The Importance of Breathing Through Your Nose
Many of us are habitual mouth breathers--either in our daily life or when we are exercising or stressed out. For most of us, this habit began in childhood and not only diminishes our energy but also undermines our health and well-being.
Except for emergencies, our breathing was designed to take place mainly through our nose. The hairs that line our nostrils filter out particles of dust and dirt that can be injurious to our lungs. When too many particles accumulate on the membranes of the nose, we automatically secret mucus to trap them or sneeze to expel them. The mucous membranes of our septum, which divides the nose into two cavities, further prepare the air for our lungs by warming and humidifying it.
There is another important reason for breathing through the nose, one that was not taught to us in school or by our parents. This has to do with maintaining the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our blood. When we breathe through our mouth we usually inhale and exhale air quickly in large volumes. This can lead to hyperventilation (breathing excessively fast for the actual conditions in which we find ourselves). It is important to recognize that it is the amount of carbon dioxide in our blood that generally regulates our breathing. If we release carbon dioxide too quickly, the arteries and vessels carrying blood to our cells constrict and the oxygen in our blood is unable to reach the cells in sufficient quantity. This includes the carotid arteries, which carry blood (and oxygen) to the brain. The lack of sufficient oxygen going to the cells of the brain can turn on our sympathetic nervous system, our "fight or flight" response, and make us tense, anxious, irritable, and depressed.
One researcher, Dr. Konstantin Buteyko of Russia, claim that insufficient carbon dioxide in our blood also leads to the symptoms of asthma, various other breathing disorders, and even angina, as the body struggles to maintain the correct balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide. He states that to keep the right balance in someone whose carbon dioxide level is too low the body automatically tries to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood by constricting the airways, swelling tissues, secreting mucus, and so on--thus making it more difficult to quickly inhale and exhale large volumes of air.
Dr. Buteyko has apparently had great success in treating asthma and other disorders emphasizing nose breathing and using special techniques, including shallow breathing and breath-holding, designed to reduce the volume of air that we breathe and increase the carbon dioxide level in the blood. As promising as this approach may seem in relation to health problems such as asthma, however, breath-holding and intentional shallow breathing are neither healthy nor natural for the majority of us, and any effort to impose them on our breathing to increase our carbon dioxide level would lose many of the benefits of natural breathing, which utilizes, when necessary, the full range of coordinated movement in our diaphragm, belly, and ribcage.
A SIMPLE PRACTICE
Here's a simple, beneficial practice you can try. Over the next few days or weeks, see if you can observe and sense your breathing several times a day in the middle of your activities. Notice whether or not you are breathing through your mouth. Also notice how often you hold your breath. For some of you, mouth breathing or breath holding may be a frequent activity. For others, it may occur mainly in physically, emotionally, or mentally stressful situations. When you notice yourself breathing through your mouth or holding your breath, remind yourself to breathe through your nose and to stop holding your breath.
Last Updated: 01 July 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD