02 Jun

Getting Nosy About the Breath


How nasal breathing can transform your health

Why do we have skew teeth?

No clue?

Don’t worry, I had no idea either.

It turns out that humans are quite unique in this regard, suffering in great numbers from this malady that does not beset others in the animal kingdom. Archaeological evidence indicates that our not-too-distant predecessors had smiles that would turn Hollywood stars green with envy. So what happened?

Until I read James Nestor’s book, Breath – The New Science of a Lost Art (Riverhead Books, 2020), it never crossed my mind to think about why it’s no longer a question of if – but when – children are going to need braces.

It’s difficult to pinpoint an exact date, but approximately 200 years ago, our smiles began to deteriorate. From naturally perfect smiles, we now have to push, pull and whiten to achieve what we’ve come to accept as ‘normal’. There are two hypotheses as to why we are stricken with such terrifically misaligned gnashers. To me, they both ring true.

Firstly, most modern babies are breastfed for between six and 24 months, compared to the three to four years of our ancestors. Breastfeeding is hard work for the baby, forcing the jaw muscles to strengthen and develop, which ensures that the bones in the face, jaw, and nasal cavity grow correctly.

The second posits that soft foods have become our downfall. Think about your average daily menu. Smoothie for breakfast; pasta salad for lunch; and curry and rice for dinner. Not much chewing happening here. Gone are the days of munching on fruit, nuts, woody leaves, and tough fire-roasted meat for hours each day. Our ancestors used to chew for approximately four hours a day. Modern man chews for about 15 minutes, tops. This has left us with underdeveloped small jaws, but we have the same amount of teeth jostling for space within them.

So what does this have to do with breathing? Our jaws have steadily weakened and narrowed over the past few generations, forcing our upper palates to morph from a U shape to a V shape, and squeezing our soft palates upward. (A word of warning – don’t Google this. It’s pretty grim viewing). On their upward trajectory, our soft palates have radically reduced the size of our nasal cavities. This reduction has made us much more susceptible to congestion and allergies, which has made nose breathing more challenging, forcing many of us to unconsciously become mouth breathers.

I couldn’t find any statistics for South Africa, so I’ll use those from the USA for reference. Between 25 and 50% of Americans are habitual mouth breathers. This is having a major deleterious consequence on their health.

Love it or hate it, that protuberance in the middle of your face is a ‘use it or lose it’ organ. If mouth breathing begins in early development, the nose is fated to cease functioning over time, and the sufferer will be condemned to a life of untold issues. This could quite simply be avoided by habitually breathing through our noses, as we’ve evolved to do.

Our noses are alarmingly and profoundly important in maintaining our health. I won’t bore you with the details but simply put – the nasal passage modulates the temperature and humidity of the air we breathe while filtering out infectious agents and dust particles, thus filling our lungs with the clean, moist, temperature-controlled air they require to do the job they’ve perfected over eons.

Our lungs manage pulmonary gas exchange (i.e. the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide), which ensures a balanced PH level in our system. Quite dramatically, up to 20% more oxygen is extracted from the air we breathe while nose breathing, so we can literally breathe less to gain more. Very importantly, this also increases our carbon dioxide level, which is vital to our wellbeing.

We are breathing at an average rate of 18 breaths per minute, while in fact the most efficient rate to match our metabolic rate is 5.5 per minute. So the name of the game is slow and steady. There is an uncanny symmetry to healthy breathing. Inhale for 5.5 seconds and exhale for 5.5 seconds, and this will equate to almost exactly 5.5 breaths per minute. If you’ve just attempted this sequence of nose breathing and fell far short of the 5.5 seconds on the inhale, exhale, or both – don’t despair. I struggled to achieve 3 seconds each way to start with, but after just a few days of conscious practice, I reached the magic 5.5 breaths per minute.

There are numerous recommendations for setting up a ‘breathing practice’ for a certain amount of time each day. This is great in theory, but I must say that this just seems like another thing I’m going to forget to do, and then admonish myself for later. I prefer a less structured approach. I’ve found that a few rounds of breath at opportune moments (for example while waiting for the kettle to boil or sitting at a red traffic light) works best for me. To compound the positive effects of this slow, steady breathing technique, it’s important to also focus on diaphragmatic breathing (in essence, ensuring that your belly expands and contracts with each breath). This gets all the right muscles working, so over time, it evolves from a chore to a habit.

Why am I feeling so good thanks to just this simple and seemingly subtle change? Aristotle’s phrase seems apt here: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

I’ll list some of the positive outcomes, although this list will continue to grow as more studies are being carried out in the burgeoning field….

  • A reduction in mean blood pressure and heart rate
  • Increased heart rate variability
  • Improved circulation
  • Preservation of autonomic function
  • Increased longevity
  • Improved immunity
  • Increased lung volume and improved lung functioning
  • Lower risk of snoring and sleep apnea

And finally, for those of us of the male persuasion heading into middle age and beyond, there’s one more positive function of nasal breathing that’s a potential game-changer.

Six times more nitric oxide is produced when breathing through the nose. Nitric oxide is a vasodilator and is key to erectile functionality. This is what’s in ‘the little blue pill’ most men turn to in their time of need. A fun fact and surprising quirk of the nose is that it is lined with erectile tissue. Yes – the same tissue as in the penis, clitoris, and nipples. And yes – your nose becomes inflamed when you’re sexually aroused. ‘Honeymoon rhinitis’ – or the much more adorable sobriquet ‘Honeymooners nose’ – refers to the phenomenon whereby the mere thought of sex causes nasal congestion, and sometimes even an onslaught of sneezing.

So the next time you’re on a date, keep a close eye on your companion’s nose.

Happy breathing!

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