People are often told in order to meet their weight loss goals they need to eat clean, work out consistently, and limit the number of calories in versus calories out. Unfortunately, despite working these modifications into their daily lives, they still find their weight loss goals unachieved. I’ve worked with numerous frustrated patients who work out strenuously 5 to 6 times per week, yet are not seeing the results they would like. The overlooked missing piece to weight loss is hormonal imbalances. These imbalances may be preventing you from reaching your weight loss goals.   

The two hormones I will focus on for weight loss are cortisol and melatonin. Please note, hormones such as grehlin and leptin (hunger and satiety), testosterone and estrogen (male and female sex hormones), and insulin and glucagon (energy storage and utilization hormones), are all intimately involved in weight loss, but cortisol and melatonin are a simple and effective place to start.  

Cortisol often gets a bad rep as our body’s ‘stress hormone’. Cortisol is a primary hormone involved in the body’s stress response, however, cortisol is more appropriately defined as our ‘awake’ hormone. Cortisol is released in the morning and helps us get out of bed, use the bathroom, and provide us with the stimulation to start our day. In a normal functioning endocrine system, cortisol release is high in the morning and then tapers off in the afternoon to allow our sleep hormone, melatonin, the chance to take over.   

Melatonin is our ‘sleep’ or ‘darkness’ hormone and it’s release is inhibited with exposure to light. Melatonin helps us wind down in the evening and prepare the mind and body for sleep. Melatonin and cortisol work in opposition to each other. Having one with high levels means the other is not fully expressed. With this in mind, if cortisol levels are abnormally elevated in the afternoon and evening, the normal release of melatonin around lunch time is inhibited, therefore impairing our ability to fall asleep. The entire system is regulated by our circadian rhythm which responds directly to light exposure on the eyeballs. Bright light in the morning stimulates cortisol release, the dimming of light in the evening stimulates melatonin release.  

Cortisol becomes a stress hormone when levels remain elevated in the afternoon and early evening.  When cortisol release is improperly timed and is still high in the afternoon, we feel anxious and crave sugary, fried, and fatty foods. If our ‘awake’ hormone is elevated in the evening when we are trying to prepare for sleep, we will feel uneasy and distressed. The combination of excess calories from sugary, fried, fatty foods and poor sleep due to excess cortisol and deficient melatonin is what leads to weight gain and the inability to lose weight. Even if you eat a clean diet excess cortisol in the evening will create a stress response causing systemic inflammation. Systemic inflammation and insulin resistance each make weight loss more difficult to achieve and maintain.  

The best way to normalize your cortisol/melatonin system is with direct sunlight exposure within 30 minutes of waking. Dr. Andrew Huberman, neurobiologist from Stanford, was recently interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show Podcast where he suggests everyone get 2-10 minutes of direct sunlight exposure on their eyes first thing in the morning.  By stimulating photoreceptors in the eyes, cortisol release is amplified.  Going outside for an additional 2-10 minutes in the evening, when the sun is at a low angle, will help to stimulate melatonin and prepare us for sleep. Start your weight loss journey by normalizing your circadian rhythm using direct sunlight exposure in the morning and again in the evening.  

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

Sleep is the most important cornerstone for optimal health. Without the foundation of a healthy night of sleep, all other health interventions, such as nutrition and exercise, will fall short. Our memory, cognition, and ability to learn new tasks all depend on healthy sleep. ‘Sleep hygiene’ refers to the quality and quantity of sleep you are getting each night. I recommend my patients get 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, depending on activity level, as well as season. During the winter months, you should opt for close to 9 hours of sleep. During the summer months, 7 hours of sleep may be adequate since days are longer and the nights are shorter. Additionally, more sleep is needed the more active you are as it is important to allow your body adequate time to recover after difficult workouts. When helping patients improve their sleep hygiene, there are three interventions I use most frequently, outlined below. 

