Mouth breathing is an all too common habit, and one that can be broken through yogic breathing techniques called pranayama. In today’s post, I am going to talk about how mouth breathing can become habitual, the problems brought on my this bad habit and some ideas on how to correct mouth breathing.
The mouth-breathing habit
Mouth breathing is always an acquired habit as newborns are anatomically unable to breathe through their mouths. This is why many a parent of a newborn with a stuffy noses sweats in fear as the baby struggles to breathe.
As the muscles of the neck and throat develop, though, the baby becomes able to breathe through the mouth. If the child suffers from repeated bouts of sinusitis, catarrh or rhinitis, mouth breathing may becoming habitual. The child may become so accustomed to mouth breathing the shape of the mouth and teeth is permanently altered.
If a person gets through childhood without developing a mouth breathing habit, they may still fall prey in adulthood. Many high-intensity sports, like aerobics, running, spinning, tennis etc. can exert the cardiovascular system and make some mouth-breathing necessary. However, external stressors like a very competitive attitude, pushing far past the pain barrier or a lack of awareness while exercising (the body is moving, but the brain is chewing over past or future events) can transform an otherwise healthy activity into a less healthy one.
So, why is mouth-breathing so bad?
The lungs work best with clean, moist, warm air. They are made of an extremely fine tissue and produce mucus to protect themselves. In fact, the whole respiratory system has a mucus lining. What do the lungs, bronchii and throat need protecting from? Bacteria. Dust and particulate matter. Dry air. Aerosols. Smoke. Anything that can get into the breathing apparatus should be stopped before it gets to the lungs.
When we breathe through the nose, the cavernous area behind the visible nose, called the nasal turbinate, warms, moistens and cleans the air before it enters into the lungs. When we breathe through the mouth, this happens to a far lesser extent, stressing the lungs.
Then, there is the adenoid tonsil. This is a lump of lymphatic tissue that is a first defence against invaders. If you breathe through the nose, the air passes over the adenoid tonsil. If any invaders are detected, the early-warning team of the immune system, the helper T-cells, kicks into action. Keep in mind a cute and simple fact about immunity: an early response keeps infection contained because the invader has less time to reproduce, so the extent of infection is lower. That’s why you need a strong, quick immune response. Bacteria and viruses reproduce very, very quickly. You don’t want to give them even a few hours in the body without immune response!
Helper T cells are arguably the most important cells in adaptive immunity, as they are required for almost all adaptive immune responses. They not only help activate B cells to secrete antibodies and macrophages to destroy ingested microbes, but they also help activate cytotoxic T cells to kill infected target cells. As dramatically demonstrated in AIDS patients, without helper T cells we cannot defend ourselves even against many microbes that are normally harmless. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK26827/)
The nasal turbinate also slows down the entry of air into the respiratory system because the air has to circulate a little bit in there. In slowing down the passage of air, the turbinate performs another very important function: it warms and moistens the air. How does this happen: The air comes into contact with the mucus membrane of the turbinate and the blood in the capillaries which is at body temperature, transfers some heat to the air. The mucus transfers a little bit of water, and ta-dah! cold and dry air becomes warm and moist air, just right for your lovely alveoli.
So, to resume: the lungs want warm, moist, clean air. The nose is the structure that can deliver air in the right conditions to the lungs. Anything else is second-rate.
How to correct mouth-breathing.
As with anything, becoming aware is the first step. Watch yourself and see when and if you breathe through the mouth. What are you doing when it happens? Do you breathe through the mouth at night? Does that Netflix series you like so much keep you on the edge of your seat and alter your breath? Just keep an eye.
When you figure out the triggers, you can put the brakes on when you need to.
If you find it generally hard to breathe through the nose and are prone to a stuffy nose, maybe you can use some neti nasal irrigation, or saline cleansing.
If physical exertion makes you mouth breathe, or pant, maybe you need to tone down the pace so that you can breathe steadily and correctly? I know that is hard in a group class, or when we want to reach goals. But doesn’t it make sense to not harm yourself while exercising?
Finally, if it is emotional stuff that makes your mouth breathe, try to keep your cool. Most of us seek out stimulating stuff like video games, television series and movies. When the adrenaline gets moving, the heart rate increases and we are more likely to breathe through the mouth. This is a totally unintentional and avoidable side-effect of a very normal activity. Becoming aware of this can help you stop it happening.
Mouth breathing and sex.
There is one area where mouth breathing seems almost unavoidable: lovemaking. If you are lucky enough to have a beloved to cuddle and canoodle with, right now, I’d say go for it, mouth breathing be damned! ha! I mean, if your lover makes you pant, it is probably a good thing, right? hah! Still, correct breathing will make it even better: if you want to learn about tantra, or multiple orgasms for men, you will have to work on your breathing technique. Having said all that, the good folks over at Conscious Breathing have published a very complete article about the links between good, nasal breathing and sexuality.
Since this is a yoga blog, I will resume by saying that the practice of hatha yoga, and pranayama will help you to breathe nasally and makes all the above easier, more pleasant and more natural.
So, come on down to class, get on your mat, breathe deeply, feel peace and joy within, and shine your little light, dear people. The guru is within you.