Breathing is the first thing we do when we are born and the last thing we do before we die. In between, we take more than 20,000 breaths each day—and yet most of us don’t pay much attention to this fundamental aspect of our existence.
In fact, your breath is one of the most powerful healing modalities you have.
Ancient cultures going back thousands of years have understood the benefits of nose breathing therapeutically. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, and qigong all focus awareness on the power of inhaling and exhaling mindfully to awaken and distribute energy. While traveling in both Central and South America, shamans told me that ancient mail runners were trained to run with pebbles or water in their mouths in order to access the benefits of nose breathing. This primitive technique delivered increased stamina, endurance, and, ultimately, faster mail.
Benefits of Nose Breathing vs. Mouth Breathing
Modern-day research is finally catching up, revealing that the health effects of proper breathwork can be profound. One of your first concerns should be whether you breathe through your nose or mouth. Take time to observe yourself in different situations, both calm and stressful. What do you notice?
One study revealed that over 60 percent of adults surveyed self-identified as mouth breathers. In our era of rising anxiety (and related health problems), it’s important to know that mouth breathing can make things worse. A Clinical Review paper published by Nursing in General Practice summarized that a conscious effort to retrain people to predominantly nose breathe would likely result in a healthier population.
Mouth breathing stimulates the sympathetic nervous system (which controls our fight-or-flight response), putting us into a state of heightened stress. Alternatively, breathing through the nose produces a relaxation response that activates the parasympathetic nervous system (which controls our rest-and-digest response). This lowers our diaphragm, allows more air into our lungs, and immediately switches our body into a relaxed state, reducing anxiety and providing myriad other health benefits.
Human beings were created as nose breathers (note the hairs that act as filters therein). Studies point to the possibility that over time, the industrialization of our food caused changes to our respiratory system, oral cavity, and facial structure. We gradually morphed from nose breathers to mouth breathers. This devolution of sorts leaves us now breathing less effectively than our ancestors did and at the expense of our overall health.
Our bodies are designed for balance. We unconsciously switch our breathing pattern from our nose to our mouth, depending on our situation. Mouth breathing is the equivalent of the gas pedal on our car; it provides us with more air, especially when we’re out of breath while walking or exercising. Our circulation speeds up, and cortisol levels, as well as heart rate and blood pressure, increase.
When we predominantly default to mouth breathing, we leave ourselves in overdrive and deny ourselves the balancing benefits of nose breathing, the equivalent of the brakes on our car.
Ten Potential Health Benefits of Nose Breathing
Nose breathing takes time to develop. However, this investment is worthwhile. When nose breathing is practiced along with a healthy lifestyle, the potential benefits to both our mental and physical health are vast:
Reduced anxiety, stress, panic attacks, and depression
Improved symptoms of ADD/ADHD
Balanced thyroid function
Reduced sleep issues, insomnia, apnea, and sleep interruptions caused by the need to empty your bladder
Improved digestive issues
Enhanced cardiovascular health by lowering blood pressure and heart rate
Managed type 2 diabetes
Relieved abdominal discomfort
Reduced symptoms of allergies and asthma
How to Start Nose Breathing
Breathwork is easily accessible—it’s free and you can do it anytime and anywhere. Try this method to put some brakes on your car and begin to shift your nervous system out of stress mode:
Deep Breathing Technique:
1. Take 5-10 minutes to sit with your spine straight, shoulders back, eyes closed, and palms facing upward on your lap.
2. Inhale deeply, yet gently, through your nose down into your belly for 4-5 counts.*
3. Hold for 4-5 counts.*
4. Release gently through your mouth for 4-5 counts.* The exhale is extremely important in relaxation and can be extended for maximum impact. Feel your body release.
5. Repeat this exercise.
6. Become more aware of your breath by observing it at different times during the day. Try to find out how you breathe when you sleep.
*Research shows that a 5.5 second breath count is optimal, but feel free to adjust to your comfort level as you develop this skill.
**By Jasmine Bilali