 

First morning sunshine

Going outside first thing in the morning with as much skin exposed as possible stimulates the body’s release of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is known as our ‘awake hormone’ and gives us the energy to start our day. Cortisol naturally starts to decline around lunch time, and by the evening levels should be low as it starts to get dark and we prepare for sleep. Cortisol becomes problematic when levels remain high in the afternoon. When cortisol levels remain elevated, it becomes a stress hormone and causes us to crave sugary and fatty foods. Additionally, high levels of our ‘awake hormone’ in the evening work against us falling and staying asleep. The best way to ensure cortisol levels are low in the evening is to secrete as much as possible in the morning. Sunshine stimulates cortisol secretion, meaning it is optimal to get plenty of sunshine in the first half of the day.

Turn off electronics at least 90 minutes before bed

Blue light exposure tricks your brain into thinking it is still light outside, decreasing the release of your sleep hormone, melatonin. I recommend turning off all electronics 90 minutes before bedtime. Not only does blue light manipulate our brain into thinking it’s light outside, but often the things we are looking at on our screens, such as social media feeds or work emails, stimulate our brain in a way making sleep difficult. Scrolling through your social media feed causes a release of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, which plays a role in the brain’s reward system. When dopamine is released, the brain is stimulated and there are feelings of pleasure. While satisfying at the moment, excessive release of dopamine prior to sleeping will make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Therefore, put those phones away before bed time!

Read fiction before bed

Reading before bed is one of the best ways to prepare our brains for sleep. Giving the brain a singular point of focus, such as a captivating fictional story, will allow you to stop thinking about the stresses of work and life and prepare your brain for sleep. With this in mind, reading materials related to work or checking emails will continue to stimulate our minds and keep us thinking about the day. Consequently, I recommend reading fiction. It is a better way to take your mind away from the pressures of the day. If you are a fan of historical fiction like myself, check out Ken Follet’s new novel, Pillars of the Earth.

 

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

Goal setting has been touted as the most effective way to achieve success in life.  We’ve been told to write them down, stick them to our refrigerator door and even to write them on our bathroom mirror.  You’ve heard that goals should be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time oriented.  I even wrote a blog post on effective goal setting.  Recently, I’ve moved away from goal setting with both myself and my patients, focusing instead on daily habit formation and the implementation of routines that set you up for success now and in the future.  The inspiration for this change came after listening to the Atomic Habits audiobook by James Clear.  Clear argues that goals are easily procrastinated upon, and can often be too daunting to even get started in the right direction.  By focusing on daily habits and routines, you will improve yourself each day, setting yourself up to achieve success and ultimately to conquer even the loftiest of goals. 

The problem with goal setting

One of the main problems I see with goal setting is that time oriented goals are susceptible to procrastination.  If my goal is to lose 20 lbs. by the end of the year, it’s very easy to let myself wait until 6 or even 3 months are left in the year to start working towards the goal.  Why start now when I have an entire year to accomplish my goal?  A goal that is set out over a year may lose steam after a couple of months, which is what I commonly see with patients looking to make health changes at the beginning of the New Year.  Everyone knows that you will see more people out walking in your neighborhood or exercising at the gym in January, February and March only for it to taper off as the year progresses.  Rather than setting a time oriented goal, instead pick daily habits that will incrementally help you achieve whatever you envision for yourself.

Define your ideal self

Before completely throwing away your list of goals, make sure you have a clear idea in your mind of what you want for yourself.  Envision your ideal job, body composition, and skill set.  Where do you see yourself in 5 or 10 years?  Where do you want to be financially?  How do you define your ideal self?  Once you’ve established these parameters, you are better suited to implementing daily habits that align with this vision.  If you envision yourself as having a fit and healthy body, implementing a daily habit that helps you save money or be more organized doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to your vision.  Instead, for weight loss, pick habits such as a consistent gym routine, a healthy breakfast at the same time each morning, or reading a book before bed to help promote optimal sleep and recovery.  

