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So, that’s what They Meant by “Shut Your Mouth”

So, that’s what They Meant by “Shut Your Mouth”

I’d like to do something different for a writer and ask you to stop reading this for a moment. That’s right, just check out your breath…

[A pause as you watch your breath…]

Are your breathing through your nose or mouth?

You might reply, “Who cares? Air is air, right?”

I used to think that too, until coming across James Nestor’s New York Times best-seller, Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. Turns out, the difference between breathing through your mouth or your nose is like the difference between drinking pond water or spring water.

“So, what’s the right way?”

Let’s just say the nose knows

You see, when we breathe through our noses, the air is filtered, warmed and humidified. Only if your nose is clogged should you breathe through your mouth.

As a recovering mouth-breather, I learned this the hard way. At night, I often had dry mouth which attracted plaque, making me a “regular” at the dentist’s office.

I later found out other issues from mouth-breathing include:

  1. Fatigue from less oxygen
  2. Anxiety and poor sleep quality
  3. Less filtering of pathogens including viruses

We usually breathe through our mouths when under stress or in a hurry. Ironic, as those are the times we most need to breathe properly.

I wondered why this mouth-breathing stuff wasn’t taught in grade school. Or, maybe that’s what the teachers meant when they said, “Joe, shut your mouth.”

Turns out, shutting our mouths can do as much for our health as losing weight and eating better. After all, we breathe around ten thousand liters of air a day. So, how we breathe matters.

Let’s check that breath again…

Are you breathing into your chest or belly? Is the air mainly going to your upper chest? Or, all the way down to your gut?

What’s the right way?

Not surprisingly, we’re all born breathing the correct way: into our bellies. Animals breathe this way too. Check out any cat or dog.

Of course, the air is actually going into the lower lungs, but we feel the sensation of inhaled air in our bellies. The lower lungs send more oxygen throughout the body which energize and rejuvenate us.

Most of us grow out of belly breathing, again, because of stress and the pace of modern life. It can all leave us gasping for air.

I was all too guilty of this, often going through most of the day nearly hyperventilating without knowing it.

By Accident, I Discovered a Breathing Exercise

Seeking tracks for a playlist, I jumped off the beaten path of famous artists, and stumbled upon a guided meditation called The Secret of This Moment, by Tania Rose.

The etherial music and her words took me to a place I rarely tread: The Present Moment.

Slowly, I stepped outside the whirlwind of thoughts and emotions, reaching a quiet state of insight and peace.

I wondered what other artists could be out there like her.

Thats when I discovered a track by Deepak Chopra, a breathing exercise.

I had nothing to lose, so I muted notifications on my phone and pressed the play button.

The track infused breathwork with meditation: deep, rhythmic breaths coupled with inner observations and affirmations.

The exercise took about 20 deep breaths over a 7 minute time frame. At the end, I felt more calm and clear than I had in a long time.

The exercise encouraged long, slow breaths into my belly, instead of the shallow breaths into my chest I took while on auto-pilot. I became aware of the sensations caused by extending each breath.

Surprisingly, trapped energy and emotions were released with each exhale.

Those minutes of mindful breathing made me feel good, without a pill or a vacation to a serene getaway.

There in my living room, I even felt closer to my spiritual side from this Buddhist exercise. Ironic, I’m Christian, yet open-minded enough to know we can benefit from the wisdom of other traditions. I think of the three Wise Men from the East: Mary certainly appreciated the gifts they had to offer. I, too, believe we can benefit from gifts of the East.

I Discovered Something Amazing: My Breath

Next, I wanted to know the science behind it. How could slowing down and deepening each breath create a blissful state?

I discovered that our breath governs not only our physical responses to the world, but our emotional ones as well.

When we breathe fast and shallow, we’re engaging our sympathetic nervous system, known as the fight-or-flight response. That’s fine if there’s a real danger present, like an earthquake or a pack of wolves, but to be in this state all day long is, well, draining.

Shallow breathing can also cause indigestion, high blood pressure and headaches, among many other issues. Often, we stay too long in this fight-or-flight mode and wonder why it takes so long to unwind at night.

Luckily, the answer is simple and free. It all starts with a slow, gentle breath. The repetition of the extended breathing switches our body from fight-or-flight mode to the healing state known as the rest-and-digest response, or the parasympathetic nervous system.

The sympathetic system focuses on survival and performing tasks while the parasympathetic is all about chilling out.

