According to Patrick McKeown, author of The Breathing Cure, “noses are for breathing, mouths are for eating.” I would also add sighing, smiling, singing, and kissing to that list!
But the most important part of this equation is that, the majority of the time, we should be breathing through the nose. When we make a habit of nose breathing, good things happen (and we leave the mouth to focus on the other pleasures listed above).
The pitfalls of mouth breathing.
Habitual mouth breathing as a result of the modern diet and our stressful culture leads to a number of pitfalls.
Just to name a few:
- Sleep apnea
- Oral health issues
- Over breathing (aka hyperventilation)
This last one, over breathing, is often overlooked. But over breathing can have a serious impact on our overall health because it leads to sub-optimal oxygenation of our tissues by the blood and triggers the “fight or flight” nervous response. This response causes the body to release epinephrine and cortisol, which makes us feel stressed out. Make a routine of mouth breathing, and we become chronically anxious and stressed.
Ancient and intuitive wisdom guides modern science.
The benefits of nose breathing have been intuitively known for thousands of years.
In Native American cultures, mothers would lightly cover the mouths of their babies with a finger to encourage nose breathing. And elders would initiate their youth by challenging them to run great distances carrying water in their mouths. At the end of the run, the elders would invite them to spit out the water to show that they were only breathing through the nose.
The Komuso Monks of 17th century Japan (yes, this is where our name comes from) used a flute-like instrument called a Shakuhachi to focus their breathing and help them meditate. In the same way our breathing tool extends the exhale, the Shakuhachi also helped the monks flip the switch on the nervous system and calm their bodies.
The practical benefits of nasal breathing.
This is a list of benefits for the everyday. The practical applications of nose breathing that will help you breathe better, think better, and feel better in your regular old daily routine. This list includes a little bit of everything.
There are of course many more benefits of nasal breathing, but these are the greatest hits. If you have questions about other benefits, send us an email or tag us on social. I love talking about breath and sharing all of the lessons I’ve learned with my students, and I’m happy to share them with you.
Nose breathing benefit #1: learn how to meditate.
On any mindfulness and wellness list, you are sure to find meditation. But all of these lists just say something like, be sure to meditate, or meditation is good for the mind, body, and soul. But do you find yourself wondering, “Ok great, but how do I meditate?!”
Flashback: way back when I was 22 years old, I attended my first Vipassana course. This involved sitting in complete silence for ten hours per day, for ten days. For the first few days, we were told to place our entire attention on the breath as it moved in and out of the nose. Once we had honed our awareness to such a fine degree that we could actually feel the subtle flow of air moving over our upper lip, we then moved on to methodically scanning all of the sensations of the body with that same attention to detail. But whenever our mind wandered (and oh, how it wandered), we would always come back to the breath.
If you want to start meditating, start by simply focusing on your breath. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Inhale, exhale, repeat. Focus all of your attention on your breath. That’s it.
Nose breathing benefit #2: improve your athletic performance.
Following the course, I had a new-found appreciation of my breath and discovered that nose breathing now came naturally to me. I had effectively trained myself to breathe through my nose almost all of the time: not only during waking hours, but also whilst asleep and even during exercise.
I am a fan of boxing. It’s an incredible workout. When I hit the punchbag in the gym, I naturally exhale sharply through my nose to increase the power of my punches.
When I run, I am able to enter a meditative flow state similar to what I had experienced during the Vipassana course.
Distance no longer matters, and just as the hours had rolled by on the meditation cushion, so do the miles as I run. At times it feels like I could just keep on running forever.
As all of this momentum built after that course and my new found connection with nasal breathing, I decided to enter my first marathon, and to my amazement crossed the finish line in front of London’s Buckingham Palace just over the 3-hour mark.
The next year, I finished in a similar time in New York, which I considered an improvement when factoring in those blustery bridges and the steady but strenuous uphill finish in Central Park.
Then back to London. Third time’s a charm, they say. And sure enough I was able to break the 3 hour barrier this time and finish dead-on 2:58:00.
I never considered myself built for distance running and back then I thought that my relatively fast marathon pace was because I had a fairly good level of base fitness and a strong mind.
