Mike from Stranger Things may have described mouth breathers as “knuckleheads,” but he’s certainly adding insult to injury, as mouth breathing can actually cause a number of serious health conditions. And many mouth breathers aren’t even aware of their own debilitating habit or have medical issues that make nose breathing difficult.
It may seem a little dramatic to pay so much attention to whether or not you’re breathing with your mouth, but it can actually lead to serious issues and conditions. Mouth breathing alters the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your bloodstream.
Research shows that individuals who habitually breathe through the mouth are more likely than those who breathe through the nose to have sleep deprivation and ADHD symptoms. And it has even been suggested that breathing through the mouth instead of the nose can adversely affect brain function, facial growth and dental health.
Unwarranted insults aside, if you think you may be a mouth breather and you’ve noticed some common symptoms of mouth breathing, like dry mouth, bad breath and sleeping problems, then it may be time to see your physician about the cause of your habit. By eliminating the cause and retraining your muscles, you can begin nose breathing and notice the many advantages.
What Is Mouth Breathing?
Humans normally breathe through the nose, but when they are experiencing some sort of obstructed upper airway, they will use the mouth as a breathing route instead.
So why is it bad to breathe with your mouth open? To put it simply — mouth breathing causes central fatigue. This can negatively affect brain function and lead to issues including sleep disorders and ADHD.
Research published in Neuroreport showed that when we breathe through the mouth, it increases the oxygen load in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This is the part of the brain that’s associated with personality expression, decision making and social behavior. It works to coordinate the functions of different parts of the brain, too. Researchers indicate that ADHD is associated with impaired prefrontal cortex function, which is caused by central fatigue. (1)
Not only does mouth breathing affect your brain, it’s also associated with impaired facial growth, bad breath, sleep disorders, reduced energy levels and speech impediments.
Mouth Breather Symptoms
Research suggests that there is a relationship between mouth breathing and the following factors or disorders: (2)
- Dry mouth
- Bad breath
- Nasal obstruction
- Ear and throat infections
- Misaligned teeth and overbite
- History of dental issues, like cavities and gingivitis
- Speech impediments
- Chewing abnormalities
- Facial deformities, including flatter facial features
- Improper facial growth
- Sleep disorders, including sleep apnea
- Poor concentration and academic performance
Mouth Breather Causes and Risk Factors
There are a few factors that can cause a person to sit with her mouth open or breath using her mouth during the day and night. People who habitually breath through their mouths tend to have one of the these contributing causes or risk factors:
- Nasal congestion: Many times, mouth breathing is the result of nasal congestion that forces a person to breath through the mouth instead of the nose. This can be from allergies, chronic colds and stuffy noses, sinus infections, and any type of respiratory condition that affects your ability to breath through your nose properly. Anytime the airways in the nasal passages are reduced, mouth breathing is more likely to occur.
- Asthma: Asthma symptoms include the feeling that you’re running out of air, coughing, sneezing and a tightness in the chest. This can lead to mouth breathing as a person tries to breath in more oxygen.
- Deviated nasal septum: A deviated septum is a common cause of nasal obstruction. It can block one nasal passage and reduce your airway, forcing you to breath through your mouth instead.
- Enlarged tonsils and adenoids: When the tonsils and adenoids are enlarged, or inflamed, you are more likely to develop colds, hoarseness and sore throat. Because tonsillitis and inflamed adenoids obstruct the upper airway, this increases the risk of chronic mouth breathing.
- Previous thumb sucking habit: Someone who has sucked his or her thumb in the past has oral and facial muscles that developed around that habit. This means that even though the thumb or finger is no longer in the person’s mouth, the lips still don’t form a seal, from habit, and the tongue thrust pattern that forms when finger-sucking remains.
- Tongue tie: A tongue tie doesn’t allow for the mouth to close properly, thereby impairing nasal breathing. Because a tongue tie reduces upper airway support, it, too, is associated with sleep disorders if left untreated. (3)
When Mouth Breathing Is Appropriate
There is a reason why our mouths are one of our two available airway passageways to the lungs. Although nose breathing is better for when we are sleeping, it becomes necessary to breath through the mouth when we are experiencing nasal congestion. When you are dealing with sinus issues, the common cold or allergies, and breathing through your nose is impossible, then of course mouth breathing is appropriate.
Mouth breathing may also be helpful when you’re engaging in strenuous exercise and need to get oxygen to your muscles faster. According to research published in the International Journal of Exercise Science, nasal breathing elevated the heart rates of individuals engaging in conditioning drills as a form of exercise.
Because breathing through the nasal airways becomes more difficult during a strenuous workout, mouth breathing can increase ventilation volume and allow for higher levels of oxygen when it’s needed. (4)
How to Stop Mouth Breathing
Your first step in stopping mouth breathing is to determine the cause of this abnormal breathing pattern. You need to figure out if you have any airway or breathing issues that are stopping you from breathing through the nose.
To pinpoint the cause of your mouth breathing, it may be necessary to talk to a doctor who specializes in breathing and sleep, or, if you are trying to stop your children from mouth breathing, his or her pediatrician.
Generally, here are the key points in changing from being a mouth breather to a nose breather:
1. Clear Your Nasal Airway
Obstructed airways is one of the major causes of mouth breathing. One of the best things you can do to stop mouth breathing is to clear your airways with a nasal cleansing.
