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Making a case for breathing through the nose

I recently listened to an episode released on Dr. Rangan Chatterjee's podcast. It was titled: 'How breathing through your nose will change your life'. The speaker on this show was Patrick Mckeown. A world-renowned author and breathing practitioner. The title immediately intrigued me, given my growing awareness of the breath, introduced to me through mindfulness and yoga. Not to mention my mum, having listened to this conversation already, suddenly telling my brothers and I off for breathing through our mouths and urging my dad to wear micro-pore tape whilst sleeping to help with his snoring! Little did I know, that mum’s insight to the breath went a lot deeper with the knowledge that how well we breath can determine the quality of our lives, our performance and even our relationships. Despite Dr. Rangan Chatterjee having since released another episode bringing awareness to the breath, his conversation with Patrick has really struck a chord with me. Moreover, this knowledge of nasal breathing could not have been more prevalent and timelier for us during the circulation of the covid-19 virus that currently seems to be enveloping our lives.

As I began to listen to the podcast, for the very first time, I started to question the breath. I recognise that breathing is something we all do and have to do to live, and in this way, breathing is something I, and many others I imagine, have never considered as being done incorrectly and insufficiently. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was never explicitly told how to breath and that there could be a much more efficient and economical way of doing so. It is an assumed and natural part of living. Something we don’t really think about and yet is universal and fundamental to life. Any instruction that I have received has been from my yoga classes or during times when I've struggled with breathlessness through anxiety and panic attacks. In both cases, the emphasis has been to breath in through the nose and out through the mouth. I now recognise this to be an incorrect way of doing so, and consequently, much more traumatic for us. However, like many other individuals I have until this instance followed suite, without questioning the reasoning behind the described and recommended breathing pattern that has become our norm.

This episode introducing nasal breathing (versus mouth breathing) has contradicted any instruction I had previously received. Presenting itself as a new concept to me and many others. It has changed the way I thought about the breath and it is something I have immediately put into practice. To open the conversation Patrick discusses how breathing correctly, that is, through your nose lightly and slowly is the secret to better health, fitness and overall well-being. He recognises how many of us are breathing through our mouths, fast and shallow, and that our health is suffering as a result. This area of expertise and research was an untapped resource to me, but something I could certainly not turn a blind eye to. It’s indisputable that restoring nasal breathing both during sleep and wakefulness is critical. The episode is full of practical tips on how to correct our breathing, with the knowledge that it is never too late for this, whether we suffer from breathlessness, nasal congestion, snoring, sleep apnoea, stress, anxiety or if we simply want to improve our performance in any other aspect of life.

What was striking to me was discovering that the mouth performs zero functions in terms of breathing. Simply put, breathing is not a function of the mouth. Conversely, the human nose is responsible for 30 functions of the body and does much more than simply act as a filtration mechanism, warming and moistening the air. The nose is our first point of defense of air coming into the lungs. It is the nose that helps sterilise the air on the way in. Patrick begs the question of why we are choosing to ignore this and continuing to let people breath through their mouths. In relation to Covid-19, he does not claim that nasal breathing is going to prevent the inhalation of a virus. However, we do have a better likelihood. Concisely put, if we breathe through our mouths, we’re breathing hard, we’re breathing fast, and we have no defense. On these grounds, becoming acquainted with Patrick’s breath-work appears more important now than ever.

Nasal breathing has been evidenced to transform sleep, anxiety levels and has been seen to drastically reduce asthma medication. Breathing is interlinked with sleep and emotions, therefore, if one is off it subsequently affects the others.

‘If you’re emotions are off and you’ve had a very stressful day you will find that you cannot sleep when you go to bed that night. When the mind is agitated, our sleep is hampered. When our sleep is hampered, our mind is agitated. When the mind is stressed, it affects our breathing. When our breathing is fast and shallow, it affects our stress. When our breathing is fast and shallow, it affects our sleep.”

Further discussed is how the information ‘take a deep breath when you’re stressed’ is in fact absolute nonsense. It appears to be based on nothing and helps nobody, making no positive changes in the body. This makes us wonder why and how this information became so widely accepted? Patrick explains that we should do the opposite of how we breath when we’re stressed. When we’re stressed, we tend to sigh more, breath faster and breath shallow. Instead of sighing what we want to achieve is regular breathing. Instead of breathing faster, we want to slow down the breath. Instead of breathing using the chest, we want to use the diaphragm. The foundation of this is to breath in and out of the nose.

 “When you breathe through your nose, you’re actively targeting the diaphragm muscle. This is not just the main muscle for respiration, it is also linked with your emotions. When breathing through your mouth your putting yourself into more of the fight or flight response. Mouth breathing is shallow breathing. Nose breathing is slower breathing and you’re more likely to be breathing using the diaphragm. Straight away oxygen in the blood increases. Not only this, but delivery to the cells is increased. It’s not enough to get oxygen to the blood, we need to get oxygen delivered to the cells. We are more likely to be relaxed, have more efficient and economical breathing. By breathing fast and shallow through the mouth, we are not achieving optimum quality of life in terms of the mind (how can you calm the mind if you’re in a state of fight or flight).”

Breathing through the nose during physical exercise is another point of conversation. When breathing through the nose we have; increased oxygen uptake, increased oxygen delivery and it results in less trauma to the airways. Less trauma because there’s a 42% greater water loss when we breathe out through the mouth. The nose is not just for moistening the air on the way to the lungs but also for trapping moisture on the way out. Why would we therefore choose to breath in and out through the mouth if it means having less oxygen uptake, less delivery to the tissues and greater water loss? Patrick talks us through studies evidencing that switching to nasal breathing allows individuals to do the same intensity of work and exercise but with a much more efficient engine. We may find, to begin with, that switching to nose breathing when exercising is causing us to experience a lot of air hunger. This is something I’m certainly experiencing, having only just introduced this change. It is a stage where many will switch back because it gets too much. However, through persisting with nose breathing for 6 - 8 weeks, it has been shown that our exercise intensity will improve to the same par as previously, but our ventilation will be a lot less. With this in mind, along with the abundance of evidence supporting the greater health benefits unleashed through nasal breathing, it is something I am committed to pursuing and hope that you will too.

Of further and particular interest to me was the conversation around breathing and yoga. How does the importance of breathing light fit into yoga? Patrick shares that when yogi talked about breathing, they never talked about breathing hard. It was always about breathing subtle, conservation of breath, conservation of pranayama. More often than not, when we go into a yoga studio nowadays, we will hear people intentionally taking in more air. Patrick exclaims how this is the complete opposite of how yoga was developed. All yoga postures are conducive to breathing light. Why is it that students are breathing hard during gentle exercises? There is no need to intentionally breath more. The teaching of the breath seems to have got lost through transfer of information through the generations. As someone who practices yoga regularly and as I complete my Children’s yoga teacher training, I am curious to understand this further. I feel encouraged to study both the theory and practice of this newfound awareness to assist me in my own practice, as well as those I share my practice and teaching with.  

This stimulating conversation presents an incredibly informative episode from this podcast containing invaluable information for anyone and everyone. I’ve tried to bring attention to a few key points I took away from the episode, without giving the whole conversation away. I hope it encourages you to go on to listen to the podcast yourselves and to start making subtle but impactful changes to your life, through your breath.

“Breathing is information. The way you breathe is the way you live.”

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