Do this instead

As stated previously, the alternative to goal setting is the implementation of daily habits and routines.  Habit formation is beneficial because it focuses on daily growth.  If we aim to grow and improve ourselves little by little each day, the culmination of consistent work will be incredible in the long term.  We may not notice the improvements on a day to day, micro level, however, if we step back after a year and look at the macro improvement the results are substantial.  True growth and change does not come with drastic lifestyle changes such as an extreme 10 day fast or juice cleanse but rather with small steps each day in the right direction.  

 

Next, I show you how to reframe your goals into daily habit formation.

Goal #1: ‘I want to lose 20 lbs. before summer’

Habit: I will work to implement a habit where I do 3 sets x 15 push-ups in the morning followed by drinking a 16 ounce glass of water.  

Habit: Weather permitting, I will go outside in the morning for a 10 minute walk in the sunshine before work.

(First morning exercise and sunshine stimulates cortisol release and helps to regulate our circadian rhythm.  Sufficient cortisol release in the AM will decrease cravings for fried and sugary foods in the evening which occurs if cortisol levels remain high.)

Habit: I will place a pan, plate, and eating utensils out in my kitchen before I go to bed each night.  Already having the pan on the stove increases the likelihood that I will cook a homemade breakfast and adopt a more consistent eating schedule that includes breakfast each day.

 

Goal #2: ‘I want to increase my sales at work by 15% this year’

Habit: I will wake up at the same time every day to ensure a consistent sleep schedule and to increase my productivity at work. 

Habit: I will call 2 potential new clients each day prior to leaving for lunch.

Habit: I will send a thank you card to 2 existing clients each week thanking them for their business.  

For work related goals, consider setting up a daily, weekly, and monthly checklist in a binder or whiteboard to track progress of tasks to be completed.  Make these tasks part of your habits at work and you will see your productivity increase.

 

Goal #3: ‘I want to improve my relationship with my parents’ 

Habit: Each morning I will practice gratitude by writing down 3 things in my life that I am grateful as part of a journaling routine. 

Habit: I will call one of my parents every Friday after work to check in.

 

Goal #4: ‘I want to be more organized’

Habit: Each morning I will make my bed as the first task to be completed in my day.  Making your bed each morning sets yourself up for success throughout the rest of your day and helps you to establish a task completion mindset.

Habit: Each morning when my coffee is brewing I will take 5 minutes to tidy up my living room so I leave for work with an organized living space. 

 

Goal #5: ‘I want to get better sleep this year’

Habit: I will develop a habit where I turn off all electronics at least 1 hour before bed time.  Blue light exposure stimulates cortisol release at the wrong time of day and will make falling and staying asleep more difficult. 

Habit: Prior to going to bed I will write out tomorrow’s ‘To Do’ list in a journal that I keep by my night stand.  Getting tomorrow’s tasks written down will give you peace of mind and allow your brain to turn off before going to sleep.

Habit: I will read for 20 minutes before bed.  Reading, especially fiction, gives your brain a singular point of focus, and helps you get your mind off of the day’s stresses.  

 

I hope this article gives you valuable insight into daily habit formation and the power it can have.  I finish with a quote from W.H. Auden – ‘Routine, in an intelligent man (or woman), is a sign of ambition.’

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

Core Exercises – Do’s and Don’ts 

Many patients understand they need to strengthen their core in order to live functional and pain free lives. However, most do not know where to start. The popular opinion is exercises such as sit-ups, crunches, bicycle crunches, and Russian twists are the primary exercises to improve core strength. Unfortunately, these commonly performed exercises are not the best choice when looking to add strength and functionality to your core. 

