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Why is it that nasal breathing can be so much more beneficial to us than mouth breathing?

The nose has a number  of features designed to bring cold dry outside air to a more acceptable condition before it enters the lungs.  The mouth,  however,  is  not  intended to  condition atmospheric  air – it is merely for talking, eating and drinking. Air that  is  drawn  in  through   the  nose  passes  along turbinates  and spends  a longer  period of time in the body. This serves to warm the inhaled air far more effectively than drawing it in through the mouth.

Air is filtered by the turbinates  and tiny hair-like structures  that  work to  prevent  pollen,  dust  and  bacteria  from entering  the lungs. The sticky mucus blanket within the nose traps a significant proportion of all the bacteria and allergens contained  in air. On any one day, a person with asthma may inhale from 10,000 to 20,000 litres of air laden with foreign particles  including  many  triggers.  Whereas  the  nose can remove  these  deposited  particles  within  fifteen  minutes,  it takes 60–120 days for them to be removed from the small air sacs (alveolus) within the lungs.

Lungs require a warm moist environment and therefore it is imperative that the air drawn into the lungs meets  this condition.  The  nose humidifies   inhaled  air  by increasing moisture content. A sign of good health is a moist nose while a dry nose can be a sign of dehydration. Take a moment now to think about a dog. Why a dog? Well, it’s common  knowledge that when Fido’s nose is cool and moist, he’s most likely to be healthy, but when his nose is dry and hot, his owner is probably facing a trip to the vet!

It is just as important to breathe out through the nose as it is to breathe  in through  it, despite a common  conviction, particularly  among sporting  professionals,  to  the  contrary. By breathing   out  through  the  nose,  part  of  the  moisture contained  in the exhaled air is retained, thus reducing moisture  loss.  Breathing  out  through   the  mouth   results  in  a greater  loss of carbon dioxide and may lead to dehydration. This can be observed by breathing  onto a pane of glass and then checking the residue of moisture left.

Nasal  breathing  helps  to  regulate  volume.  All mouth breathers  overbreathe  and as a result suffer some symptoms of hyperventilation. The nose is a smaller channel to breathe through, and therefore it helps to reduce the volume of air as there is about fifty per cent more resistance. It is possible to overbreathe through the nose but to a lesser extent.

Western  research  has concluded  that  the  volume  of air passing through  the lungs of a person  with asthma  is usually between two and four times the norm.1,2,3  From this it is possible to deduct that the quantity of allergens inhaled by a person with asthma  is far greater than  that of a person  with healthy breathing.  By switching  to nasal breathing  and reducing  the volume of air taken in, the quantity of the allergens inhaled will be dramatically reduced, resulting in less exposure to triggers.

Some people will instinctively hold their  breath  when- ever they come across a trigger, and this is a good idea. For example, if you are walking in the street and a bus emitting  a large volume of fumes passes by, just breathe out, and try to hold your breath until you have walked away from the pollution. When you recommence breathing,  reduce  the volume so that the amount  of polluted air entering  the airways will be reduced.

A partially blocked nose is common  with nasal breathing, one  nostril  will be partially blocked while the  other  is free to work. Check to see which of your nostrils is blocked by  placing  your  finger   over  one   nostril   and   breathing through the other; then repeat using the other nostril. You will find that after three  or four hours the blocked nostril will usually clear and the previously clear nostril will become blocked. This is a natural pattern which enables one nostril  to  rest  at  a time.  During  physical  activity such  as walking or light jogging, both nostrils will open up to allow more  air into the body. When  lying down at night,  usually the lower nostril will be blocked and the upper nostril clear.

The importance  of breathing  through  the nose tends to receive very little attention from the medical  profession.  It seems to be accepted without question that some people will breathe through the mouth and others through the nose. However,  breathing  through  the  mouth  is detrimental to your health and this is emphasised  to all patients who learn breath  retraining.  Mouth  breathers   have  generally  poorer health  and may go through  life with an uncomfortable  and permanently   blocked  nose.  Furthermore, mouth  breathers have a higher incidence  of cavities and  gum  disease  than those who breathe through their nose.

It is vital to remember to breathe through the nose at all times  and  parents  should  also  explain  the  importance   of nasal breathing  to their children.  Parents  will generally  be the best judges of how to explain things but to help the child understand the importance  of breathing through  their nose, it might  be helpful  to explain to them  the  following way, using a little girl called Emily as our example:

The  air  that  we  breathe   is  not  always clean.  It  can contain  a large amount  of dirt particles with germs, smoke and bacteria too small to be seen. The nose has tiny filters that  clean  this  air before  it goes  into  the  body. If the  air sneaks in through  the mouth, we’re sucking in dirty air. This is not good at the best of times but is particularly so if a child like you or an adult like me has an asthma problem.

Whenever  the child sees or smells dirty air, get her to hold her breath and walk away from it. Explain that the less dirty air she breathes in, the less difficulty she will have with her asthma. Air that sneaks in through the mouth is cold and dry and the body doesn’t really like that. Air that comes in through the nose is warm and moist and is much better for the body. Ask Emily whether she would prefer to be warm (but not too warm) or very cold. She will hopefully answer that she prefers to be warm. Then explain that the body prefers warm air too but it can only get this nice warm air by breathing  through the nose. If she tells you that she prefers to be cold then I’m afraid you’re on your own explaining this one!