Think “nutrition,” and you probably think of food. But in a broader sense, it can encompass anything we provide to our body to fuel it, sustain it, and, ideally, keep it in good working order. Think exercise. Or sleep. Or water. Or the air we breathe.
One thing you might not realize, though: How you breathe makes a big difference to both your oral health and your whole body health.
When babies are born, their natural tendency is toward nasal breathing, as this lets them suckle and breathe simultaneously. Mouth breathing is more of a survival mechanism – for times when nasal breathing is difficult, such as when you have a stuffy nose or during increased physical activity.
Habitual mouth breathing can have significant effects. It can change the shape of your face, making it longer, with a weak chin, narrower jaws, and crooked teeth. It can lead to chronic dry mouth and, thus, a higher risk of decay, gum disease, and other dental problems. It may raise your risk of asthma and other respiratory conditions, cardiovascular issues, and sleep disorders.
In short, it can mean a future of ill-health since mouth breathing can’t deliver the amount of oxygen to fully meet all of your body’s needs. Breathing through your nose can.
But a lot more happens during each nasal inhalation than just taking air into your lungs.
For one, the mucus and the small hairs in your nose – cilia – help filter the air, keeping toxins, pathogens, and other foreign matter out of your body. The nose is also where air is brought to body temperature and humidified, protecting against dryness in the lungs and bronchial tubes.
Breathing through your nose also lets you breathe more slowly and deeply, from the bottom of your lungs. This means more oxygen gets pumped into your bloodstream and to every tissue, organ, and cell. Slow, deep breathing also reduces stress, as the lower lungs contain parasympathetic nerve receptors that, when activated, signal the brain to release calming hormones.
But perhaps most important of all is that only nasal breathing stimulates production of nitric oxide – a molecule that we now understand is essential for good health, especially cardiovascular health. Functional dentist Dr. Steven Lin explains it well:
Nitric oxide is produced in the nasal sinuses by specific enzymes. It’s instrumental in delivering oxygen around the body efficiently because it regulates blood flow. When it mixes with air delivered to the lung, it increases arterial oxygen tension and reduces blood pressure.
Nitric oxide also has a vital role deep within your body’s cells. There, it influences platelet function, immunity and the nervous system. It’s also important in homeostasis and the regulation of mitochondrial function. It’s produced elsewhere in the body but the biggest contributor is the minute amounts inhaled through the nose into the lungs.
Without the nitric oxide that nasal breathing provides, your body winds up running at a distinct disadvantage. You also miss out on its antimicrobial, antiparasitic properties.
If your own tendency is toward mouth breathing, there is help for replacing that habit with nasal breathing. Buteyko breathing exercises, for instance, have been extremely helpful for many. Myofunctional therapy may also help – a process of retraining the muscles of the mouth and face to work properly.
If nasal obstruction is the cause of your mouth breathing, you should consult a physician who can help you address the problem. How you address it, of course, depends on the cause of the obstruction. Is it structural? Is it allergies? Something else?
Obstructive sleep apnea – which necessarily forces you to breathe through your mouth periodically during sleep – should be addressed, as well. Devices like CPAP and oral appliances can help a lot, but these days, there’s even the possibility of enlarging the airway itself, thus removing the root cause of the problem. (In fact, this is something Dr. Y is currently learning how to do!)
Yes, how you breathe matters. It matters a lot.
Image by Jeremie63, via Wikimedia Commons