By Daryl Austin
Many people misunderstand how our bodies produce energy, says James Nestor, a science journalist and author of “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art.”
“We get most of our energy from our breath, not from food or drink,” he says.
Nestor adds our bodies process about 30 pounds of air every day, compared to only a few pounds of food and water. “There’s a reason why you can survive weeks without food, days without water, and only minutes without air,” he says.
But understanding the importance of breathing is only the beginning. It’s more complicated to learn how to breathe properly. Experts agree there are benefits to proper breathing, which is achieved with slower breathing – less inhales and exhales per minute – and keeping your mouth closed: meaning breathing entirely through your nose.
Many ancient cultures breathed exclusively through their noses and understood breathing as a medicine in ways that westerners have forgotten, Nestor says. “5,000-year-old yoga practices were not about downward dogs or warrior poses,” he says. “Yoga was first and foremost a technology of breathing.”
Why you should breathe entirely through your nose
One of the advantages of breathing this way is that nose hairs and mucus membranes act as a filter against dust, mold and bacteria.
“Nose breathing also harnesses nasal nitric oxide,” says Patrick McKeown, an advisor of the International Academy of Breathing & Health and author of “The Breathing Cure: Develop New Habits for a Healthier, Happier, and Longer Life.”
McKeown explains that nitric oxide is produced in the sinuses and is known to be antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-pathogenic and antiviral. “The nose is a first line of immune defense,” he says.
Dr. George Dallam, a former USA triathlon national team coach and a professor of exercise science at Colorado State University, Pueblo, has a similar take: “It is clear that simply breathing orally can introduce health problems because the air is not filtered, humidified or warmed to body temperature before it hits the bronchi and lungs when we breathe through our mouths,” he says.
Another benefit of nose breathing is that it helps regulate the amount of air going into your lungs so your body isn’t expelling more energy than is necessary when breathing.
“The nose is the HVAC of our respiratory system,” says Dr. Ann Kearney, who works in the Otolaryngology Department at Stanford University. “We breathe through our nose at a slower rate, and its moisture and temperature control make for a better and more efficient system.”
Nestor says, “there’s no resistance when you’re only breathing through your mouth,” and as a result, most of us breathe too often.
Practice breathing for about five seconds per inhale and five seconds per exhale for several minutes a day, he suggests. Doing so, along with breathing entirely through the nose, “allows your body to get the maximum amount of oxygen for the least amount of effort.”
Similarly, nose breathing has also been shown to improve athletic performance. Dallam co-authored a study that shows nose-breathing athletes were more efficient than mouth breathers and were able to do more on the playing field with less effort.
“Once you have adapted to it, nasal breathing reduces needed ventilation by about 25% during heavy exercise,” Dallam says. “This means you only need to breathe 75% as much in comparison to oral breathing.”
Closing your mouth and breathing through your nose can improve sleep, too.
“Nasal breathing has a profound effect on sleep quality, oxygenation, and relaxation,” Nestor says. He keeps his mouth closed when he sleeps at night by placing a small piece of surgical tape (“about the size of a postage stamp”) across his lips directly under his nose – a technique he was taught by multiple pulmonologists, rhinologists and ear, nose and throat doctors while researching his book.
Kearney “swears by” mouth-taping as well and explains keeping the mouth closed at night is important because the tip of your tongue should be up and behind your front teeth as it naturally sits when your lips are closed, not falling to the floor of your mouth like it does when your lips are parted. When your tongue falls to the back of your mouth while sleeping, she explains, it creates an obstruction, making some people snore. It and can even limit air flow, causing sleep apnea.
McKeown co-authored a recent study that shows a link between mouth breathing and sleep apnea and insomnia. He says “nose breathing is essential for deep, restorative sleep.” What’s more, he explains that sleeping with an open mouth dries out saliva, “making your mouth a breeding ground for bacteria.” That’s why some people wake up with a dry mouth and bad breath. “Mouth breathing has been linked with halitosis, tooth decay and gum disease,” he says.
In addition to improving sleep, nose breathing can also help your body regulate emotions. “Poorly regulated breathing is associated with anxiety disorders and depression,” Kearney says.
Additional benefits of nose breathing the experts cited include better blood flow throughout the body and higher oxygenation levels on the brain. One study even shows a connection between nose breathing and improved memory function.
Despite such benefits, anyone looking to improve breathing should begin slowly. “Someone with anxiety or asthma or COPD who tries to do advanced breathing techniques is going to have a problem” Nestor cautions. He recommends getting into this “very gently” and to gauge expectations appropriately. “Nasal breathing is not a panacea,” he says, “it will not cure all your problems.”
Kearney has similar advice: “Going from being a mouth breather to a nose breather is a process,” she says. “I strongly recommend working up to awake nose breathing for at least one hour prior to trying to nose breathe at night.”
The good news, Nestor says, is that with a little work and patience, you can improve your breathing using tools you already have. “You have all the technology you need to breathe better: your lips, your lungs and your brain.”
Keywords; breathing, health