You make the same mistake thousands of times every single day. It takes time to overcome decades of habit, but learning proper breathing can change your life in spectacular ways.
Most of us (myself included) unconsciously make three common breathing mistakes: Breathing too much, unconsciously breathing through the mouth, and taking shallow chest breaths.
How to Start Breathing Properly Today
On the other side of mouth breathing lies greater energy, productivity, focus, quality sleep, and even exuding radiance.
Hard to imagine all that from something so basic.
Three simple changes make breathing more effective:
- Slowing down your breathing rate.
- Inhaling through your nose.
- Initiating breaths from your lower abdominals.
Altering automatic behaviors such as breathing takes conscious effort. I recommend setting a few reminders throughout the day to keep you on track.
1. Breathe Through the Nose
The nose performs a long list of important functions. Otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) Dr. Maurice Cottle explains:
“The nose performs at least 30 functions, all of which are important supplements to the roles played by the lungs, heart, and other organs.”
30 plus functions that mouth breathers forfeit, including:
- Sterilizing bacteria and pathogens in the air
- Bringing more oxygen into the brain and body
- Warming & humidifying incoming air
- Circulation of nitric oxide — a powerful gas essential to health (and won its discoverer a Nobel prize)
- Maintaining body temperature
- Better workout performance
Infants innately know to breathe through the nose. Unless you have a nasal obstruction, make a conscious effort to keep your mouth closed throughout the day. Eventually you will naturally begin breathing through your nose.
2. Take Fewer Breaths
Counterintuitively, taking more breaths actually decreases the amount of oxygen delivered to tissues throughout your body (see below for more details on the science).
Carbon dioxide (CO2) helps hemoglobin, a component of red blood cells, transfer oxygen to tissues.
Think of hemoglobin as a locked doorway. CO2 unlocks the door, allowing oxygen through.
Without enough CO2 in the blood, lungs full of air do no good.
Overbreathing expels too much CO2. In the above example, it is like removing the key and the door locking again. The medical community calls this hypocapnia. As cardiologist Dr. Claude Lum put it:
“Breathing too much presents a collection of bizarre and often apparently unrelated symptoms, which may affect any part of the body, and any organ or any system.”
Without sufficient oxygen, muscles and organs do not work properly. Symptoms can range from gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, and respiratory problems, to extreme fatigue.
How to breathe less:
- Gradually increase the length of each inhale and especially the exhale.
- Notice a sigh or yawn arise and fight the urge. Both quickly release too much CO2.
Pay attention to the origin of your breath as you slowly exhale through the nose.
3. Inhale From Lower
Abdominal breathing promotes relaxation, protection, and healing.
Only inhalation through the nose activates the diaphragm, a muscle used to completely fill the lungs. Without use the diaphragm atrophies, leaving you with less oxygen carrying capacity.
Yoga, meditation, and relaxation techniques all prioritize deep breathing for a reason. Abdominal breathing activates the parasympathetic (rest-and-digest) response which has profound physiological effects:
- Less stress because of reduced cortisol levels
- Lower heart rate
- Better tolerance to exercise
- Greater resilience against injury
- Improved lymphatic (toxin and cellular debris) drainage
Mastering deep, efficient breathing takes practice.
How to abdominal breathe
Sit somewhere comfortable. Relax.
Drop the shoulders and optionally close your eyes.
Gently rest your hand on your stomach.
Inhale normally through the nose and notice where the breath starts. Exhale through the nose. Go slow.
With each successive breath, focus on starting the breath from lower than before. Your stomach should noticeably balloon full of air, and then flatten on the exhale.
Do not get discouraged if you do not get it immediately. Abdominal breathing gets easier with practice.
The Science Behind Proper Breathing
Your brain and body require oxygen to operate.
The lungs diffuse oxygen from inhaled air into the bloodstream. From there hemoglobin, the oxygen-carrying component of blood, transports oxygen to your tissues. Higher CO2 in your blood “unlocks the door” for hemoglobin to deliver more oxygen to tissues.
Finally, you exhale a portion of that CO2 back into the atmosphere. The process repeats with each breath.
Understanding the necessity of the mistakenly vilified carbon dioxide is key to understanding breathing.
Heavy Breathing Deprives You of Oxygen
A scientist named Christian Bohr discovered the above phenomenon in 1904 which explained how hemoglobin releases oxygen to cells. His experiments established CO2 level as a major tissue oxygenation factor.
More carbon dioxide in the blood leads to greater oxygenation throughout the body.
Blowing off too much carbon dioxide in loud, dramatic exhalations causes hemoglobin to become stingy with oxygen. Hemoglobin releases less oxygen, depriving cells and organs of fuel.
Your heart and brain consume a lot of oxygen. Deprivation hampers blood flow. In his book The Oxygen Advantage, Patrick McKeown describes the consequences (emphasis mine):
“In general, blood flow to the brain reduces proportionately to each reduction in carbon dioxide… It is well documented that habitual mouth breathing during waking and sleeping hours results in fatigue, poor concentration, reduced productivity, and a bad mood.”
The medical world uses this exact oxygen deprivation strategically.
Anesthesiologists sometimes set respiration machines to a pattern that induces oxygen deprivation. They praise over-breathing as a “magical” tool to sedate the brain so that it needs less anesthesia.
Yikes. Great for surgery, not for peak cognition.
But mouth breathing has a time and place.
Should I Ever Mouth Breathe?
Research supports mouth breathing in two cases:
- Extreme bouts of physical exertion. Athletes of all levels can incorporate nasal breathing. Competitive athletes should strive to train with their mouths closed about 70 percent of the time. Reserve the mouth-open, panting 30 percent for all-out efforts.
- Intentional breathwork practice. Breathwork practices like the Wim Hof Method strategically use mouth breathing.
Something dangerous in large amounts can have benefits in smaller doses (a concept called hormesis). Exercise, for example, stresses the body in the short-term causing it to rebuild stronger. Temporary mouth-breathing acts similarly.
During breathwork sessions, vitals temporarily decline. My self-quantification devices show HRV and other biometrics plummet only to rebound and later improve above their baseline.
In response to short-lived acute stressors, the body strengthens itself. Over the long term, vitals increase above baseline and you become more resilient.
That said, biologically you don’t need to breathe through the mouth. Outside of those two cases, mouth breathing has plenty of drawbacks:
- Facial deformations, especially in growing children
- Gum disease and tooth decay
- Bad breath
- Worsened asthma
- Worsened sleep apnea
- Weakened lungs, heart, and brain
How Do I Know If I Am a Mouth or Nose Breather?
Mouth breathing has become common.
Our modern lifestyle facilitates it. Blocked sinuses, inescapable everyday stress, and processed foods all encourage mouth breathing.
Do you suffer from any of the following?
- A blocked sinus
- A dry mouth
- Bad breath
- Bad mood
- Dark “bags” under the eyes
- Sleep apnea
- Brain fog
These symptoms may indicate mouth breathing.
Uninterrupted bouts of mouth breathing cause the most obvious symptoms. Assess yourself first thing in the morning.
Follow Our Ancestors Lead
Brain fog, fatigue, gum disease, cavities, bags under the eyes, poor physical performance, and even facial deformities can all indicate breathing patterns needing work.
Observation is the first step.
Automatic behaviors die hard. Set a few reminders throughout the day to try the following:
- Build CO2 levels in your blood by taking fewer breaths. Paradoxically, tissues and organs will receive more oxygen.
- Nose breathe to reap 30 plus benefits that you miss by mouth breathing
- Activate the diaphragm by inhaling from the abdominals to naturally destress and heal your body.
Changing the habit will take some practices, but if the world’s most elite athletes breathe through their nose, what is holding you back?