The first step to improved breathing is the establishment of nasal breathing. This might seem easy and yet for many people it’s challenging. This blog will provide you with a step-by-step program on how to accomplish this goal but first let me explain why nasal breathing is imperative.
Nasal openings are smaller than the mouth’s and for that reason we consume less air when we breathe through the nose. Of course, it doesn’t prevent hyperventilation; however, nasal breathing reduces it. By inhaling through the mouth, we take in a greater amount of air and consequently, exhale more, which means losing more vital carbon dioxide.
Besides that, the nose protects us from many viruses, for instance, flu. The way viruses enter the body can make all the difference: the majority of viruses cannot survive in the mucus membrane of the nose since the microbes in this membrane create a hostile environment for the virus. When breathing through the nose, you are in fact sterilizing the air that enters your body, thus, creating a shield against disease. Mouth breathing, on the other hand, often allows flu to develop, as well as many other viral infections. When breathing through the mouth, you are creating a microbe highway from the outside environment directly into your air passages.
Nasal breathing also purifies air, warms and moistens it, and generally conditions it for consumption. The nose has tiny hairs, which trap particles of dirt when air goes through. The smaller specks are caught by the moist surface of the nose stopping pollutants from going further into the body. The air passages behind the nose also play an important role in breathing. The tissue that covers the wall of these nasal cavities contains many blood vessels; blood generates heat warming up the air. Special cells in the walls of the nasal cavity add moisture to the air. This way, the air is fully purified, warmed and moistened before it reaches your lungs.
When a person breathes through the mouth, the air is often over-cooled and unprepared for consumption. A healthy body temperature is 97.88 degrees Fahrenheit. Air cooler than that, contributes to a gradual break down of the immune system and can lead to various respiratory problems. Dr. Novozhilov told me that "mouth breathing is often the sole reason for chronic tonsillitis in children, which causes frequent colds and bronchitis and eventually ends with surgical intervention.“
Fortunately, more medical professionals, especially dentists, are becoming aware of the harmful effects of mouth breathing. Dentists and dental hygienists often take educational programs in our Breathing Center to learn how to help their patients’ transition to nasal breathing. Mouth breathing causes a loss of saliva and induces dry mouth, which increases the risk of tooth decay and inflammation of the gums. In children, it leads to deformation of jaws and facial growth, narrowing of the upper jaw and elongation of the lower jaw, resulting in so-called 'long face syndrome.' Mouth breathers’ lips often become flaccid and short, especially the upper lip. Chronic mouth breathing can also alter the posture, forcing a person to lean the head forward in front of the shoulders to keep the airway open, which can cause serious neck and back problems.
From Dr. Buteyko’s perspective, mouth breathing is responsible for more than a hundred diseases. He also stated that all children who breathe through their mouth are seriously ill, whether they have any symptoms or not. I often see little kids whose mouth is always opened just a little bit. It’s really sad that their parents are not aware of the health damage caused by this cute, semi-smile, leading to asthma, pneumonia, enlarged adenoids, ADHD, metabolic dysfunctions and many other serious diseases.
In our center, we train parents to train their children to breathe through the nose. Sometimes, a mother complains, “Well, I don’t want to traumatize my child by constantly reminding, “Close your mouth!”. My answer is: “If your child attempts to put their fingers in an electrical outlet, would you care about traumatizing their psyche?” Mouth breathing is a serious problem and should be noticed and corrected by parents as soon as possible! It is much easier to prevent a disease by establishing a pattern of nasal breathing than by trying to cure a disease caused by mouth breathing.
When I worked with Ram Dass, he brought up the issue of the ‘American smile.’ He said that when he is with people, he feels obligated to smile - meaning revealing his teeth by keeping his mouth open. In this country, a smile has become a cultural code, indicating “I am fine and friendly.” When my picture is taken, I am often instructed to smile, to which I say, “I am Russian and therefore it’s not mandatory for me to show my teeth.” Actually, it is easy to smile without opening your mouth and I believe that it’s time for the American nation to learn this trick.
‘Nasal breathing’ means that you should always breathe through your nose - day and night, while speaking, walking or even making love. Dr. Buteyko jokingly said: “We should breathe through the mouth as often as we eat through the nose!” The nose is a special apparatus created for breathing and we should use it. The option of mouth breathing is given to us only in addition, to be used for emergencies, and especially, during life-threatening situations. Mouth-breathing is perceived by the human body as ‘stress’ and therefore, a life of a mouth-breather is always stressful. Later, we will talk more about the correlation between mouth breathing and stress.
Unfortunately, for some people breathing through the nose is close to impossible. When the nose is blocked, they face a dilemma: to open the nose by using medication or continue breathing through the mouth. We normally recommend using a medication solution, preferably, a natural one, for example, a Neti Pot. Even if you have to use a chemical drug, its side-effects are going to be less harmful compared to those resulting from mouth breathing. The medication will “buy time” for your breathing exercises, for which nasal breathing is required. The breathing exercises will increase the level of CO2 in your lungs and therefore remove the reason for your nasal blockages. Eventually, your nose will stay open naturally.
