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Why nose breathing is (subjectively) a better option over mouth breathing



The ability to breathe is something that many of us take for granted, because it is an autonomic process, and it happens whether we are aware of it or not.

With an estimated 30-50% of adults breathing predominately through their mouth, rather than their nose, we thought we would ask the big questions - how does nose breathing differ from mouth breathing, and does it affect the body?


In this blog we will have a look at the mechanics of breathing and the pros and cons of nose-breathing versus mouth-breathing.


The mechanics of breathing:

When we breathe in, the diaphragm (muscle at the bottom of our ribcage) contracts and moves downwards. The space in the chest cavity expands and the lungs inflate. The intercostal muscles, between the ribs, help to further enlarge the chest cavity by contracting to pull the rib cage both upward and outward during inhalation.

As the lungs expand, air is sucked in through the nose or the mouth. The air travels down the windpipe (trachea) and into the lungs.

After passing through the bronchial tubes, the air travels to the air sacs (alveoli) and through the thin walls into surrounding capillaries (small blood vessels), passing the oxygen from the air, into the blood stream, which is carried inside the red blood cells by a protein called haemoglobin. At the same time, carbon dioxide moves from the blood into the air sacs. The oxygen-rich blood from the lungs is carried to the left side of the heart through the pulmonary veins. The heart pumps the blood to the rest of the body, where oxygen in the red blood cells moves from blood vessels into the cells of the rest of the body. The cells use oxygen to make energy so the body can function.

During this process, the cells also make a waste gas called carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide needs to be breathed out or it can accumulate and damage the cells.

Carbon dioxide moves from the cells into the bloodstream, where it travels to the right side of the heart. The blood rich in carbon dioxide is then pumped from the heart through the pulmonary artery, to the lungs, where it is breathed out.

While this process occurs autonomously of our conscious control, the brain manages the breathing rate, by sensing the bodies need for oxygen and its need to get rid of carbon dioxide.

The nose: The nose regulates airflow and creates resistance for the air to passage to the lungs. This resistance is necessary for maintaining elasticity of the lungs and to ensure proper ventilation.

The air that passes through the nostrils is warmed up and moistened in the nose before it enters the lungs, this process prevents damage to the delicate tissues that form the respiratory system.

The microscopic nose hairs (cilia) and the mucous, trap foreign particles during inhalation and help ‘clean’ the air before it enters the lungs.


The nose facilitates inhalation of nitric oxide, which promotes dilation of blood vessels and supports oxygen transportation throughout the body. It relaxes vascular (blood vessel) smooth muscle, allowing it to dilate.


The nose provides the sense of smell, via a large numbers of nerve cells that detect odours. The sense of smell is a safety mechanism which helps us detect toxic substances such as smoke, toxic gas, or even spoiled food.


Nose breathing at night makes us less likely to snore or to have an interrupted sleep. Snoring is the sound of that soft tissue fluttering in response to airflow, and the nose is a stiff structure, so it doesn't vibrate.


During nasal breathing the tongue rests in the roof of the mouth. The tongue puts outward pressure on the surrounding structures, reducing pressure on the teeth, which promotes straight teeth and wide dental arches.

Slow nose breathing promotes parasympathetic activity (‘rest and digest’) of the nervous system as it stimulates the vagus nerve (the 10th cranial nerve). It helps to relax body and mind, reduce heart rate and promote digestion. If you have ever been to a yoga class you are likely to have experienced the bliss that comes with breath awareness and slow nose breathing.


The mouth: Mouth breathing is necessary for all of us from time to time. When we experience nasal congestion due to allergies or a cold we will naturally start to breathe through the mouth instead.


When we are exercising strenuously, mouth breathing may be advantageous because it helps to provide oxygen to our muscles fast. It also helps to eliminate more carbon dioxide which will stabilise PH levels and reduce body acidity levels.

Mouth breathing can also make strenuous exercise feel easier, as it triggers the fight or flight response, increasing the heart rate, making the body ready for action.


