Editor’s intro: Mouth breathing is necessary when exercising, under threat, or during a cold, but nose breathing is the key to a healthier sleep process. Dr. Paul Henny offers some very interesting facts about night breathing and how it can affect your teeth, anxiety, and overall health.
by Paul A. Henny, DDS
We all breathe through our mouth part of the time. This is because mouth-breathing is necessary when we are exercising, working strenuously, under threat, or have a cold or sinus infection. These brief periods of mouth-breathing help us adjust oxygen flow to our body during periods of stress and challenge. This represents a proper use of our upper airway. At all other times however, mouth-breathing represents a dysfunctional use of our upper airway. In other words, when we use our mouth for breathing repeatedly and for extended periods of time, we are using it for a purpose that was never intended. This dysfunctional use of the upper airway causes maladaptive responses which have negative health implications.
For example, many of us are mouth- breathers part of the time, while we sleep. We initially lie down with open nasal passages and breathe comfortably through our noses. However, as the night progresses, nasal tissues swell while throat muscles simultaneously relax. This causes our relatively small airway to become more constricted. Blood oxygen and CO2 levels drop, triggering the brain into a “fight or flight” response through the influence of adrenalin and cortisol release. The adrenalin then awakens us enough to open the airway wider, and we subconsciously switch to mouth-breathing to further increase air volume. Consequently, a chronic and unhealthy sleep pattern is established: Increased Nasal Congestion > Mouth Breathing > More Adrenalin > Awakening = Poor Sleep Quality
Mouth breathing in this fashion is dysfunctional, therefore nose-breathing throughout the night should be the end-goal if at all possible. If this scenario sounds familiar to you, one possible way to transition back into becoming primarily a nose breather at night is through the seemingly odd practice of “mouth-taping.”
Mouth-taping is a way to encourage our body to increase our nasal air volume through more consistent use. The nasal passages are much like our muscle mass: it is a “use it or lose it” system. The more we use our nasal airway, the more it expands, and the more efficient it becomes at moving air (unless it is physically obstructed by polyps, a deviated septum, etc.)
Below are Five Reasons Why Nose- Breathing is Critically Important to Health
- Once transitioned to full nose-breathing, you will immediately realize deeper, more restful, sleep, often with less snoring. When we breathe through our nose effectively and efficiently, our heart rate decreases as the amount of adrenaline in our body declines. (If you have ever woken up in the middle of the night with your heart racing, you know what I am referring to here). A full night of nose-breathing will improve the oxygen level in your blood and reduce the amount of “brain fog” you experience in the morning.
- The nose is intended to warm, filter, and moisturize the air before it hits the throat and lungs. When we breathe through our mouths, the air hitting the back of our throat is cold, dry, and full of environmental contaminants such as allergens. To protect us from this unfiltered, dry air, the nasal passages over-compensate by excreting more mucus down the back of throat (“postnasal drip”). This in turn, causes congestion in the nose, which further impairs our ability to breathe through the nose, which leads to more mouth breathing! This self-perpetuating cycle can last a lifetime if not addressed.
- Mouth-breathing changes the pH of our mouth and the types of bacteria in the altered oral environment. A dry mouth with this different bacterial composition is then much more prone to dental decay, gingivitis, and periodontal disease. Common side effects include chronic bad breath, bleeding gums, frequent cavities, sensitive teeth, and shifting and loosening teeth.
- The brainstem interprets chronic mouth- breathing to be a “fight or flight” situation. In response, other parts of the brain signal to the adrenal glands to secrete more adrenalin to assist with the emergency. This causes us to awaken multiple times during the night and still feel exhausted in the morning. (Sleep apnea – where you actually stop breathing for extended periods of time, can cause this same outcome) By shifting your breathing to nose-only breathing at night, you will discover that you feel less anxious upon waking and on through the morning. Mouth-breathing is a dysfunctional form of “over-breathing.”
- Nitric oxide is a molecule created and released in many parts of the body which influences our strength, endurance, blood pressure, level of arterial inflammation, sleep quality, sexual functions, and memory. Nitric oxide produced and released by cells lining our sinuses and released into the air we breathe through our nose has critical impact on respiration, which controls our blood oxygen levels. Air taken in by mouth breathing contains almost no nitric oxide.
How to Tape Your Mouth to Enhance Nose-Breathing
- Purchase some 3M micropore surgical tape 2″ wide from the drug store or Amazon. This tape is thin, white, paper-based, and semi-transparent. (Some prefer 1″ wide tape)
- Use nasal irrigation with a mild saline solution using sterile water, and blow / clear your nose / use nasal spray if needed. (NeilMed’s Sinus Rinse, Xlear nasal spray, and Breathe Right Nasal strips may be helpful in the beginning)
- Apply a very light amount of edible oil such as olive oil or coconut oil to the area of the lips and skin where the tape will be in contact.
- Tear off 3-4 inches of tape and fold the ends under slightly to create easy “tear off handles,” in case you need to cough or say, “good night.”
- Put your lips together and puff them out a bit to create a little room for comfortable movement while asleep.
- Gently compress the tape horizontally over your lips and onto the surrounding skin.
If the idea of taping your mouth closed makes you anxious, it’s best to start out while awake in the evening before you go to bed. By telling yourself that you can, indeed, breathe just fine through your nose, you assure your subconscious brain that it’s safe. You can also try partial taping of your mouth by using the tape vertically (leaving the corners of your mouth un-taped) for a few nights until you get accustomed to the feel of the tape and your nasal passages have expanded.
Starting with good habits and avoiding mouth breathing starts early. Read “How children breathe sets the stage for life,” by Dr. Daniel S. Bruce and Bethany Bewley here.