Discussing the power of breathing mechanics and tongue posture with clients is of paramount importance as a Fitness and Lifestyle Coach. When you think about it, breathing is by far the most frequent, and often times overlooked physical action we do every day. It is so necessary to life that just a few minutes without it, and we would no longer be here. Before food, water, exercise, and lifestyle, how we breathe is the foundation of our health.
The average person takes about 25,000 breaths per day! This is an insane number, and is not what we should strive for. This boils down to about 3-5 second breath cycles (inhale and exhale). This is a rapid pace, and this rate is almost always associated with shallow mouth breathing. The metric of the "average person" coincides with the "average" level of health of our modern world, which is abysmal. Very few people are talking about breathing in a practical way, and since it is something that lays the foundation for everything else we do, I'm going to chip away at some important and overlooked facts to help you understand why breathing ought to be something you focus on immediately.
Let's start with mouth breathing. Mouth breathing is a natural physiological process of the sympathetic nervous system in reaction to physical, mental, emotional, or environmental (PMEE) stress. Unfortunately, over time mouth breathing can become the modus operandi of the respiratory system. Once it does, it isn't very long before deleterious health effects manifest.
One survey I found suggests that 71% of people mouth breathe during sleep. Sleep, being an entirely unconscious experience (or supposed to be), is a powerful indicator of breathing habits while awake. If your a mouth breather when your brain is offline during sleep, you can bet your ass you're a mouth breather when you're awake.
As we discuss the detriments of regular mouth breathing, and the powers of nose breathing & tongue posture, I want you to keep in mind this one thing: We are talking about two way streets. For example: Stress causes mouth breathing, mouth breathing causes stress.
So, why shouldn't we mouth breathe regularly?
Mouth Breathing is always a shallow breathing pattern. Shallow mouth breathing inherently triggers the sympathetic nervous system. This response creates higher levels of cortisol in the body and primarily directs blood flow to the extremities. In doing so, the vital organs are put on the back burner of importance because the nervous system is under threat. Let's suppose someone mouth breathes all day while awake, and then also at night while they sleep. Subconsciously, their nervous system is always under threat, and is constantly neglecting the vital organs. Their body simply can not be at rest. This chronic sympathetic triggering can eventually lead to severe mineral imbalances, unmanageable circadian rhythm, adrenal fatigue and burnout, liver toxicity, a weak heart, lower cognitive function, a stagnant lymphatic system, poor digestion, metabolic distress, inability to recover fully, and so much more.
Mouth breathing also neglects the most powerful breathing muscle, the diaphragm, which lifts and expands the ribcage from below. Instead it biases diametrically opposed muscle groups in the neck, shoulders, and chest to lift the ribcage from above. The ribs are capable of a large range of motion and without regular and deep diaphragmatic breathing, the ribcage gets locked in a narrow and stiff position. Often times mouth breathers have "backpack shoulders" which entails a forward head position, a hyper-kyphotic t-spine, and a sensation as though they are constantly carrying a load on their back.
Mouth breathing also significantly impact's the shape of the face, as pictured above. Starting with the photo on the left, notice the narrowness of the face. This comes from the absence of the tongue on the roof of the mouth, which acts as a natural palette expander. Chronic mouth breathing leaves the tongue in a recessed and shortened position at the base of the mouth toward the esophagus. The effect is that the maxilla bones (base of nose and roof of mouth) fall under the weight of gravity without support, which elongates the face, and also creates a crooked nose. Often times this yields a deviated septum, crooked teeth, poor cheek bone definition, and an overbite.
Moving to the photo on the right, you can certainly notice how recessed the jaw has become. This means very tight, locked, and short masseter muscles. Also, the molars are no longer able to sit flat on each other. This severely impacts mastication, and has a deleterious downstream effect on the entirety of the spine. Tension in the masseter muscle is also associated with TMJ, lock jaw, and teeth grinding. This sub-optimal positioning of the jaw narrows the airways and esophagus, making breathing even more difficult. The shaping of the face in mouth breathers is naturally unattractive, and severely impacts the capacity to breathe.
On a mental and emotional level, mouth breathers tend to be more anxious, self conscious, less confident, have less drive and passion, and are more prone to lethargy, depression and other psychosomatic imbalances. The chronic fight or flight response of the nervous system wreaks havoc on your personality, and social experiences. Essentially, no matter what environment you are in, or who you are with, everything is being received and processed as a threat to your life. In this chronic SNS response, the amygdala (primal brain) overrides the frontal lobes (logical and rational thinking) which leaves you with very little control of your response to circumstance.
