What if I told you that a habit may have a role in determining your life direction or career path?
My friend, who is a massage therapist, told me her story. As a child and teenager, she was someone who had trouble with focus and attention in school. She could never muster enough concentration to sit through long periods of academic study that were necessary to do well in school. Being active and working with her hands came more naturally to her. Because she could not excel in her studies and go far academically but was good with her hands, she decided to pursue a career as a massage therapist.
She was also a mouth-breather or someone who breathed through her mouth most of the time. A significant change happened to her when she was older and learned about the ill effects of mouth breathing, and decided to change this lifelong habit of hers. After doing so, the first thing she noticed that changed significantly for her was that what she could never do as a child or teenager, she now could easily do. Her attention span lengthened, and she could focus and concentrate and study books! She regained her ability to pay attention for a stretch of time.
So what is happening physiologically? How can changing from a mouth to a nose breather affect someone’s ability to concentrate and study?
Exhaling air through our nostrils creates a back-pressure and slows the flow of air out of our lungs. This gives the lungs more time to absorb oxygen and ensures that not too much carbon dioxide is lost. This is important because carbon dioxide is needed in the body to enable haemoglobin in blood to release its oxygen to tissues. The body naturally wants and needs to keep carbon dioxide levels high for its normal and healthy functioning.
This is also known as the Bohr Effect, something we studied as freedivers, which is that haemoglobin in our blood more easily releases its bounded oxygen when there is a high concentration of carbon dioxide present or when blood acidity is high.
So what happens when you mouth-breathe? Without the resistance of the nasal cavity and nostrils to slow the flow of exhaled air, much carbon dioxide is lost through the mouth during exhale. And this leads to more alkaline blood and the haemoglobin holding tight to the oxygen molecules and being unable to release them. The capillaries in the lungs are also less able to absorb oxygen because air is exhaled too quickly from the mouth, but also because of the lack of nitric oxide to dilate the vessels that are only available from nasal breathing. This dramatically reduces available oxygen to all tissues in the body.
What happens next is that by instinct, the body wants to immediately raise its carbon dioxide levels so that tissues can receive the needed oxygen for the body to function normally. Hence, an indirect result is that a person who mouth breathes may feel more restless and need to move about and stay active, as physical activity will produce more carbon dioxide in the body. Hence, to cope with the unnatural low levels of carbon dioxide caused by mouth breathing, the body has to compensate for it. Therefore, nasal breathing is essential for maintaining optimal physiological pH levels in the body.
Nasal breathing is also essential for other reasons. The nasal system filters the air we breathe, removing particles, warming air up, and moisturising it before it reaches our lungs. If there is anything in the air that is remotely foreign, our nasal system will by reflex cause our body to sneeze it out! Our body also has receptors in the nose that, when stimulated by air passing through, will release nitric oxide, a potent anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral gas, neutralising any harmful pathogen in its path immediately.
Nitric oxide, when it reaches our lungs, is also a powerful vasodilator that causes capillaries around the alveoli to enlarge, increasing the surface area of contact between alveoli and blood vessels, allowing for more oxygen to be absorbed into our blood.
Hence, it is important to nasal breathe and if we notice that someone we love not doing so and always out of breath or having to interrupt his or her speech to breathe while speaking to us, it is something we can lovingly point out to them and educate them about to bring this aspect to their awareness.
What can be done about mouth breathing?
- Remove allergens. There is a need to identify if the allergens that first caused a person to mouth-breathe are still clogging up the person’s nasal cavity and sinus and to reduce or eliminate them. These could be chemicals from paint or air-conditioning, pet dander, pollen from flowers, dust, or mould.
- Start nasal breathing. Starting to nasal breathe after not doing so for some time is a bit like turning on the tap after not using it for a few months, and there will initially be clogs and some discomfort. Still, once you get it going, the airflow will begin to flush out the gunk and be reactivated. The system that nature gifted you with will start to work again. It is like exercise. It takes effort, incremental increase in effort, discipline, deliberation, and dedication; but it is worth it. Once you re-start fully using this system, your whole body will reap all the benefits.
- Try mouth taping when you sleep. You might want to try mouth-taping at night with surgical tape over your lips. This is because even if you managed to consciously switch to nasal breathing in the daytime, some of us still mouth breathe when we are not conscious of it at night. To completely switch to nasal breathing, you may also need to accompany your conscious efforts to breathe with myofunctional therapy to strengthen your tongue to rest against the hard palate and your lips to have sufficient strength to seal your mouth at rest.
As freedivers, our ability to breathe well is so core to our sport – determining our performance, mental state, comfort in the water, and ability to equalise. When your nasal cavity or sinuses are clogged up from underuse or irritated from allergens, the tissues become inflamed and engorged, and our ears become easily stuck.
This is where the dedication to finding joy and ease with equalization is wholly linked to your overall health and healthy functioning. When you start to see improvements in your breathing, you will find that you feel more energetic, have longer attention spans, have more mental and emotional calm, and become a better freediver with greater ease in equalization.
Dasgupta, S., Rozario, J.E. Troika of Posture, Occlusion and Airway. Indian J Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 72, 49–54 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12070-019-01734-7
McKeown, Patrick. 2015. The Oxygen Advantage: The Simple, Scientifically Proven Breathing Techniques for a Healthier, Slimmer, Faster, and Fitter You. HarperCollins
Nestor, James. 2020. Breath. London, England: Penguin Life.