I have a stress reduction system called Program Peace that can be found at www.programpeace.com. The system is based around coaching people to stop distressed breathing. There are four tenets of proper breathing: 1) breathe on long intervals, 2) breathe full, deep breaths, 3) breathe smooth, steady breaths, and 4) breathe assertively.
I believe that all four of these can be accomplished when breathing through the nose. In fact, nasal breathing automatically engages the diaphragm for reasons discussed below, ensuring that each breath is steady and peaceful. The rest of this post will explain why you should start breathing exclusively with the nose, and how to do it.
Why Nasal Breathing is Healthier
The nasal passages are narrower than the oral one. This means that taking a full breath through the nose takes significantly more time and effort. It takes 50% more work to breathe exclusively through the nose compared to breathing exclusively through the mouth. It is hard work for the diaphragm and will make it stronger fast. Also the narrowness of the nasal passages forces you to breathe more slowly, at an even pace. A number of researchers agree that, “one cannot easily hyperventilate when breathing through the nose (Fried, 1993).” Thus it is incompatible with anxiety.
Most mammals breathe exclusively through their nose with their mouths closed but there are a few exceptions. Some mammals will breathe through the mouth when engaging in intense cardiovascular activity. Others use mouth breathing for evaporative cooling, like a dog panting on a hot day. Many mammals will breathe through their mouth during an aggressive confrontation. Usually the dominant animal will keep its mouth closed, and the subordinate one will open the mouth and pant nondiaphragmatically. Many dog trainers interpret nose breathing as defiant and mouth breathing as acquiescent. The dog that pants quickly with an open mouth is usually seen as the most obedient. In nature, chronic mouth breathing, like hyperventilation, is a submissive, handicapping signal. Otherwise, in all other conditions mammals breathe almost exclusively through their nose. When a mammal is seen breathing through its mouth it is taken by veterinarians as a sign of sickness, or serious injury.
In humans mouth breathing is thought by many experts to increase the stress response (Park, 2012), and has been shown to lead to high blood pressure, poor posture, cognitive disturbances, growth impairment, failure to thrive, and heart problems (Park et al., 2012; Morais et al., 2019; Masahiro et al., 2013). However, there is no medical consensus merely because not enough studies have been performed. There is also no rubric in medical science helping people to stop breathing through their mouths. I believe that this is a major oversight.
Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life
In 1882 George Catlin wrote the book Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life, where he extolled the virtues of nose breathing. He was a European traveling in America where he observed a large proportion of Native Americans breathing exclusively through the nose, even during sleep. He attributed their good health and serene countenance to this habit. He even saw mothers encouraging their infants and children to breathe with their nose. If a baby opened its mouth to breathe, the mother would gently push the baby’s lips together to ensure nasal breathing. He compared this to Europe where it seemed to him that everyone breathed with their mouths.
He claimed that the American Indians referred to the white men not only as “pale-faces” but as “black-mouths” because of their penchant for breathing through their mouths. He said that breathing through the mouth leads to a derangement of the “…whole face, which is not natural; carrying the proof of a long practice of the baneful habit, with its lasting consequences; and producing that unfortunate and pitiable, and oftentimes disgusting expression which none but ‘civilized’ communities can present.” He called mouth breathing “the most abominable and destructive habit that ever attached itself to the human race.”
The following are two drawings by Catlin from the book. They illustrate what he saw as the difference between English mouth breathers and Native American nasal breathers.
Catlin wrote that no excitements could cause the Indians to part their lips. He said that their mouths remained closed unless they were eating or speaking, and that they even smiled with their mouths closed. He recounted a story where a serious quarrel arose between a white fur trader and a Sioux brave. The men decided to settle the dispute naked, in a prairie, with knives. Minutes before the fight he was able to reconcile the matter and lead the men to shake hands. Afterwards he asked the brave if he was afraid of the other man, who was both bigger and stronger. The Indian replied: “No, not in the least; I never fear harm from a man who can’t shut his mouth.” He wrote that both Indian mothers and medicine men told him that Indians breathe through their noses to insure long, peaceful lives. I read the book. Some of the biological reasons that Catlin offers for why nasal breathing is preferable are wrong. But this was written over 140 years ago, and most of the book (in my opinion) is right on the money.
If I had to name a single habit that could be corrected to increase longevity and quality of life, it would be mouth breathing. So the question arises: “What is the best way to ensure nasal breathing?” Well, at first take, it’s not easy. There are three main hindrences with nasal breathing: 1) our mothers likely did not close our mouths as infants and toddlers when we breathed through our mouth so it is not as ingrained in us as it could be, 2) unlike traditional Native Americans we grew up around people that were mouth breathers, 3) It is easy to forget to breathe nasally, 4) we transition from nasal to mouth breathing unconsciously when we become stressed. Spending time with the mouth taped can overcome each of these issues.
Tape the Mouth to Ensure Nasal Breathing
You may think that you breathe through your nose, but you likely often switch to mouth breathing. People switch from nose to mouth breathing when they feel nervous. You may have never noticed it but you probably switch from nose to mouth breathing constantly as your stress levels fluctuate during the day. Breathing through the nose is uncomfortable for many people in social situations. I was very uncomfortable nose breathing in my twenties, thinking that people would think I look “barefaced,” “bold-faced,” or insolent. It looked disrespectful precisely because I was uncomfortable doing it. Once you become complacent breathing through the nose, with mouth closed, you can get away with sporting a highly expressionless face. Spend time breathing with your mouth shut more often. Practice it in public and in social situations. Notice how difficult it can be in certain situations, and how you have the repeated impulse to switch to mouth breathing. If you allow yourself to resort to mouth breathing when you feel stressed or excitable your composure will be stymied.