Now that we've got mouth breathing out of the way... Let's talk about some simple solutions!
Mewing is the technique of flattening out your tongue against the roof of the mouth. Over time, the positioning of the tongue helps to realign your teeth and define your jawline. To properly mew, you must relax your tongue and make sure it's entirely against the roof of your mouth, including the back of the tongue. Mewing is a very powerful practice that I recently became aware of. Applying it has made nose breathing so much easier. The reason being is that it sets the mouth up in a way that is productive for nose breathing. It provides that palette expanding effect which opens the bony structures around the sinus's and airways, making nose breathing easy.
Mewing, in the beginning, will take regular awareness and "check ins" especially if you're a mouth breather by habit. You'll consistently notice that you have to remember to put the tongue where it needs to be. The best part of this is that you'll become sensitized to the habit of mouth breathing. The more you can habituate mewing, the better you will be able to breath. If you're a Mewer by day, you're a nose breather by night.
Some tips for nose breathing with mewing to avoid common mistakes:
1) It is the entirety of your tongue that rests on the roof of the mouth. DO NOT just press through the tip of your tongue.
2) The molars are what want to rest on top of each other, DO NOT bite down with any force with the front of your teeth.
3)Suction can help maintain tongue posture. Place the tongue on the roof of your mouth, let the molars rest on each other, and then swallow. The suction created by the swallow can be helpful in the beginning.
4) Soreness is normal, especially if you are a chronic mouth breather. But overly sore musculature is more so from forcing mewing to happen, rather than it being natural. So remain relaxed while in the mewing posture.
5) It takes time, so consistency is king here.
Nose breathing has built in mechanisms to make the air you breathe more purified and ready for use in comparison to mouth breathing. For example, when mouth breathing, the air you breathe goes directly into your lungs, regardless of pollutants, temperature, or particles. Nose breathing has a complex system that purifies the air by trapping particles and contaminants in nasal hairs and mucous, as well as tempers the air by warming it up and making it more easily utilized by the body. This helps maintain healthy respiratory tracts and lungs.
When talking about nose breathing it is very important to distinguish breathing THROUGH the nose and WITH the nose, as they are two very different things. Breathing with your nose is when you can feel the musculature of the face work to force air in through the nostrils. Breathing through your nose is when you are using your diaphragm to pull air into the body through the open airway of the nostrils. The easiest way to distinguish the two is using the musculature of the face in the way you do when you have a very stuffy nose (facial), in comparison to beginning to take a mouth-breath but closing the mouth in the middle of the inhale (diaphragmatic). The latter is the sensation we are going for when it comes to nose breathing; diaphragm based.
Nose breathing (done properly) inherently activates the diaphragm which acts as a gentle massage to all the vital organs of the body, as well as mobilizes the ribcage. This is an often overlooked wellness "hack" that the general population can seriously benefit from.
When it comes to performance, nose breathing can be a super power. The threshold of being able to manage physical exertion and nose breathing translates to all areas of life, especially athletic performance. For example, the next time you go for a jog, make a conscious effort to make it the entire duration without taking a breath through your mouth (not even an exhale). You'll realize just how difficult this is. The reason being is that the body, due to environmental demands, is pushing more toward a sympathetic response. You have the power to override this with conscious nose breathing. This translates to better endurance, more power, and faster recovery.
Nose breathing, without getting too deep into the science, yields healthier balances of CO2 and O2 in the blood. The majority of us have been indoctrinated to believe that CO2 is a "waste molecule". On the contrary, it may be the most important molecule in the respiratory process. Why? Because CO2 is the molecule that actually gets the O2 molecule to cleve off of the hemoglobin, and get it to the cells where its needed! A lot of people obsess over "blood oxygenation" in the surface levels of health and alt-health communities. The deeper truths of breathing are about CO2. Whats the point of oxygenated blood when that oxygen can't actually get to where it needs to be?
To put the icing on the cake, nose breathing has a profound effect on the nervous system & psychosomatic experience. Our nervous system was not designed to expect a threat at every single turn we make, word we hear, and thing we see. We were designed to observe and compute the environment with the if-needed ability to "fight or flight". When we maximize parasympathetic activity through nose breathing, we actually make the dose and experience of our sympathetic response that much more powerful. Nose breathing leads to more confidence, energy, focus, and overall a more stable mental-emotional state where we are able to respond, rather than react.
Make nose breathing a priority and notice just how much the experience of your world can change.