Let’s say you’re worried about something at work and haven’t been sleeping well. This emotional event creates a physiologic stimulus that is interpreted as you being under threat. So your body kicks into protect mode and part of protect mode is get as much air IN as possible. Who knows when your next breath is going to come, better get the air now.
- The head has to come forward to maintain an open airway. This pulls the lower jaw back and disrupts swallowing, increases the gag reflex, and even changes the structure of the face.
- You can take in more air thru the mouth but it’s not mixed with nitric oxide (a dilator) so the oxygen isn’t distributed well because the blood vessels stay constricted. So you have to over-breathe (inhale more air than is necessary).
- When you over-breathe your ribs come forward and you extend your back – you’re in protect mode after all, better save your internal organs and tense your muscles for action. Which of course takes more energy and energy comes from oxygen. So you breathe more air in.
- Over-breathing increases sympathetic nervous system activity because as you inhale heart rate goes up reinforcing to the system, along with your tense muscles and poor tissue oxygenation that you are, in fact, stressed out.
- Because you’re stressed out you can’t think clearly – the brain reverts to reactive and well-learned habits when under stress – worsened by the fact that cerebral blood flow can drop by as much as 25% (!) in chronic over-breathers. So you get more stressed and more reactive because you can’t focus. Meanwhile you can’t get air in thru your nose even if you tried because the soft-tissues there are congested because of the low CO2 levels.
- So then you go work out because working out helps you de-stress. But the only workouts you like are the hardcore variety because breathing heavy and creating lots of muscle tension makes you feel good. Why? Because you’re finally getting the stimulating input and lots of air flow that you can’t get while sitting at your desk.
- Now at nite you’re physically exhausted and fall right to sleep. But you keep waking up or tossing/turning and eventually wake up feeling more tired because you’re breathing thru your mouth and your brain is starved for oxygen. So this lack of sleep makes you even less resilient to stress and thus the pattern repeats.
How you breathe matters and while you can certainly survive with mouth-breathing, you will struggle to thrive. Tell someone who is primarily a mouth-breather but has learned how to finally get air in thru his nose, balance his pH, and sleep thru the nite that we need more randomized controlled trials to understand that breathing is important.
Start to break the pattern:
1. Sit with your back supported.
2. Place your tongue to the whole roof of the mouth as if ready to cluck your tongue. Your tongue is the most effective orthodontic appliance you will ever have.
3. Exhale thru your nose and pause (post-exhalatory pause). Hold it here, gently, until you feel slight air hunger. Then slowly breath in thru your nose but not a deep breath. A slow, controlled one that, again, keeps you a little hungry for air.
3. Repeat this for 3-5 minutes then practice holding the post-exhalatory pause for as long as you’re able without freaking out.
4. Repeat Steps 1-3
5. Do this every day and make note of increased ease of breathing your nose.
Practicing this daily will help build tolerance to CO2, reduce nasal congestion, and reduce the compulsion to breathe thru your mouth.
For more on the basics of breathing and how to use breathing strategies to improve your life or those of your clients, check out my popular ‘Just Breathe’ webinar here.