I strongly recommend taping the mouth shut as often as possible. It stops you from taking intermittent gasps through your mouth. The mouth gasp compensates for the oxygen deficit created when stress rises, and nasal breathing becomes nonassertive and weak. Even when you are making a concerted effort to breathe through the nose, you will probably only do it haphazardly because you know in the back of your mind that you can always switch to mouth breathing if you need to. Taping the mouth removes mouth breathing from the table. When I started my nasal passages stung from the heavy increase in air flow. Each breath felt cold and dry, but this only lasted a few days.
Taping your mouth will teach you to breathe through your nose without being able to recourse to the mouth. Nasal breathing will be your only option, so you will unconsciously lean into it more. This will train your diaphragm to be assertive, self-sufficient, and uncompromising. I recommend using bandage or surgical tape which can be found in drug stores as it is made for contact with skin and won’t chafe your lips or strip them of their natural oils. I urge you to tape your mouth as often as you can.
Breathing Exercise #12: Taping Your Mouth Shut
Put a piece of tape over your mouth for an hour. Use it to remind you not to breathe through your mouth at all. Concentrate on the work involved in breathing through the nose. Notice that you will breathe too shallowly, get too little oxygen, and will panic, wanting to switch back to mouth breathing. You can overcome this by making your breaths longer, deeper, and steadier. Next try it while walking, reading, watching television, working, and exercising. Tape your mouth often to train exclusive nasal breathing in all situations. Duration: 1 hour. Proficiency: 2 sessions a week for 6 weeks. Maintenance: 1 time per month.
While your mouth is taped you will inevitably find some mundane stressor to get worked up about. Let’s say for instance that your door bell rings and you aren’t expecting anyone. Your respiratory rate will increase ahead of the anticipated demand and you will feel air hunger. However, you won’t be able to sustain an increased breathing rate because you cannot gasp through your mouth. As you are forced to continue to breathe through your nose the worries about the doorbell fade. This will ensure that the person who answers the door is courageous rather than fretful. Every minute your mouth is taped you have small victories like this one that will take the reigns over your diaphragm from the environment and place them in your own hands. After 20 cumulative hours of taping my mouth I could feel that I had conquered the restlessness in my chest.
Everyone should be breathing exclusively nasally during sleep. Many nose breathing adherents recommend taping the mouth shut at night regularly to strengthen nocturnal nasal breathing. They claim, and I agree, that it helps you to fall asleep more quickly, stay asleep longer, and wake feeling energized. It also limits snoring, stops drooling, keeps the mouth and throat from getting dry, reduces bad breath, and keeps you in the diaphragmatic sweet spot throughout the night. This is why I strongly recommend that you tape your mouth before bed. However, it is a sharp right turn into hard diaphragmatic demand. You might have to work your way up to it using other Program Peace breathing exercises (including taping your mouth during the day) before you can start to tape your mouth at bedtime.
Breathing Exercise #13: Taping Your Mouth During Sleep
Put a piece of tape over your lips after you brush your teeth, but before bed. If you wake up with discomfort in your chest it means that you must do more remedial diaphragmatic breathing first. The discomfort in your chest upon waking is a measure of how nondiaphragmatic your breathing is, and how much your habitual breathing pattern fights against calm, restorative breathing. Duration: Eight hours. Proficiency: Four sessions per week for six weeks. Maintenance: Four times per month. Five stars.
Some people claim that because of nasal obstruction or congestion that they are not able to breathe through their nose. If this is true for you, know that your nasal passages will likely clear the more nasal breathing you practice. Mine certainly did. Before taping my mouth I was lucky to have one nostril clear of congestion. Since taping my mouth, both my nostrils are usually clear.
Just like you don’t let dry eyes keep you from widening your eyes, or dry lips keep you from smiling, don’t let a stuffy nasal cavity keep you from breathing through your nose. You might want to try nasal irrigation, a personal hygiene practice that is used to flush excess mucus and debris from the nasal cavity and sinuses. Also make an effort to breathe through the nose while chewing. Because I can breathe through my nose now, I can close my mouth while chewing. Thus much to the pleasant surprise of my friends and family, I no longer smack my lips.
The alternate nostril breathing technique is common in yoga and stress reduction. In this exercise the index finger is used to close each nostril for several seconds, one at a time. Many hypotheses have been advanced regarding why breathing through only one nostril seems to have a calming effect on people. I think it works simply because it narrows the breathing bottleneck even further, necessitating that each breath is even slower and smoother. Try it. There are many guided alternate nostril breathing exercises online.
Modern day hunter gatherers are known to be nose breathers and even most of the persistence running they do during prolonged hunts is accomplished with the mouth closed. As you get better at nose breathing force yourself to breathe exclusively through the nose during exercise. Keep tissues with you if you need to. Blow your nose frequently, and train as often as you can with the mouth closed.
Months of paced breathing through the mouth helped, but breathing exclusively through the nose was still a challenge for me when I started. Inspired by the writings of Konstantin Buteyko and George Catlin I forced myself to do it. It took overa month until I was breathing with a closed mouth all the time. You haven’t accomplished it until every time you think to notice, you find yourself breathing through the nose. It would probably be best to allow yourself at least a few months to make a comfortable transition to exclusive nose-breathing. I developed a few small colds from the effort because I weakened my respiratory system by forcing nose-breathing. If your chest and diaphragm ache very slightly upon waking you are making progress. If they ache through the morning, you are overdoing it.
Teaching myself to breathe through my nose made diaphragmatic breathing much easier and gave me a whole new level of composure and poise. Breathe through the nose as much as possible, it calms your mind and turns your breathing musculature into a powerful, relentless, irrepressible bellows.