A neti pot is a great tool for cleansing and refreshing the nasal passages. It works to flush out irritants, thin our mucus and relieve congestion that may be leading to mouth breathing. A neti pot can be used to relieve symptoms of sinus infections, colds, sinus infections and other conditions causing congestion. (5)
Eucalyptus oil is another natural remedy for an obstructed, stuffy nose. It helps to open up your airways and loosen the mucus. If you are having trouble breathing through your nose because of a respiratory condition, try combining 2–3 drops of eucalyptus oil with equal parts coconut oil and rub the mixture into your chest and back of neck. You can also add about 5 drops of eucalyptus oil to a pot of steaming water. Then put a towel over your head as you breath in the steam slowly.
2. Practice Nose Breathing
If you habitually breath your mouth, even when your sinuses are clear, it may be helpful to break this habit by practicing nose breathing. Be aware of your breathing patterns throughout the day.
If you notice yourself breathing through your mouth, redirect your breathing. It may also be helpful to try nasal breathing exercises, which involves breathing in deeply through the nose, then exhaling through only one nostril by blocking the other with a finger. Then breath in again and block the other nostril with a finger. Not only does this make you aware of your breathing, but research also suggests that it helps to relieve nasal congestion, too. (6)
3. Change Your Sleeping Position
If you are sleeping in a manner that’s obstructing your nasal passages and making it impossible to breath through your nose, then you may need to change your sleeping positions.
For one thing, sleeping on your back may cause mouth breathing because it causes upper airway resistance and forces you to take heavier breaths. Research shows that avoiding sleeping flat on your back may help to reduce obstructive sleep apnea. (7)
It may also be helpful to stay elevated while sleeping. You can do this by using a pillow to elevate your head above the rest of your body, or you can look into using an adjustable mattress.
4. Try Myofunctional Therapy
Myofunctional therapy helps you to relearn swallowing and breathing patterns. This form of therapy involves exercising the mouth and facial muscles in order to correct issues with chewing and swallowing.
Research published in the journal Sleep shows that myofunctional therapy decreases symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea by approximately 50 percent in adults and 62 percent in children. (8)
By engaging in these types of exercises, patients are able to change the position of their tongues, lips and jaw muscles, which can help to avoid mouth breathing.
Advantages of Breathing Through Your Nose
Here’s what happens when we take a breath: First, we breath in air through the nose. The air we breath is filtered as it makes its way through the nasal passage and into the mucus-lined windpipe. Both the tiny hairs in the nose and the mucus in the windpipe work to protect our bodies from foreign particles before they are able to enter the lungs.
Once the filtered air enters the lungs, the oxygen is pumped into our bloodstream and circulated throughout the body. And finally, when air exits the body through exhalation, it brings with it carbon dioxide from our cells and other waste materials.
Our bodies follow this breathing process all day and all night, without us even realizing it. And our bodies were designed to breath through the nose in order to distribute filtered air to the lungs and bloodstream properly. Nose breathing is so natural and normal that babies don’t even learn how to breath through their mouths until they are about four months old. From the moment they are born, babies use their noses to breath. Mouth breathing does not allow for the same filtering process and it doesn’t distribute oxygen to the body properly.
Here are the advantages of nose breathing:
1. Acts As a Filter: The nose is lined with cilia — tiny hairs that filter the air we breath before it enters the lungs. Tiny particles that would be able to enter the body through the mouth are stopped by these tiny hairs in the nose during nasal breathing.
2. Regulates Air Temperature: The tiny hairs that line the nasal passage help to regulate the temperature of the air we breath before it enters the lungs. It works to cool or warm the air, depending on its temperature. Research published in Respiratory Physiology & Neurobiology refers to this as our “nasal air-conditioning capacity.” Breathing through the nose ensures that inspired air is at the right temperature for the lungs, promoting proper lung function. (9)
3. Prevents Dryness: When you breath in through your nose, the air is moistened before it reaches the lungs. By warming and humidifying the air we breath, nose blowing is beneficial to your respiratory system and may help to reduce the risk of common respiratory conditions, like the common cold.
4. Helps to Calm the Mind: Did you know that nose breathing helps to calm the mind and body? That’s why nostril breathing is such a huge element of a yoga practice. This breathing exercise is meant to help you focus on the present and leave you with a relaxed state of mind. When we breath deeply in and out of the nose, it stimulates parasympathetic nerve receptors that are associated with calmness and distributes greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body.
5. Boosts Immune Function: Nose breathing allows for the production of nitric oxide in our sinuses. Nitric oxide works as a toxic defense molecule that protects us from infectious organisms and reduces inflammation. It helps to boost your immune system by reducing the risk of infection. It also works to relax the inner muscles of our blood vessels, allowing them to widen and increase circulation. (10)
- Mouth breathing is when you are breathing through your mouth instead of your nose. This may be the result of an obstructed airway, enlarged tonsils or adenoids, a tongue tie or a deviated septum. It can also be a habit that started as a child and was never altered.
- Although breathing through your mouth may seem harmless, it actually messes with the amount of oxygen that’s entering your brain and bloodstream. It can lead to major health issues, including ADHD, sleep disorders, dental health issues, facial deformities, speech impediments and throat infections.
- If you are a mouth breather, it’s in your best interest to switch to nose breathing. First you need to determine the cause of your mouth breathing and correct it. Practicing nose breathing will help to train your muscles to form a new habit, and seeking professional help from your physician or a myofunctional therapist can be extremely helpful.