic resistant bacteria. And then there are all the lives ruined from hastily over prescribed opioids. This is just two example of how we overdo things as a society. Many people will immediately throw pharmaceuticals at a problem before trying less invasive methods. For example, before taking medication to lower blood pressure, talk with your doctor about natural ways of lowering it. For some people a few lifestyle changes are all that is required.
(For example, as you’ll see in my post Why you should do daily 10 minute walks, a simple 10 minute walk after meals can be twice as effective as Metformin in helping control blood sugars.)
A good doctor makes sure to de-prescribe medication that you no longer need, especially when you were prescribed a medication 5-10 years ago or longer, continued use should be based on continued need.
Lastly, it is a modality that requires actual work, like most things worth doing. It requires personal investment and honesty with yourself and discipline in doing the breathing exercises correctly. It’s not fashionable or trendy but it is healthier and more efficient. It is a lifestyle change, not a ‘quick fix’ that so many desire.
Much of what we are learning about healthy habits and lifestyles is simply connecting us back with how our ancient ancestors used to live.
Although Western science and civilization brought miraculous changes to many aspects of life, it led us to be arrogant and believe that there is nothing to learn from cultures less scientifically advanced than we were. A lot of what current research shows about living a healthy lifestyle, points to practices that were common among our ancestors.
We used our progress of science and all the things we could do with science as the yardstick of progress of other cultures and our ancient ancestors but as a result we have lost knowledge that has always existed.
As it turns out we can learn from our ancestors.
And this isn’t just limited to our breathing. Just look at our sleeping habits. When we adjust our sleeping habits to more closely resemble hunter gathers (no blue light screens, sleeping in darkness, etc) we sleep better.
Of course not everything our ancestors did was good for them and neither is everything ‘natural’ automatically better. We need to be aware of the naturalistic fallacy. But there are many assumptions that we have made for a very long time and never challenged.
Nasal breathing is not a cure all, it is just another lifestyle change/habit to incorporate into a healthy lifestyle or on your way to one.
Despite modern advances in medicine and lifestyle, we are getting sicker and sicker. Each year more people are getting non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, more people are getting obese, diabetes, high blood pressure, and depression continue to soar.
The more we progress technologically and the different lifestyles that come along lead us to living further and further from how we evolved to breathe.
Two authors in particular changed my understand of breathing – Patrick McKeown, author of Breath, and James Nestor, author of The Oxygen Advantage.
They both share that, through their respective research, that we are healthiest when breathing through our noses, and can track these in various ways in both the short term and long term.
Both books will challenge your understanding about breathing. Both books also include practical breathing habits and exercises you can implement into your life.
While I remain skeptical of some claims in the books, both have fundamentally changed and challenged my understanding of breathing.
I cannot recommend these two books highly enough, I hope that their research and work gets the attention that it deserves.
Comment below and let me know if you’ve read either of these books.
James Nestor’s official site
Patrick McKeown’s official site
Mark Bell’s Power Project EP. 470 – James Nestor
Breathwork Deep Dive: Breath Holds & CO2 Tolerance Training w/ Patrick McKeown
Change Your Breath, Change Your Life – James Nestor | Modern Wisdom Podcast 350