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Mouth breathing vs. nasal breathingBy Dr. Garrett Smith 

mouth-breather n. a stupid person; a moron, dolt, imbecile.

What is the primary purpose and design of our nose?  The easy answer is breathing, right? If you said smelling, consider going ten minutes without breathing and ten minutes without smelling. Are we clear now? The human nose exists to breathe, the mouth has many other functions—but in regards to breathing, the mouth is a back-up system and is intended to only be used in emergencies or when the nose isn’t functioning correctly.

Rob Turner assembled quite a group of research studies on how mouth breathing is detrimental to health here. Most of us understand that we should breathe primarily through our nose, but may not understand just how important it really is to our health.

Nasal breathing is relaxed breathing. Mouth breathing is “panic” or stress breathing. There are no relaxation techniques that involve any inhalations through the mouth, as this would be counterproductive to the goal.

My intention here is to make it clear that during exercise, you also want to breathe through your nose, at minimum for the inhalations, optimally the entire breath cycle. Why?  Nasal breathing is relaxing, efficient, effective for improving fitness, and health-promoting.  Mouth breathing is “panic” or stressed breathing and is not beneficial in any of those ways.

Here are some of the known benefits of nasal breathing on exercise (as opposed to mouth breathing):

  • Increased stamina and endurance
  • Prevents overtraining
  • Reduced pulse rate
  • Decreased stress on the heart
  • Improved oxygenation of the blood
  • Reduced stress

These all sound like positive effects, right?

Nasal breathing is also one of the best auto-regulation tools you can use for any type of exercise. By auto-regulation I mean that it sets a limit to how hard you can push while staying below the body’s panic and stress threshold where mouth breathing begins. It can also help if you don’t have, or don’t want to get, a heart rate monitor.

In today’s world of exercise addicts and “harder is better” fitness ignorance, many will see this call for nasal breathing and say that it will be impossible to create a training adaptation if one doesn’t push hard enough to have to breathe through their mouth.  Well, the best endurance runners on the planet and the research disagree with you.

The Tarahumara native Indians of Mexico, made famous in the book Born To Run and renowned for their long-distance running ability, only breathe through their nose while running, although some will exhale through a partially open mouth.

In the study “Comparison of maximal oxygen consumption with oral and nasal breathing,” Morton et al. found the following:

While breathing through the nose-only, all subjects could attain a work intensity great enough to produce an aerobic training effect (based on heart rate and percentage of VO2 max).

Another study, “Arterial oxygen saturation and peak VO2 during nasal and oral breathing” by Wood et al. found that during treadmill running, mouth breathing resulted in only a 14 percent higher VO2, and half of that was attributed to the higher breathing rate achievable through mouth breathing. No significant difference was found in the percentage of oxygen saturation between mouth and nasal breathing! These minimal differences won’t restrict training adaptations. Just ask the Tarahumara.

nose breathingHere’s a personal example. I used to enjoy road cycling on my fixed-gear bike.  My main ride was from my house to my parents’— about 30 minutes each way. The hills were long and tough—so tough that time trials have been held on the longer hills. Wearing my heart rate monitor, breathing in only through my nose and out through my mouth, I was able to reach a heart rate of 170 beats per minute while really grinding out pedal strokes (fixed-gear bikes have only one gear, so there is no shifting to an easier gear on hills). Not too shabby, and definitely well above the range needed for an aerobic adaptation.

Now, you may be asking, how can you learn this amazing technique???  It’s your lucky day, because I’m going to tell you for free.  Here’s how to do it (snort). Close your lips but keep your teeth slightly apart. Breathe in and out through your nose only.  Do this all day, every day, and especially when you exercise. When exercising, as you get into higher levels of exertion, you may have to breathe out through your mouth, just continue breathing in through your nose! If you feel you must switch to mouth breathing, you should lower the intensity of whatever activity you’re doing (that’s the auto-regulation part kicking in).  Only breathe through your mouth when required to give utmost efforts in testing or competition. If you are still  having trouble understanding the technique, Matt and I are working on a weekend certification course for $25,000 per person. Free refills on all drinks…

You might argue, “Well, I have a stuffy nose all the time and I can’t breathe through my nose when I’m sitting down, much less when I’m exercising!” Here are a couple of things you can try if that is the case:

  • Apply pressure to the roof of your mouth with your tongue, which helps to open up the sinuses. To find the right spot, put your tongue behind your front upper teeth, then slide it backwards until you find that spot where your tongue sort of drops into a nice depression.  Push your tongue upwards in that spot. See if this facilitates easier nasal breathing.
  • Seat yourself comfortably, and after completing a normal exhalation, pinch your nose and hold your breath while nodding your head up and down at a moderate pace (don’t rush this). Hold your breath as long as possible, but not to the point where you’re gasping for air. When you get an urgent desire to breathe, release your nose and take a breath. You must now remember to breathe only through your nose! Make your inhalations “gentle” and relax into your exhalations. After this exercise, your goal is to breathe less than before, with an increased level of relaxation. (You may breathe more for one or two minutes after holding your breath, but this should resolve itself naturally.)
  • Finally, start really paying attention to how your body reacts to foods. You may notice that certain foods create a lot of phlegm, mucus, and general sinus congestion.  This will obviously make it more difficult to breathe through the nose. Over time, as I’ve learned and incorporated metabolism-boosting and stress-reducing techniques, I’ve found that nearly all of my sinus/phlegm reactions to foods have disappeared…except for gluten.  My nose plugs up incredibly fast if I eat a lot of it, and I also tend to snore when I have it at dinner or later (snoring can be caused by nasal congestion forcing one to mouth breathe). Snoring pisses off my wife and gets me poor quality sleep.  Neither of those things help my health or my training, gnomesayin’?

If you have anatomical problems that make it difficult for you to breathe through your nose, I recommend considering one of the following approaches:

http://www.normalbreathing.com/l-mouth-taping.php

www.nosebreathe.com

www.faceformer.com

www.liptrainer.com/

Look smarter, be smarter: Breathe through your nose all the time. More discussion on this and other simple health fundamentals can be found in Matt and I’s book Solving the Paleo Equation, coming to a bookstore near you soon or available for pre-order HERE.

Dr. Garrett Smith is a Naturopathic Doctor and trainer to elite athletes. His book, Solving the Paleo Equation hits stores this September. Find out more about Dr. Smith at www.drgarrettsmith.com