A runny or stuffy nose is a sign of hyperventilation. The nose is our ally, which always tries to lessen over-breathing, which could be even lethal. When you hyperventilate, your nose produces mucus to narrow your airways and make you breathe less. If you reduce your air consumption voluntarily, you remove the reasons for your nose to create blockages and ‘easy breathing’ will be restored. It’s amazing for me to observe how reactive my nose became after several years of breathing practice. Every time I eat or drink something favorable to hyperventilation (coffee, for example), my nose immediately starts running. If I visit a high altitude place where I am forced to breathe deeper, my nose runs until I adjust my breathing. If I talk loudly for a long time, for instance - giving a lecture to a large audience, my breathing deepens and my nose starts compensating for it.
I am sincerely grateful to my nose, which I call ‘my Buteyko Guru.’ I’d like to share with you how this name came into existence. Our student, Marsha, who had previously participated in our workshop, decided to do a Breathing Normalization™ retreat. She has been practicing for a while, though not persistently and her results were modest. Nevertheless, she was proud of her achievements as she had been a mouth breather and asthmatic ever since she could remember, and wanted to demonstrate her perfect nasal breathing to Thomas and myself. She was enthusiastically looking forward to her week in Woodstock, where she was planning on doing intense breathing exercises, going to a gym with Thomas for her Breathing in Motion course and having consultations with me. Just before she arrived, she caught a cold and by the time we saw her, Marsha was breathing heavily through her mouth because her nose was blocked. She tried various medications but nothing helped. Her program with Thomas, as well as most breathing exercises, was canceled. When I met Marsha for a consultation, she was extremely disappointed.
I suggested she sit down, relax, close her mouth and breathe through her nose - as much as it would allow her.
“Trust your nose,” I told her. “It knows exactly how much air you need at every moment. Take only as much air as your nose is offering to you.”
Marsha tried and almost immediately became frustrated. She jumped up, almost screaming:
“I told you that my nose is blocked. The only way I can breathe is through my mouth!”
We did a relaxation exercise and then I asked her to breathe through her nose again. It took her a while to settle but eventually she relaxed into nasal breathing. In a half an hour, her hyperventilation lessened and her nasal airways widened. Consequently, Marsha’s breathing eased significantly.
For the first time in her life, Marsha began feeling a sense of gratitude toward her nose. For many years it worked hard at improving her health, preventing threatening diseases, and yet its work remained unnoticed and unappreciated. To correct this situation, I asked Marsha to write a ‘thank you’ letter addressed to her nose. A day later, when she read this letter to me, she started crying. She hated her nose for so long! It was often stuffed and to open it up, she would take a strong medication, which would make her irritable. Then, one day, polyps started growing in her nose (which, by the way, is another mechanism for narrowing airways). Marsha kept hyperventilating, which resulted in one of her polyps growing longer to the point that it became visible to others! Eventually, her polyps were surgically removed and yet a few months later a new one sprouted in her nose. Obviously, Marsha’s nose was not willing to give up on her! Her trouble greatly diminished after she took the Breathing Normalization™ workshop; however, the role of her nose as a lifesaver was never acknowledged. “Thank you, my dear nose - my Buteyko Guru, for everything you’ve done for me!” Marsha ended her letter, and both of us rolled with laughter.
Mouth-breathers often find excuses to justify why they cannot breathe through their noses. In reality the nose is almost never blocked completely and yet many people prefer to believe so. Marsha was one of them. Some people blame their deviated nasal septum. I remember that Thomas would often defend his breathing by the fact that his nose got broken many years ago during a Karate session. Thomas was convinced that it’s never healed correctly. In the beginning of forming his new breathing patterns, the ‘broken nose story’ would repeatedly come out. Now, that nasal breathing became his second nature, Thomas has totally forgotten about it.
It is certainly not easy changing any life-long pattern, and breathing is no exception. When some people try to switch to nasal breathing, they experience strong cravings for deep mouth breaths. If you feel this way, just do it – one deep breath is not going to kill you. You need to be patient and treat your mouth breathing as any other addiction, which often requires gradual progression. Let’s say a person is addicted to ice cream and eats twenty ice cream bars daily. Then, he meets a nutritionist, who advises him to stop eating ice cream. He tries but succumbs to his strong cravings, which made him sneaks a bar or two. Well, the difference between twenty bars and just two is significant! Please be patient! Don’t be too critical on yourself and always acknowledge your achievements.
Also, keep in mind that switching to nasal breathing is not a simple task and often professional assistance is required. Don’t hesitate to contact a Breathing Normalization specialist for help.