Both are necessary. In fact, language and working at a computer rely on the sympathetic nervous system. We just don’t want to be there all the time.

When we make an effort to breathe slow and deep, expanding our bellies with each breath, there are solid rewards:

  1. Enhanced immunity
  2. Reduced headaches
  3. Calming of anxiety and a host of other benefits.

Not surprisingly, this type of breathing also slows the heartbeat and can lower or stabilize blood pressure, according to Harvard Health.

I Lost Weight After Changing My Breathing

Whenever I felt like I needed a break, I learned to focus on my breathing. My productivity increased (funny enough, from taking more breaks). My health improved and some nagging digestion issues subsided.

When our breath is slow and deep, our body takes this as a signal that all is good in the world. This protects us from stress hormones like cortisol and releases good stuff like endorphins, putting us at ease while healing the body.

Focusing on breathing also helped me to detach from disruptive thoughts, meaning better sleep.

And with more oxygen in my body, I could take more walks and get more exercise.

The less anxiety also meant less stress-eating. I also became more aware of the effects of various foods on my body, and ate more of what I felt was beneficial.

With all these changes, I began to lose weight.

So, When Did We Start Breathing Wrong?

Author James Nestor traces the degradation of our breathing back some 1.5 million years.

He says that once our distant ancestors began mashing and cooking food, our teeth and jaws had less work and so grew smaller, causing dental arches and smaller sinuses. At the same time, processed food meant we were able to consume more calories which made our brains grow larger.

The theory is that there’s only so much space for rent in our heads, and so the larger brains also meant smaller mouths, noses and sinuses.

The tighter airways gave way to more allergies, snoring, and susceptibility to choking on food. A shrinking mouth meant crooked teeth, braces and the need to extract wisdom teeth.

We began breathing through our mouths more to compensate for smaller airways. But some cultures were already wise to the dangers of mouth breathing, long before Europeans.

Nestor introduces us to George Caitlin, who quit his job as a lawyer to paint portraits of American Indians in the mid 19th century. Along the way, he discovered how healthy they were, and how straight their teeth despite no dentistry.

He noticed they didn’t seem to get sick or have the same chronic health problems of people with European ancestry.

He attributed their good health and stature to a medicine dubbed the “great secret of life.” Their secret? Nasal breathing.

They believed mouth breathing caused deformities in the face, stress and disease. Breathing through the nose, however, kept the body strong and healthy.

Some even resisted smiling with an open mouth, lest noxious air infiltrate.

In addition, mothers trained infants to breathe through their nose while sleeping, and placed them on pillows in a way to induce nasal breathing.

Science backs this up, as breathing through the nose filters out more pathogens. Also, nasal breathing engages the lower lungs, which boosts oxygen levels, keeping organs more healthy.

Of course, there are times when breathing through the mouth is needed, like maybe our nose is simply blocked or we’re working out and need that extra boost of oxygen. The point is that breathing through the nose should be our “default” mode.

Once I began consciously nasal breathing, the dry mouth issue began to subside and I felt more calm even when the going got rough.

The pace of our modern times undoubtably makes shallow breathing from the mouth even more common, yet still receives little attention. If you know someone who could benefit from breathing better, send this along to them.

Eat, drink and breathe merrily!

Photo by the author.

3 Steps to Better Breathing Right Now

  1. Breathe through your nose whenever possible. Simply shut your mouth and you’re breathing better. From Nestor’s book: “The nose is the silent warrior; the gate keeper of our bodies, pharmacist to our minds and weather vanes to our emotions.
  2. Breathe slowly into your belly. Try to inflate your belly like a balloon with each breath. Practice with one hand on your chest and another on your belly. As you breathe, the hand on your belly should expand and contract while the hand on you chest remains mostly still.
  3. To relax, try 5-second inhales and 7-second exhales. Longer exhales stimulate the rest-and-digest response. On the other hand, if you want to wake up and become more alert, try longer inhales.

Tip: Never take in too much air, keep the breathing light and slow. The object is to breathe deep, not heavy, as too much air is just as bad for us as too much food.

Final Takeaway…

The big challenge I’ve found is just remembering to breathe better. Even as I write this, I’ve had to “shut my mouth” and go back to nasal breathing numerous times. But each time I catch myself, I notice how the air seems sweeter … I hope this makes your air sweeter too.

Let’s go deeper … join me over at