In the Netflix series, Stranger Things, there’s a scene where a couple of kids are whispering to each other and giggling as they point to another kid and say, “Look, he’s a mouth breather.”
What they are insinuating is that the other kid – the mouth breather – is stupid, dumb – a knuckle dragger. This is also how Hollywood always portrays dumb characters, with their jaws slack and mouths hanging open. And there may be some truth to it.
Unfortunately, too many of us have become mouth breathers.
Some people have no choice because of sinus blockages, a broken nose or some other physical impediment. But for a lot of us, it’s just happened without us even realizing it.
Much of it is due to our sedentary lifestyles where we spend hours hunched over a screen. This posture alone makes it difficult to take full breaths through the nose – so we breathe through our mouths instead.
We look down at our cell phone screens so much; in New York City they have just introduced a law that says you cannot cross a street while texting unless it’s an emergency.
Just looking at our devices so much causes us to stress – sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. And when we’re stressed we breathe through our mouths and take shallow breaths from our chest.
Even while exercising when we need to maximize our oxygen intake, we often default to mouth breathing.
Every day I take my dog on a lot of walks – sometimes we are navigating up some steep hills. I’ve noticed when I’m climbing up the hill, that automatically I’ll start breathing through my mouth. I have to force myself to breathe through my nose. At first, it felt uncomfortable, but as I took deeper breaths through my nose I found I actually became less out of breath and had more energy.
Because breathing through the nose is the most efficient way we can breathe.
It increases our energy levels, prevents disease, helps us think more clearly, be calmer, more relaxed, and it gives us a better posture.
Why Nose Breathing is the Gold Standard
I want to briefly explain how it does this and then share one of my favorite breathing exercises I do before I go to bed every night.
As air comes in through our nose, there are little microscopic hairs called cilia that trap harmful pathogens and other foreign particles from entering our lungs. In addition, nitric oxide (NO) is produced and released in the sinuses which kills deadly bacteria. So its a pretty helpful way to prevent disease.
The NO gas has another important role because it also works as a vasodilator, causing the blood vessels and capillaries in the lungs to expand. We don’t want traffic jams in our circulatory system, we want the blood flowing swiftly and transporting the much-needed oxygen from our lungs to our brain, muscles, and other tissues.
When we breathe through our nose we’re also using our diaphragm, which helps us to take deeper, fuller breaths and forces our lungs to expand fully. This means more oxygen is coming into the lower lungs and flowing into the nitric oxide-expanded blood vessels and capillaries.
Given how much sitting we’re doing, breathing through our noses is a pretty easy way to keep our circulatory system moving and flowing properly. So while you’re working away on your computer, instead of getting sleepy and having difficulty thinking, you’ll get that much-needed oxygen your brain needs to function at its best.
And on that note – your brain uses 20-25% of your total oxygen, don’t starve it! Caffeine may help keep you from falling asleep, but oxygen is what your brain really needs. There’s no sense being awake if you can’t think properly.
So even though we may not be doing much movement on the outside (other than our fingers clicking away) if we’re breathing through our noses, taking full deep breaths, our insides will be moving as efficiently as an Amazon fulfillment warehouse.
This is how our system is meant to work. Take in a lot of oxygen and get it to the proper places. You don’t need to go to an Oxygen Bar and pay money for oxygen. We just need to breathe through our noses.
Another benefit of fully expanding our lungs is that there are a lot of receptors in the lower lungs that engage the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and relax response), which helps us to stay calm and not stressed.
As I mentioned above when we’re stressed we tend to breathe through our mouths and take shallow breaths. The upper lungs contain a lot of stress response receptors – so shallow breaths send a message to your brain that something might be wrong.
Anytime You Need to Dial Back Stress or Fall Asleep, Do this Breath Exercise
One of my favorite breath practices, from Dr. Andrew Weil, is the 4-7-8 breath. It’s so simple that I can describe it to you in one paragraph.
Inhale through your nose for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and then exhale for 8 counts through your mouth – making a kind of whooshing noise as you exhale. So when you breathe out through your mouth just slightly open your mouth – it’s a very controlled slow exhale. For the last few counts, you should be forced to draw your abdomen in to push the last bit of air out.
The reason this works is that when we inhale our hearts beat just a little bit faster, and when we exhale our hearts beat just a little bit slower. So when we increase the exhales relative to the inhales – our hearts will send a signal to the brain saying, “hey we’re all good here, let’s relax.” And by holding the breath, without speeding up the heart rate it gives more time for the lungs to absorb the oxygen in that breath.
I typically do 4 rounds of this breathing exercise every night when I go to bed. It puts my body, brain, and mind into a relaxed state so I fall asleep quickly. And if I wake up in the middle of the night, I do it again.
There are a lot of different breathing exercises we can do to be more relaxed or alert, change our body temperature, or experience altered states of consciousness.
But at the very least we can just breathe through our nose and make sure every breath we take is the best breath for our mind, brain, and body.