Nose Breathing: A Key to Better Health
Article At A Glance
Breathing is our most important biological function. Doing so properly is essential to healing and long-term health. Most people breathe an average of 25,000 times per day, so it’s safe to say that we inhale and exhale more than anything else we do in a day. According to experts, as many as 70 to 80 percent of individuals can improve the way in which they breathe. This improvement can be something as simple as nose breathing.
Dr. Maurice Cottle, who founded the American Rhinologic Society in 1954, claims your nose performs at least 30 functions, all of which are important supplements to the roles played by the lungs, heart, and other organs.*1
We can improve and support long-term health by adding consistent nose breathing to all our activities, including functional or diaphragmatic breathing.
Heart Rate, the Diaphragm, and Vagal Tone Work Together
As a review, the movement of the diaphragm affects heart rate. Heart rate variability, known as HRV, reflects vagal tone, and we can improve vagal by regulating our breath.
Remember that diaphragmatic breathing engages the sides and back body equally and uses the abdominal muscles fully on the exhalation, making it a more complete breath than belly breathing.
This is how it works:
- A slow, functional diaphragmatic breath through the nose slows the heart rate and reduces cardiovascular stress.
- In situations of extended psychological stress, i.e., chronic sympathetic response, which is often accompanied by chest breathing, the flexibility of the heart is reduced, resulting in a loss of vagal tone.
- Vagal tone is necessary for the optimal function of the autonomic nervous system and of heart rate and blood pressure regulation.
- Because the vagus nerve controls the out-breath, a slow, longer exhalation through the nose can improve vagal tone, trigger a parasympathetic response, and reduce stress.
In this way, consistent nose breathing, the diaphragm, and the vagus nerve join forces to regulate and improve heart function, as well as autonomic nervous system responsiveness.
Nose Breathing is Efficient and Healthy
Breathing in and out through your nose naturally slows your breath rate by as much as 20 percent. Thus, not only does nose breathing help regulate vagal response, but it also allows for a larger percentage of CO2 to build up in your bloodstream, which translates into better oxygen uptake by your muscles and organs.
When we breathe through our mouth, we cause the same effect as hyper-ventilating due to the large releases of CO2 that happen automatically with each exhalation. The loss of CO2 inhibits the uptake of oxygen by the cells, thus compromising our health.
Another important benefit of nose breathing is the production of nitric oxide, which generates the first line of defense against viruses, bacteria, and other microorganisms. New studies have shown the nasal airways and the paranasal sinuses—the many small hollow spaces in the bones around the nose—contain high concentrations of nitric oxide, which supports immunity, respiration, and other physiological processes.
In contrast, mouth breathing blocks the production of nitric oxide, reducing the efficiency of the autoimmune system. Mouth breathing also contributes to chronic insomnia, mood disorders, blood pressure changes, and dehydration.*2
What is CO2 Tolerance?
When we exercise or do yoga, the blood levels of CO2 increase. If your CO2 tolerance is low, you will get breathless easily. Your heart rate will go up, and you will have the impulse to breathe through your mouth. Resist the temptation!
Our endurance and ability to sustain physical activity easily are directly related to our ability to tolerate higher levels of CO2. You can test your tolerance by holding your breath at the end of a normal exhalation. Measure how many seconds you can hold your breath until you feel a definite desire to breathe. When you inhale, be sure your breath is calm.
For those who engage in moderate regular exercise, the ability to hold your breath on the exhalation should be about 20 seconds, which indicates healthy blood levels of CO2 and a more efficient O2 exchange. If this is you, awesome!
The good news is that you can build your CO2 capacity by quietly holding your breath at the end of a natural exhalation and slowly building your hold time without strain.*3
The Return to Nose Breathing
Our bodies are so amazing. Did you know that when you breathe with your mouth open, your magical and efficient body automatically shuts down the nasal passages so that nose breathing is temporarily impossible?
Notice if and when you switch between mouth and nose breathing. To make your breath more efficient, do your best to breathe through your nose. When you are actively exercising, keep your mouth closed. When you get breathless, pause for a moment, breathe through your nose until your heart settles, and then begin exercising again.
4 Ways to Improve Your Breathing
- Keep your mouth closed—even when exercising.
- Breathe slowly and exhale completely without strain.
- Shift from chest breathing to diaphragmatic or functional breathing.*4
- Engage in additional activity, i.e., increase your moderate exercise.
Personal Experience with Nose Breathing
As someone whose nose was blocked up regularly, I seemed to be forced into habitual mouth breathing. This put me in the 70th percentile of people who needed to improve their breath.
As testimony to the power of my yoga practice, I sustained overall good health despite my bad breathing habits until, of course, I didn’t. Sleep apnea got the best of me. Much to my surprise, after using a C-PAP machine for only a few weeks, which helps regulate the even in and outflow of breath, my nasal passages began to open, and I was actually able to tape my mouth shut without panic.
While taping your mouth shut at night may not work for everyone, I was open to the experiment as recommended in James Nester’s book, Breath.*5
In my yoga practice, some poses make my nose close almost instantly. In those moments, I am choosing to use a yoga breath called Sitali, sipping the breath in the mouth and exhaling through the nose. Although not ideal, I feel this is a step in the right direction to sustain higher levels of CO2 and better oxygen absorption.
Have fun experimenting!