The Benefits of Nasal Breathing

Do you struggle with neck or shoulder pain, headaches, poor sleep, snoring, rib pain, shortness of breath during exercise, pelvic floor dysfunctions, or persistent dental issues and bad breath? The issue may be simpler than you think.  Each of these conditions can be caused or worsened by poor breathing patterns, i.e. taking short, shallow breaths through your mouth instead of breathing through your nose. One of the quickest and easiest ways to improve overall health is to adopt more efficient breathing patterns!

Basic anatomy.

Developmentally, the mouth is connected to the digestive system, while the nose is connected to the respiratory system.  Food enters the mouth and passes through the back of the throat, down the esophagus, and into the stomach. Air enters the nose, passes through the pharynx, down the trachea, and into the lungs via a series of tubes called bronchi.  These passageways are distinct in the ways they prepare food and air for use in the body. An anatomical structure called the epiglottis, which acts like a folding door, ensures that food does not pass down the trachea, and that air does not pass down the esophagus.  For normal health, it is important we keep these two pathways separate. You would never consider eating through your nose, so why do so many people breathe through their mouths? Unless we are performing intense exercise, our mouths should be shut and we should be breathing through the nose.  There are numerous health benefits associated with nasal breathing, as well as numerous health issues caused by mouth breathing.

The benefits of nasal breathing.

Breathing through the nose prepares the air for use in the body in three ways.  First, the bony passageways and mucus lining of the inside of the nose act like a natural air filter, cleaning the air before it reaches your lungs.  This function is extremely important if you live in a city or are exposed to inhalants in your line of work. Secondly, the air is humidified as it passes through the inside of the nose, moistening the air, allowing better absorption of oxygen at the lungs.  Third, the air is warmed as it passes through the nose, further allowing a smooth diffusion of oxygen into the lungs. None of these vital preparatory functions occur when breathing through the mouth.

Nasal breathing forces you to use your diaphragm, the body’s main muscle of respiration.  The diaphragm is also an important postural and core stabilization muscle. When you breathe through your nose using your diaphragm, the belly should expand on the inhale and come back to a neutral position on the exhale. I never let my patients suck in their stomachs!  Sucking in your stomach drastically decreases the stability of your core and causes a shortening and tightening of the muscles in the abdomen. We want the muscles in the abdomen to be relaxed when we are at rest, gradually expanding on the inhale and returning to neutral on the exhale.  If you want a perfect example, watch a baby breathe while they are sleeping!

Diaphragmatic breathing is beneficial for patients with conditions related to pelvic floor dysfunction (reproductive organ prolapse, incontinence, sexual dysfunction, etc.).  All of these conditions are characterized by weakness in the muscles lining the pelvic floor which are important for stabilizing the organs in the area. When we inhale and the diaphragm contracts downwards, pressure is directed against the pelvic floor muscles, which lay in parallel alignment with the diaphragm.  The pelvic floor muscles are activated in response to the increased pressure exerted against them during breathing. The pelvic floor muscles are difficult for many to isolate, and learning to breathe into these areas is the first step in recovering muscular function.

Another interesting benefit to nasal breathing is the increased nitric oxide (NO) production associated with nasal breathing.  Nitric oxide is important for the health of your blood vessels and heart. Nitric oxide ‘vasodilates’ or expands your blood vessels, ensuring blood can flow easily to all parts of the body.  A reservoir of nitric oxide producing cells is located at the back of the nose, so make sure to breathe all the way into the back of the nose. Actively flaring the nostrils when practicing breathing will help the air reach the furthest reaches at the back of the nose.

Issues with mouth breathing.

Hypertonicity and tightness seen in the upper trapezius and sternocleidomastoid muscles. Both are classified as ‘accessory muscles of respiration’ and should not be recruited at rest.

The main issue with mouth breathing is the muscle recruitment patterns that develop.  When people breathe through their mouths, it’s very hard for the body to use the diaphragm for breathing.  Instead, the body recruits other muscles to help with breathing which we call ‘accessory muscles of respiration.’  These muscles are located in the neck and top of the shoulder, and normally kick on only when the body is performing intense bouts of exercise.  However, with chronic mouth breathing, these muscles kick on even while we are at rest. When the muscles in the neck and top of the shoulder are used for respiration all throughout the day, they become short, tight, and overused.  Strained muscles in the neck place increased stress on the joints in the neck, causing issues such as headaches and neck pain. Receiving treatment for pain in these areas can be very effective, however if the root cause of the issue is improper mouth breathing habits, the main goal of therapy must be to correct breathing patterns.

Chronic dental issues and bad breath are also related to poor breathing habits.  If we constantly breathe through the mouth, pathogenic bacteria in the mouth are given a ready supply of oxygen to grow and duplicate.  Additionally, these bacteria thrive off of a dry environment, and the mouth becomes very dry with chronic mouth breathing. When the mouth stays closed, saliva is able to flush out the oral disease causing bacteria from the mouth and into the digestive tract where they can be expelled.  Amazingly, many indigenous tribes, who breathe primarily through their noses and speak less frequently, have very low levels of dental issues.

Rib pain is another common condition caused by a mouth and chest dominant breathing pattern.  If we breathe through our chest during the day even when at rest, the ribs are placed under constant stress.  You’ll notice minimal rib movement when you breathe strictly in the belly using your diaphragm. Patients that constantly need to see the chiropractor to have their ribs adjusted can benefit greatly from switching to a diaphragm driven belly breath.

Decrease stress with nasal breathing.

Yoga, meditation, tai chi, and qi gong are excellent practices that promote proper nasal breathing.

Breathing slowly and deeply through the nose activates a state of relaxation in the body.  The hormonal state related to relaxation is governed by the parasympathetic, ‘rest and digest’ system.  Unless we are hunting, competing in athletics, or performing manual labor, the body should be in a state of parasympathetic relaxation.  Focusing on slow, deep, nasal breaths is an excellent way to make sure we are in a state of relaxation when we should be. To ensure full recovery between exercise sessions or competitions, it’s vitally important the body is in the ‘rest and digest’ hormonal state.  Since nasal breathing is our best way to induce the ‘rest and digest’ system, nasal breathing is an excellent tool for athletic recovery!

Where do I start?

Lay on your back with your legs elevated and supported with the hips, knees, and ankles all at 90 degrees.  Place one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly. Take a large inhale breath, then exhale forcefully like you are trying to blow a candle out on the ceiling.  As you exhale, think about sending your ribs downwards and into the table. Taking the ribs out of a flared position and downwards toward the table will put the diaphragm in the optimal position to be recruited for breathing.  With the ribs in a down position, breathe through your belly. Do your best to only let the hand resting on your belly move, while the hand on your chest stays stationery. Take long, slow breaths through the nose, allowing the belly to rise on the inhale and to return to neutral on the exhale.  Stay relaxed through your abdominal muscles. Focus on breathing into the front and sides of your belly and even into your low back as well.

As stated previously, correcting your breathing patterns is one of the fastest ways to improve overall health.  Follow the steps in this post and you will notice the immense benefits right away. If you’d like to learn more: check out the excellent novel The Oxygen Advantage by Patrick Mckeown.

Post written by Dr. Riley Kulm, DC.  Check out his bio here.

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