Now I realize that my ability to comfortably breathe through my nose as I run is optimizing the oxygenation of my muscles, opening up my airways and blood vessels, and helping to remove lactic acid from my tired legs.
Nose breathing benefit #3: overcome general fatigue.
These benefits are not only for marathon runners. Recently I have worked with clients who were experiencing difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and general fatigue as a result of catching Coronavirus. I was able to help them to rebuild their respiratory fitness using nose breathing, along with other breathwork techniques including diaphragmatic breathing (which is actually assisted by breathing through the nose).
Nose breathing benefit #4: increase focus and process emotions.
Nose breathing focuses our attention by stimulating the areas of the brain responsible for cognition and memory.
It activates the “rest, digest and recover” response in our nervous system. The breath is always available as an anchor to bring us back into the present moment.
And, nose breathing has been shown to improve our ability to identify and process emotions.
Nose breathing benefit #5: release of nitric oxide.
Nitric oxide is a molecule produced naturally by our bodies. Vasodilation, which leads to increased circulation, is one of the most important functions of this molecule. It has also been linked to the production of endorphins and dopamine by the brain, dialing down the stress response, and increasing our capacity for deep relaxation and connection.
Breathing through the nose stimulates the release of nitric oxide in the nasal passages and sinuses, which opens up the airways and blood vessels, calms us down and has antimicrobial (antibacterial/antifungal/antiviral) properties.
Nose breathing benefit #6: the Goldilocks effect.
The nose is a wonderfully adaptive biological structure that’s perfectly evolved for optimal breathing. The nasal passages are lined with tiny hairs and mucus which clean, filter, and humidify the incoming air.
As the air swirls around the nasal turbinates (small shelf-like structures inside the nasal cavity), it is warmed up or cooled down depending on whether the outside air temperature is higher or lower than our body temperature. This makes it much more agreeable for the sensitive tissues of our lungs.
By passing through the relatively narrow nostrils and nasal passages, the air is slowed down even more, which draws it deeper and allows more contact time with the lungs, where the exchange of gasses takes place.
How to practice nasal breathing.
FIRST: BREATH AWARENESS
As always, the first step is awareness. Notice right now, as you read these words, whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth. If your usual way of breathing is through the mouth, try gently bringing your lips together and breathing through your nose for a few minutes. Did you find this challenging?
NEXT: GET COMFORTABLE
When we regularly inhale and exhale through the mouth, this increases our perceived need to breathe (which is actually triggered by the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood, but more on this in a future post). So switching to breathing through the nose can sometimes feel like you are not getting enough air.
Getting more comfortable with nose breathing is therefore a process of retraining your breathing response, getting used to the lower volume and slower movement of air. This can be achieved by making a conscious choice to close your mouth and breathe through your nose as you go about your day.
NEXT: WHEN TO TRY IT
Start with those times when you are not that active, as you work at your computer or sit in traffic, for example. Then bring nose breathing to more of the moments in your day when you are in motion: cooking, cleaning, walking, and so on.
NEXT: INCREASE RESPIRATORY FITNESS
Eventually, with training, you should be able to breathe through your nose even when undertaking more strenuous activities such as running and cycling, with the benefit of building what Patrick McKeown calls “respiratory fitness” (note: nose breathing is not generally recommended for swimming, though I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how I might nose breathe through a snorkel as part of my freediving practice).
NEXT: TRY HOLDING YOUR BREATH
Another way of retraining your breathing response so as to become more comfortable with a lower rate and volume of air moving in and out of your body is to consciously start to incorporate short breath holds into your breathing pattern.
Breathe slowly and gently through your nose using your diaphragm for a few breaths, and then at the end of an exhale simply stop breathing for a short time. Try to relax into the pause and when you start to feel the urge to breathe (no need to push it), take the next gentle inhale and resume regular breathing for a minute or two. Repeat this process several times.
LAST: SLEEPY TIME ROUTINE
Ideally, you also want to be breathing through your nose at night. This is obviously a little harder to make a conscious choice to do, at least once you are asleep. In fact, the advantages of nose breathing during the day and night are so significant that some people even go so far as to place a small piece of tape over their lips before they fall asleep.