The Problem with Sit-ups and Crunches

Sit-ups and crunches are perhaps the most regularly performed core exercises. These exercises are effective at increasing the tone of the six-pack or rectus abdominis muscle group.  While great for aesthetics, a tight and toned six-pack is not essential for a functional core and may even be detrimental. The issue with sit-ups and crunches are the forces placed on the spine during these exercises. Both involve repetitive flexion of the lumbar spine and most of modern society already gets too much ‘lumbar flexion.’  Lumbar flexion means rounding forward of the low back. The low back is in flexion when we are sitting in our car, at work, or on the toilet. The low back is flexed when we pick items up from the floor with improper form. The net result of so much lumbar flexion is placing undue stress on the discs, muscles, ligaments, and nerves of the low back. Sit-ups and crunches involve repetitive flexion of the low back and thus add fuel to the ‘flexion fire’ we get all throughout the day. 

The Problem with Rotational Core Exercises and Stretching 

The Russian twist and bicycle crunches are other commonly performed core exercises that are not ideal for the function of the core or spine. The Russian twist is performed by balancing on your pelvis with legs suspended in the air and knees bent while the upper body is held at roughly a 45 degree angle. Next, the athlete uses their hands or a medicine ball to twist back and forth in an attempt to work the abdominal obliques. Bicycle crunches are similar except the individual is on their back and the rotational crunch is combined with a straightening of the opposite leg and hip. The first problem with the Russian twist is it is extremely difficult to keep the spine in a neutral position and many individuals round their backs due to a lack of core strength and balance. Once again, many people are developing a detrimental position of lumbar flexion during this exercise.  

Another issue with the Russian twist and bicycle crunch is the forced rotational load it places on the spine. Functional movement specialists now agree the main purpose of the core is to resist forces placed against the spine rather than actually creating movement.  The lumbar spine only rotates 2-3 degrees per segment and thus requires more stability in the rotational (transverse) plane compared to mobility. I’ll explain exercises such as the Pallof Press and Cross Press in a future blog post, as both are excellent exercises for improving core stability in the rotational plane.

Basics of Effectively Performing a Core Exercise

Before we get into the specific exercises I teach my patients, I’ll explain why form is important for any core exercise you perform. First, the spine needs to be in a neutral position. A neutral spine may look different for each person, but the spine should be straight and may have a slight extension curvature. Extension is the opposite of a flexed and rounded position of the spine. The two variables that affect proper neutral spine positioning are your rib positioning and your pelvic posture. Many patients have what is called ‘flared ribs’. This means your ribs are protruding upwards and forwards and may even be visible. When the ribs are in this position the diaphragm muscle cannot function properly and core strength will suffer. Use an exhale breath to push your ribs downwards towards the floor to place them in a more ideal position. 

Secondly, you need to be aware of the position of your pelvis. Think about your pelvis as a fish bowl filled with water. If you have what we call an ‘anterior pelvic tilt’ your pelvis is dumped forward and water will be spilling out of the metaphorical fish bowl. Less commonly, patients may adopt a ‘posterior pelvic tilt’ where the water will be spilling backwards.  Both of these pelvic postures are detrimental to neutral spine positioning, as well as core strength. Always think about keeping your pelvis tucked under you so water cannot spill out of the fish bowl. By making sure your ribs and pelvis work together to maintain a neutral spine, you will safely perform core exercises.

Practice these Core Exercises:

3 Position Plank

The 3 position plank is a sequential exercise involving a front plank, right side plank, and left side plank. Each position is held for 10 seconds before switching positions.  Do your best to avoid dropping to the ground when switching positions. Switching positions every 10 seconds forces the brain and nervous system to react to a new stability pattern frequently and is thus more typical of how we move in life and sports. Additionally, by switching positions every 10 seconds we better guarantee perfectly executed reps. 

Dead Bug

The dead bug is another excellent option for building your core strength. Lay on your back with your hips, legs, and arms raised.  Simply holding this position is a difficult exercise in itself and is an effective way to exercise your core. Make the movement more dynamic by reaching one arm over your head and slowly lowering the opposite heel towards the ground.  Alternate sides, and perform in succession while making sure to keep your ribs down, low back glued to the ground, and head supported and slightly elevated to protect your neck. 

