Breathing is the most natural thing we do, but many get it wrong. Breathing in the correct way is important for our physical and mental well-being. Breathing through the mouth should only be necessary when you have nasal congestion due to allergies or a cold. Also, when you are exercising strenuously, mouth breathing can help get oxygen to your muscles faster. For the majority of the time, one should try and breathe through our nose, but at least 60 % of adults are said to breathe through their mouths too often.
The nose is designed for nasal breathing
As we breathe in through the nostrils, dust and other foreign bodies in the air are trapped by hair and mucus. Beyond the nostrils in the nasal cavity the membrane is folded, which helps to regulate the temperature of the air we breathe in and adds moisture to trap pathogens. Either side of the nasal cavity lie sinuses which are air-filled spaces. Here the air we breathe in is swirled around in nitric oxide, which further kills bacteria and viruses. Nitric oxide is antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic and antibacterial. It helps the immune system to fight infections. The nitric oxide also helps to relax the blood vessels in the respiratory tract, allowing more oxygen to pass into the blood.
Nasal breathing increases oxygen uptake
Nasal breathing adds 50 % more air resistance than breathing through the mouth. This gives your heart and lungs a workout and increases the vacuum in your lungs, which allows you to draw in up to 20 % more oxygen than breathing by the mouth.
Improves brain function
Nasal breathing even helps to boosts brain function! It has been shown on experiments in young rats that those which breathed through their mouth were slower to complete a maze than those that breathed through their nose. It also showed that when they reached adulthood, the mouth-breathing rats had fewer neurons in the hippocampus, a part of the brain important for learning and memory. Studies on people reveal we do better in memory tests when we breathe through our noses. This is because the nasal cavity has a direct link to the emotional and memory processing centres of the brain, via sensory neurons that connect to the brain’s olfactory bulb. As well as carrying messages about a scent, these neurons sense air moving in and out of the nasal cavity and lock brainwaves to the same rhythm. Synchronised brain waves then spread beyond the scent-processing brain areas into regions responsible for memory, emotion and cognition.
Other symptoms of mouth breathing
People who breathe through their mouths are prone to bad breath and tooth decay (gingivitis) as the mouth dries out. Other symptoms can be chronic fatigue, brain fog and dark circles under the eyes due to poor and disburbed sleep.
Nasal breathing slows down the breath
Breathing through the nose helps to slow down the flow of air as the nasal passages are narrower than breathing through the mouth. The slower and deeper you breathe the calmer you will feel. Slowing down your breaths per minute triggers a reflex that widens blood vessels and reduces heart rate. Concentrating on a long, slow exhalation stimulates the vagus nerve, which controls the rest-and-digest response, the opposite of fight or flight. Breathing at three breaths per minute increases theta brainwaves—these brainwaves occur most often in sleep but are also dominant in deep meditation.They are said to be the gateway to learning, memory and intuition.
In yoga and meditation, nasal breathing is a common pranayama; ujjayi breathing uses a slightly constricted throat as you inhale and exhale through the nose. The benefit of using the ujjayi breath are:
- Calms the mind and body.
- Helps focus the mind and keep your awareness in the present moment.
- Balances the cardio-respiratory system helping to carry oxygen to your muscles and organs and removing waste.
- Stimulates nadis (energy channels in the body) bringing mental clarity and focus.
- Links breath to movement.
- Its meditative quality encourages flow and rhythm during physical practice.
- Regulates the heat of the body and massages organs due to the friction created by the air traveling through the lungs and throat.
If you are not one of those 40 % who already breathe through their nose, then why not start to make a conscious effort to change how you breathe.