The Nasal Breathing Hack

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The Why

  1. Greater oxygen absorption
  2. Filtering of air before entering the lungs
  3. Humidification of air before entering the lungs
  4. Warming of air before entering the lungs
  5. Reduces or eliminates snoring
Greater oxygen absorption

Breathing through your nose increases oxygen intake in your lungs in two ways.

Firstly, the air passing over your mucous membranes picks up a nifty little gas called nitric oxide. This is a vaso-dilator. In other words, it opens blood vessels. When this gas comes into contact with your lungs, it dilates the blood vessels which allows a greater uptake of oxygen into your blood stream.

Secondly, because you cannot exhale as quickly through your nose as you can through your mouth, exhaling through your nose creates a back-pressure. This pressurises the air in your lungs and forces more oxygen into your blood stream

Filtering of air before entering the lungs

Your nose is filled with little hairs called cilia which act as particle filters. (No, those big hairs growing out of your grandfather’s nostrils aren’t the only kind of nose hair you can have) If you picture the soft, tender tissue of your lungs, and then picture a handful of dust being thrown against that moist tissue and being left there to rub with every breath you take, you will have some appreciation for why this filtering is important.

Every day you are drinking in huge amounts of air laden with dust, pollen, pollution and who knows what else. Breathing through your nose goes a long way to eliminating at least some of these harmful substances before they hit your lungs.

Humidification of air before entering the lungs

Your lungs are a moist place. Since their entire function is dissolve gas into a liquid, and then to exchange the gas back out of the liquid again, it makes sense that they need to be moist. Unless you live along the equator in a tropical rainforest, the chances are pretty good that the air you are breathing is drier than your lungs.

But when you breathe through your nose, the air is intensively humidified in the sinuses and turbinates - up to 98% hunidity. This means that your lungs are receiving nice, moist air on their delicate, moist tissues. When breathing through your mouth, you are effectively drying out your lungs, and they are having fight a running battle stay moist.

Warming of air before entering the lungs

Your core body temperature is roughly 37,5ºC (or 99.5ºF - for those of you still stuck in the imperial measurement system). It is more than likely that the air you’re breathing in is lower than this. If you’re breathing it in through your mouth, that lower temperature air is still going to be cold when it hits your lungs.

To understand the impact of this, try to remember a time when you jumped into really cold water. If the water was even 10ºC colder than the air, it would have been a massive shock. You would have been gasping for air and your skin would have been burning with pain. (Unless the air temperature was ridiculously hot - but I’m talking about a ‘normal’ day here) That is quite a strong reaction. And your lung tissue is far more sensitive than your skin. It just doesn’t have all those nerves to tell that it’s hurting.

Take a look at my crude flash animation for a visual representation of the above.

Reduces or eliminates snoring

Seriously. I’m not sure that anyone knows the mechanism by which this operates, but I’ve observed it to be true from personal experience. It will take you a few months of practising nasal breathing throughout the day before it becomes a sub-conscious, night-time habit, but it will happen. At that point you (or your partner) will notice a significant decrease in snoring. In fact, unless you have a medical condition, it is more likely that the snoring will be completely eliminated.

The Principles

Now that we’ve looked at some of the benefits of this approach to breathing, let’s look at how to make it happen.

  1. Day to day
  2. When running / exercising
  3. When congested
Day to day

This really is pretty simple. Shut your mouth, the rest will happen naturally.

Seriously though, you might find it helpful to place a coloured marker on the side of your computer screen or somewhere similar to remind yourself to breathe through your nose. Don’t beat yourself up if you forget more than you remember for the first week. That is normal. But keep reminding yourself and you will create a new habit within 21 days.

You may also find it very helpful to do some intentional nose breathing a few times a day for the first few days. To do this, seat yourself comfortably in your chair, with your butt against the back of the chair and your back resting against the backrest. Place your hands lightly and loosely on the sides of your belly. Now imagine that there is a tube running from your nose all the way down to a balloon in your belly. Now inhale, and imagine you’re inflating that balloon. As you exhale, imagine you’re deflating the balloon. Repeat 6 or 7 times with an even and calm tempo and you will be amazed at how much calmer and more alert you feel. Oxygen is good.

When running / exercising

This is probably the hardest change to make. I was doing sprint training three mornings a week when I decided to try this for the first time. It took 3 months of stubborn focus, 3 mornings a week, before I could easily breathe only through my nose, no matter how much I was exerting myself.

When you’re used to gasping for air through your mouth, your habitual breathing rhythm is much, much too quick for nasal breathing. Trying to suck in a whole lungful of air in 2 seconds through your nose will result in your nostrils literally sucking shut. While this provides much amusement to your training partners, it is a little frustrating when all you want is more air!

You will need to learn to slow your breathing, trusting that your body is going to get all the oxygen it needs despite your lower respiratory rate. And it will, because of the effects of the increased oxygen intake mentioned above.

When congested

This is one of my favourites. Having struggled with my sinuses since moving to the beautiful city of Cape Town some years ago, I have been through every kind of anti-histamine, decongestant and nasal irrigation that you could think of. And they all help in one way or another. But the single most effective decongestant? Breathing through my nose.

If you wake up in the night with a nose so stuffy and blocked that you cannot breathe through it, and you really don’t feel like getting up to go get some drugs that are probably going to stop you from sleeping properly any way, try this. Close your mouth, and refuse to open it. Things are going to become really uncomfortable for a few minutes. Once your body realises that you are serious, it will clear a way through the stuffiness. Seriously.

On average this takes between 2 and 5 minutes of discomfort. Then, clear-breathing bliss. You will still have a stuffy nose, but you will have no problem breathing through it, and the stuffiness will start releasing.

The Verdict

I first heard about the benefits of nasal breathing from a self-defence instructor at a class I was a part of. He told the story of how native American grandmothers would take turns staying awake through the night in the communal children’s tent for the sole purpose of closing their mouths if they opened them while sleeping. How these children would grow up being able to run great distances without ever needing to gasp for air.

That guy had a lot of stories, and I have no idea how factual this account is - but I do know this, it works.

I first experimented with nasal breathing over 8 years ago. It is now a part of who I am. I don’t breathe through my mouth. My mouth is for talking and eating, not breathing.

As for the story, my wife and I have been sharing a room with our son since he was three. He sometimes struggles with sinus congestion and used to make the most incredibly impressive racket, snoring loudly enough to wake us. So I started getting out of bed and closing his mouth. At first I had to do it 7 or 8 times a night. I never have to do it anymore.

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