Bird Dog

The bird dog exercise teaches you to move your extremities while maintaining a neutral spine. The exercise does an excellent job of mimicking real athletic activities you will face in daily life. Get in a tabletop position with your hands stacked under your shoulders and your knees stacked under your hips. Your chin should be tucked and the back of your neck long with no creasing of the skin. Slowly move one of your arms forward while simultaneously extending the opposite leg backwards. The back leg only needs to be about 2 inches off of the ground to avoid hyper-extending your low back. Hold the completely extended position for a count of 2 and then return to neutral. Alternate sides while keeping a neutral spine and make sure to not let your pelvis rotate and shift excessively. Imagine there is a glass of water resting on the base of your low back and you do not want to let it spill! 

My goal with this blog post is to provide you with safe and effective exercises for improving the strength and function of your core. Enjoy!  

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

Over the past weekend, Dr. Ryan and I had the pleasure of attending the annual Colorado Chiropractic Association (CCA) convention.  Speakers from all around the country discussed the benefits of receiving chiropractic, specifically the hormonal benefits of receiving regular chiropractic adjustments. Chiropractic adjustments have a beneficial effect on your endocrine (hormonal) system, resulting in far reaching health benefits you may not previously have associated with the chiropractic adjustment. 

The topics covered in this blog post are inspired by two lectures given at the 2019 Colorado Chiropractic Association (CCA) convention. The first is a lecture given by Dr. John Minardi, DC on 10/26/2019 and was titled ‘The Power of Chiropractic.’  The second is a lecture given by Dr. Monique Andrews, MS, DC, DNM on 10/25/2019 and was titled ‘A Potential Role for Chiropractic in the Neurobiology of Autism.’

How chiropractic adjustments affect your brain.

First, it’s important to explain that the chiropractic adjustment does not only affect the joints of the spine and extremities, but also the brain.  When a joint is adjusted, special nerve receptors embedded in the joint capsule called mechanoreceptors are activated and fire signals to the brain.  These signals are received and integrated by the brain, and the brain’s activity is noticeably changed in response to the sensory input from the adjustment.  Studies have shown increased glucose uptake (a marker for metabolic brain tissue activity) in the frontal lobe of the brain following an adjustment (Inima et al, 2017).  The frontal lobe of the brain is responsible for executive functions such as decision making, personality and emotional expression, problem solving, and also controls our ability to communicate and connect with others.  This may explain why chiropractic is an excellent, yet underutilized, adjunct therapy for children dealing with autism.  

When an adjustment is performed and mechanics in the spine improve, signals are sent to the brain conveying the new, corrected position and/ or motion of the vertebrae in the spine.  The brain accepts and integrates these signals, producing an output signal that will have far reaching effects in the body. When joints are aligned and moving properly in the spine, the brain produces signals to the body that promote health and decrease inflammation.  When joints are not aligned and are not moving properly, the brain produces signals that decrease health and increase inflammation.

How the brain functions after an adjustment.

Now that we know adjustments affect the brain, let’s talk about the positive changes that occur in the brain after an adjustment.  The hypothalamus is a small region located at the base of the brain near the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus is important for the regulation of body temperature and other homeostatic systems such as hunger, thirst, sleep, and circadian rhythm.  The most important role of the hypothalamus is the linkage of the neurologic system to the hormonal or ‘endocrine’ system via the pituitary gland. The hypothalamus receives sensory information from the body, and produces ‘neurohormones’ that activate or inhibit the release of hormones from the pituitary gland.  When we adjust the spine we improve the quality of sensory information that is sent to the hypothalamus. Here is where the magic happens. As I previously described, when you are adjusted, small nerve endings in the joints called mechanoreceptors are activated and send signals to the brain. These signals provide your brain with valuable information about where the body lies in space, the structure and integrity of your spinal column, and can even block or mask pain signals being sent to the brain by other sensory nerve endings!  Adjustments positively affect the brain and nervous system, improving the quality of sensory information sent to the hypothalamus. The end result is an improvement in the quality of hormonal release that is governed by the hypothalamus.

