Nasal Breathing versus Mouth Breathing

Nasal Breathing Mouth Breathing
Conditions the air for optimal use Causes dry mouth
Retains moisture from exhaled air Causes excess release of water
Filters bacteria, viruses, allergens before entering the lungs Allows all particles into the mouth, throat, and lungs
Assists with parasympathetic nervous system activation Triggers sympathetic nervous system activation
Provides air resistance for optimal breathing volume(10-12 bpm) Causes over-breathing(18-20+ bmp)
Maintains oxygen and carbon dioxide balance in the blood for more efficient respiration Dysregulates carbon dioxide in the blood
Supports anatomical development in the oral cavity (teeth, jaw, palate) Leads to anatomical malformation during development
Helps with sense of taste Leads to inflammation in the oral cavity and throat

What's mouth breathing? What's wrong with mouth breathing?

The mouth is designed for eating and speaking. Mouth breathing introduces unfiltered, non-humidified air into the airway. This non-ideal air dries out the oral cavity and disturbs the balance of microbes and acidity. As a result, there is an increased risk of decay, gingivitis, bad breath, and respiratory illness of the throat and/or lungs. We often see inflamed tonsils, tonsil stones, adenoids, dry coughing, and swollen tongues with our mouth breathing patients.

Historically, the young were taught to nasal breath. And as mouth breathing becomes more acceptable we are seeing the negative consequences. Chronic mouth breathing, especially during development, leads to various anatomical malformations. Common examples are narrowing of the jaw and palate, crowded or crooked teeth, malocclusion, and limited lip and tongue tone. These malformations often result in long-term consequences such as sleep apnea, upper airway resistance syndrome (UARS), speech problems, swallowing problems, and TMJ.

Another consequence of the mouth breathing habit is over-breathing. Too many breaths are needed to compensate for the lack of breathing efficiency. Over-breathing activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes imbalances in the carbon dioxide and oxygen ratios in the body. Carbon dioxide plays an important role in blood pH and respiration, specifically the oxygen uptake.  Over-breathing decreases the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood which means less oxygen to the brain, muscles, and cells in the body. Unfortunately, this results in raising the heart rate and causing more chronic stress.

Lastly, mouth breathing and over-breathing release excess water vapor. Therefore, not only can the throat and mouth become dry, the body can become dehydrated. Sadly, additional negative symptoms like headaches and migraines can arise.

Do I have an airway issue? What if my nose is always clogged?

Many people mouth breath because of an obstructed airway. There are various causes of air obstructions including:
    • Incorrect mouth size to tongue size ratio
      • Often the tongue is too large for the mouth
      • Orthodontic treatment over-correction
    • Inability to keep tongue seal at roof of mouth
      • Tongue tie
      • *Lack of tongue tone
    • Nasal passage blockages
      • Growths
      • Tumors
    • *Anatomical malformation
      • Deficient growth of the upper sinuses
      • Sunken inward bottom jaw
    • Chronic allergies
      • Food allergies (common is chocolate, dairy, and/or gluten)
      • Environmental allergies (common is mold or smoke)
    • *Asthma
*It must be mentioned that many of the causes of an air obstruction could be a consequence of chronic mouth breathing such as lack on tongue tone, anatomical malformations, and asthma.

Why nasal breathing is important? Can nasal breathing really prevent me from getting sick? 

The nose is specifically designed for breathing. This complex and intricate organ filters, moisturizes, warms, and regulates the incoming air for optimal use. In addition, the nose retains moisture from the exhaled air. There are mucous membranes inside of the nose which help to trap particles such as bacteria, viruses, and allergens and thus prevent colds, flus, allergic reactions and chronic coughing.
Besides protecting us from potential pathogens, nasal breathing helps with the parasympathetic nervous system activation which provides many benefits which include:
  • Increasing nitric oxide which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure
  • Better quality of sleep and feeling of restfulness
  • Maintaining strength of tongue for speaking, swallowing, and developing of the jaw and palate

Nasal breathing is important at all ages.

Nose breathing, specifically during development, supports proper formation of the palate, jaw, teeth, and airway. This ideal development occurs because the tongue is toned and pushed against the palate with the lips closed.  Last and not least, the nose provides the sense of smell, which directly affects our sense of taste.

How to practice nasal breathing?

Nasal breathing can be taught, learned, and practiced. The muscles in the mouth and tongue need to be stretched and strengthened like other muscles of the body. Professional therapists, known as Myofunctional Therapists, specialize in mouth and tongue exercises to enhance nasal breathing, speaking, swallowing, eating, and detection of potential limitations. Ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists and Dentists are other resources when further diagnosing and treatment is needed.

The following tools can be used to self screen, learn, and/or practice nasal breathing:

  • Practice suctioning the tongue to the roof of the mouth
    • The entire tongue should be able to rest on the roof of the mouth - with the mouth closed and open. This often takes lots of practice over weeks!
    • The seal is needed for swallowing and nasal breathing. Mouth breathing cannot occur if the tongue is sealed to the roof of the mouth. Try it!
  • Practice other tongue exercises
    • These should be taught by a well-trained Myofunctional therapist. A skilled Myofuncitonal therapist has spent months to years to perfect recognition of compensations.
    • The end result is to be able to stick the tongue out and slowly move it side to side without moving the jaw. Then slowly curl it up and down toward the lips without using the jaw.
    • Strain in the neck, chest, or shoulders might be a sign of tongue tie.
    • Light soreness means more practice is needed!
  • Slowly nasal breathe
    • Then try to breathe even slower.
    • Results will be lower blood pressure and feelings of relaxation.
  • Hold a puff of air in the mouth by squeezing the lips while nasal breathing
    • Move the air around to top, bottom, left, and right all while nasal breathing.
  • Pay attention to tongue position in the mouth throughout the day and night
    • In many cases tongue awareness alone can kick the mouth breathing habit
  • Mouth taping
    • Yes, mouth taping! Use a small piece of surgical tape and place vertically or horizontally across your lips.
      • Start vertically so that there is open space on sides on the mouth in case you need to mouth breathe.
    • Begin by taping the mouth for 3 minutes, during the day, to see if nasal breathing is possible.
    • If possible, then try taping the mouth for 30 minutes during the day to see if extended nasal breathing is possible.
    • If extended nasal breathing is possible, then try over night!
    • Note: If you have a sensation of suffocation or panic, then you should see an ENT for possible obstruction of airway.
    • Tapes:
  • Nasal breathe during workouts
    • Push the tongue to the roof of the mouth and time breathing with reps while using the diaphragm.
    • Try to breathe as slow as possible to lower heart rate in between sets.
    • This will more efficiently oxygenate muscles and help with recovery.
    • Note: high intensity conditioning will require temporary mouth-breathing to keep up with oxygen and carbon dioxide requirements.