Try something as you read this article—breathe only through your nose. If that seems challenging to remember, place a sticky note on your mouth to help you.
If you’re wondering why anyone would want to put tape or a sticky note over their mouth, the answer is oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitric oxide. These are the three main gasses I work with as a Buteyko Breathing Reeducation Instructor. The three need to be in balance due to physiological forces that can best be described by a professor teaching third year physiology classes. For our purposes we’ll use the simplest forms to explain what’s going on.
The complexity of respirationRespiration is inhalation and exhalation triggered by a chemoreceptor in the breathing center of the brain that measures carbon dioxide. When the tolerance for that gas is reached, the diaphragm is triggered to relax forcing air out of the lungs. The diaphragm then contracts bringing air into the lungs once more.
As the air rushes into the lungs, there is a hand-off happening in red blood cells (RBCs). The oxygen hops onto the RBC and the CO2 is released. In the muscles, the handoff happens again in the opposite direction.
Inside the RBCs circulating throughout the body, CO2 accumulates until the breathing center triggers the diaphragm once again. During hyperventilation, the body breathes off too much of the CO2. You may be asking, why is that a problem?
Carbon dioxide is not just a waste gas of muscle metabolism. It is a functioning gas that promotes health. It helps the smooth muscle in the body, all muscle under autonomic control, relax. Smooth muscle runs the entire gastrointestinal (GI) system and encircles the cardiovascular system. Hyperventilation can trigger GI problems, even irritable bowel syndrome, and high blood pressure. If there’s an imbalance between carbon dioxide and oxygen they won’t release properly from the RBC.
For the most part, people are breathing too much and too hard. Mouth breathing blows off too much carbon dioxide and exposes tissues to air that are not intended to be exposed. We all learned that nose breathing warms and moisturizes the air; there’s more going on there!
The role of the noseThe nose is the organ of respiration. Its sensory cells translate smells to the limbic system to create all kinds of emotions and alter salivary composition to match the food being eaten. The turbinates force the air to slow down as it’s being inhaled. The turbinates are also covered in cells that make nitric oxide, a potent disinfectant that practically sterilizes the inhaled air. As a bonus, nitric oxide also helps to relax the cardiovascular system, opening up the blood vessels in the lower lung space to facilitate better transfer between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Preventing and treating mouth breathingAs you can see, nose breathing is pretty important. As we discover the reasons for mouth breathing, from evolutionary changes in the sizes of the sinuses to allergies and more, we can improve nose breathing by catching things early.
When we see new parents bringing their babies to the office, talk to them about nose breathing and encourage them to continue to lightly press the infant’s lips together. This will encourage proper breathing during sleep and encourage proper tongue rest posture on the palate.
In our pediatric patients, look at the palate and encourage treatments for expansion and tongue tie releases when the palate is high and narrow. If you’ve been reading this far and having your lips together, take a moment and check in how you feel. Did you already take the sticky note off? Do you feel calmer or more agitated? Does your nose itch? If you feel fine, keep going with your mouth closed as you finish up.
What if your patient is already an adult? What if their palate is high, or they have asthma, or they complain that nasal breathing is impossible? It’s not too late at all.
Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage and The Breathing Cure, talks about his own transformation with asthma and mouth breathing after living most of his life with an idiopathic deviated septum. He used his training with Dr. Buteyko to learn how to breathe through his crooked nose, solved his asthma with nose breathing, and has been training others how to teach it as well.
He frequently comments that after his surgery to fix the septum, no one told him to breathe through his nose. Just this comment alone from a dental health care provider to a patient can improve their lives.
There are a number of things that go wrong with facial development when mouth breathing the primary breathing method. Open mouth breathing deforms the temporomandibular joint. The lips may become incompetent, meaning they can’t meet. Telling little children that their lips have a partner and should always be together unless they are putting food into their mouths or talking can help improve this. In myofunctional therapy we spend a good deal of time getting the lips to rest together.
These problems are why mouth taping has been growing in popularity. If you’re still using the sticky note, you can see that it’s not a good solution to keep the mouth closed during sleep. There are many better solutions for improving nasal breathing during slumber.
Using paper tapeThere are three main ways to apply paper tape. One is to use the .5- or 1-inch tape, either starting at the philtrum across the lips ending half way to the chin, or from left commissure to the right commissure. When taking the tape off the roll, always fold over the loose end about two or three millimeters. This will create a handle to remove the tape from the roll the next night as well as act as a handle to take it off the face in the morning.
Some people use the 2-inch tape from commissure to commissure, using the same fold-over technique.
Another option is to use one of the tapes made specifically for sleeping. Somnifix was created by a physician who couldn’t get his CPAP machine to work because he was mouth breathing. So, he created this flexible, easy-to-remove mouth closing tape. It has a vent in the center for those who are still a little uneasy about taping all night.