How the brain functions when things are off-balance.

Spinal malposition and/ or decreased joint range of motion is perceived as a stressor by the brain. The brain sits on top of the spine and thus relies on the spine for its structural stability.  Imagine you were trying to replace a light bulb, but did not have a ladder. You need to get the job done, so you decide to stack boxes on each other for you to climb until you can reach the light bulb.  After stacking the boxes, imagine that one of these boxes is rotated and has slid out of alignment compared to the other boxes. How confident do you feel about climbing the boxes to change the light bulb now?  I’m guessing you’d be a little more nervous and stressed standing at the top of the boxes. In this metaphor, the boxes are your spinal vertebrae and the person standing on top of the boxes is your brain! If the boxes are not in proper alignment, you will perceive standing on top of the boxes as danger and your stress hormones will dominate.  The body acts in the same way. When the brain does not sense healthy alignment of your spine, poor information is sent to the brain and stress hormones are released.   

When the brain is stressed, hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine dominate.  These are the hormones released in the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response and are very useful in situations where the body needs to respond to a threat to survival.  These hormones increase heart rate and breathing, shunt blood to the heart and skeletal muscles and away from the digestive and reproductive organs, dilate the pupils, and cause metabolic changes that increase energy delivery to skeletal muscles.  The problem is that in modern society many individuals are in a chronic state of stress, and thus their ‘fight or flight’ system is always on. Hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine are essential to life, however the constant presence of them in our bloodstream due to a stressed state is highly damaging.  Improper cortisol release timing is one of the main implications for weight gain and an inability to control cravings for sugar and highly processed foods.

Testosterone and Estrogen.

By decreasing the stress response to the brain, adjustments decrease the amount of cortisol released by the adrenal cortex via the pituitary gland.  Inappropriate cortisol release wreaks havoc on the endocrine system. Hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, and serotonin are all measured at lower levels when cortisol is too high.  Testosterone is often singled out as important for male sex drive and energy, and while this is true, research also suggests that men with higher levels of testosterone show more compassion and are more loving to their partners.  When cortisol levels are high, testosterone levels plummet. Estrogen is highly important for bone formation in women and also for achieving and maintaining pregnancy. Cortisol kills off estrogen and progesterone, another important hormone for maintaining pregnancy. 

Dopamine and Serotonin.

Dopamine is our anticipation hormone.  It governs the motivational component of reward-motivated behavior.  Dopamine fuels the anticipation of a future reward. Dopamine is released when we are particularly excited for an upcoming event, i.e. seeing a loved one, going on a long anticipated vacation, etc.  Dopamine is also released when we are particularly anxious for an upcoming event. Proper cortisol and norepinephrine levels are necessary to maintain balance in the dopamine system. When cortisol and norepinephrine are high, due to stress on the brain, dopamine release goes awry and can cause depression, thrill seeking, unhappiness, decreased immune function, excessive worrying and bickering. 

Serotonin is the body’s satisfaction hormone.  It governs happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment in life.  Serotonin is even boosted when in the presence of a particularly friendly or happy person.  Excessive cortisol decreases the amount of serotonin and can contribute to depression and chronic pain syndromes such as fibromyalgia. 

Excessive cortisol and norepinephrine throw the entire endocrine system out of whack.  Cortisol will decrease sex defining hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, dampen the effect of dopamine, our motivation-reward hormone, and serotonin, our happiness hormone.  The good news? Chiropractic adjustments and other forms of manual therapies decrease the amount of cortisol and epinephrine released by the adrenal cortex and medulla via the brain and thus increases the levels of all these highly necessary and beneficial hormones. As a result, many of my patients report improvements in breathing, energy, digestion, and sleep following a chiropractic adjustment.  Even if you are not in pain, regular chiropractic adjustments are highly beneficial for your health and should be received at least once monthly. By getting assessed at least once a month you are ensuring the health of the joints in your spine and extremities, and drastically decrease the risk of future injuries, and the need for costly orthopedic surgeries.