Chronic mouth breathing:

Chronic mouth breathing, however, may have some less favourable outcomes. Particularly when we predominately mouth breathe, we potentially allow dry and unfiltered air to enter the lungs, which triggers allergic reactions and asthma. We are more likely to hyperventilate during mouth breathing. A short breath and a rapid heartbeat can lead to numbness and tingling in hands and feet, anxiety and lightheaded-ness Sometimes mouth breathing can lead to inefficient use of the diaphragm. When the diaphragm is compromised, the muscles in the upper chest, throat and neck must work harder. When the neck and chest muscles get overworked, it can lead to back pain and postural compensation.


The movement of the diaphragm during deep is also an essential component for the sufficient return of lymphatic fluid back to the bloodstream. The movement of the diaphragm, combined with the outward and inward movements of the abdomen, assist in the return of venous blood back to the heart.


When mouth breathing, the tongue moves away from the top of the mouth. As a result, there is more pressure from the cheeks that may contribute teeth crowding, crooked teeth and narrowing of the upper airway, which can result in cracked teeth, jaw strain, temporomandibular joint disorder, chronic head ache and speech difficulties.


The most common reasons for chronic mouth breathing are:

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  • Nasal congestion caused by an allergy, cold or infection

  • Habit

  • Enlarged adenoids or tonsils

  • A deviated septum

  • Polyps or benign growths of tissue in the lining of your nose

  • Enlarged turbinates

  • The shape of the nose or the shape and the size of the jaw

  • Tumors (very rare)

Signs & symptoms of dysfunctional breathing may be:

  • Headaches

  • Hyperventilation

  • Neck pain

  • Anxiety

  • Inability to take inhale deeply

  • Feeling lethargic

  • Unexplained digestion issues

The most common treatments for temporary conditions such as colds, infections and allergies:

  • Antihistamines and nasal decongestants can be prescribed by your GP or bought over the counter at the pharmacy store.

  • Steam therapy

For chronic conditions, like sleep apnoea:

  • Nasal strips applied to the bridge of the nose can also help reduce mouth breathing at night. A flexible adhesive strip goes over the bridge of the nose and adheres to the skin, using its flex strength/resistance to help spread open the nostrils to improve airflow.

  • Adhesive dilators fit inside the nose (or nostrils) and reach up into the narrowest part of the nasal passages. They are helping to push the nasal canals open for optimum airflow.

  • CPAP (pronounced see-pap) therapy is commonly used to treat sleep apnoea. CPAP (Continuous positive air pressure therapy) machines help to keep the airways open and eliminates any pauses in breathing caused by sleep apnoea.

Mouth breathing in early developmental stages:

Treating mouth breathing in children early can reduce or prevent the negative effect on facial and dental development. Particularly, the following treatments may help to correct mouth breathing patterns:


  • Surgical removal of tonsils and adenoids can be used to remove a physical obstruction effecting nose breathing.

  • Braces and other orthodontic treatments can also help to widen the palate and help open the sinuses and nasal passages in children.

Breathing techniques may also assist with addressing chronic mouth breathing. If you are concerned about your or your child's breathing patterns, please see your primary healthcare practitioner for further advice.


Osteopathy and breathing:

According to otolaryngologist, Dr Pat Barelli, the role of the nose in health and in respiration has been greatly neglected by physicians, (Timmons and Ley, 1994, p 47). But osteopaths are well-equipped to assess and assist with poor and dysfunctional breathing patterns.


As mentioned above, breathing plays a role in regulating a number of your body’s systems, including the nervous system, blood/ oxygenation/ waste removal, lymphatic and musculoskeletal.


Therefore, we may assess for, and treat, your breathing patterns if we think it may be playing a role in your pain or discomfort, to ensure that your body is able to function and recover at its best. This may include:

  • Addressing physical restriction and tension in the back, ribcage, neck, jaw and surrounding structures to help resolve musculoskeletal compensations, increase mobility and provide relief from discomfort.

  • Assist with promoting activity of the lymphatic system.

  • Use breathwork to down regulate a heightened nervous system to support the healing process.

  • Prescribing breathing and/or jaw exercises to help retrain (😉), rewire or strengthen an area.


 


Retrain Health is based in the Northern Rivers, NSW. From our Byron Bay and Ballina clinics, our team provides a range of quality healthcare services and products.


Retrain Health offers osteopathy, remedial massage, strength and conditioning, and PT sessions, with qualified practitioners.


If you are interested in finding out more information or would like to book an appointment, please contact the clinic by phone (02) 6680 7447, send us an email or click here to book an appointment online.

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