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

Citations: Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2017;2017:4345703. doi: 10.1155/2017/4345703. Epub 2017 Jan 12.

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.

1. Use Magnesium, Not Melatonin

     For a supplement option, utilize magnesium to promote healthier sleep.  Magnesium can act as an inducer of GABA, the major inhibitory neurotransmitter of the body.  GABA helps the body slow down internal processes, especially in the nervous system. By decreasing facilitation of nerves, we help the nerves and the muscles they supply recover, which is extremely important for successful repeat athletic performances.  Magnesium comes in many different forms or ‘chelates’, and research suggests that magnesium threonate is the best inducer of GABA in the body, and will ultimately be the best choice for athletic recovery during sleep. Other supplements supported by the research include chamomile, kava kava, and Valerian root.

However, be careful about the popular sleep supplement, melatonin.  While very effective for some people, it’s important to remember that melatonin is a hormone that is naturally produced by the body.  This means that if you are taking the hormone externally, you run the risk of turning off your body’s natural production of the hormone, so reserve this supplement as a last ditch effort.

2. Avoid Late Night Workouts and Meals

Your late night workout or large meal close to bedtime may be disrupting your sleep.  Working out late at night can increase levels of our ‘awake’ hormone, cortisol, and decrease the body’s natural release of our ‘sleep’ hormone, melatonin.  Additionally, we induce a “fight or flight” sympathetic state when working out, which will make falling asleep more difficult. Shoot to finish your workout before 7pm to ensure that you give your body adequate time to calm down and relax before you go to sleep.  If your schedule absolutely requires that you workout late at night, make sure to utilize effective down regulation strategies after your workout to turn off your sympathetic system and activate your “rest and digest” parasympathetic system. Excellent down regulation strategies include post workout foam rolling, static stretching, and deep breathing exercises.

Choosing to eat dinner late at night may also disrupt your sleep.  Embedded in the lining of the digestive tract is the enteric nervous system, a complex web of neurons that has been called the ‘second brain.’  The enteric nervous system is important for the muscular contractions that move food through the digestive tract, the secretion of digestive enzymes, and communication with the brain via the vagus nerve.  The importance of the connection between the gut and the brain via the vagus nerve cannot be understated, especially when one considers that 90% of the nerve communication moves from the gut to the brain. In regards to healthy sleep, it makes sense that an active digestive system will send stimulatory signals from the digestive tract to the brain, keeping us awake at night.  Keeping this in mind, I like to finish eating at least 90 minutes before bedtime.

3. Foam Rolling for the Nervous System

     Many professional athletes utilize massage therapy as a post-performance or before bed treatment.  Massage has been shown to decrease cortisol levels (which are naturally high after exercise), while increasing serotonin and oxytocin, two hormones associated with relaxation and our parasympathetic ‘rest and digest’ state.  While most of us do not have access to a nightly massage, a 10-minute foam rolling session before bed can have a similar down-regulating effect on the nervous system and promote healthy sleep. Focus on the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, as these areas may be prone to tightness after a full day of exercise or after a long day of sitting at work.

4. Consistency is Key

As with any health and fitness related goal you are looking to achieve in life, consistency and adherence to a predetermined plan is essential.  Make it a point to wake up, as well as go to sleep, within the same 60 to 90 minute time frame every morning and evening, even on the weekends. Do your best to schedule social activities during the day and evening so that you don’t feel like you missed out on anything by not staying up late on the weekends. Sporting events, outdoor activities like skiing and hiking, or a trip to the botanical gardens are excellent ways to have fun on the weekends without sacrificing your sleep schedule.

Want to learn more?  Check out Sleep Smarter by Shawn Stevenson.  Many of the ideas mentioned above are draw on methods from this book.     

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