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The Neuroscience of Nose vs. Mouth Breathing 🧠
7 Word Summary: Your Mouth is For Food, Not Breathing (5min Read)
Nose breathing enhances oxygen uptake, air filtration, nitric oxide production, and activates the calming parasympathetic system.
It aids in emotional regulation, especially beneficial for trauma survivors.
Mouth breathing can intensify anxiety and lack the benefits of nasal inhalation.
Overall, prioritizing nose breathing improves mental and physical health, aiding trauma recovery.
Your Mouth is For Food, Not Breathing
Breathing is a fundamental part of life, but not all forms of breathing are created equal, particularly when it comes to managing anxiety & mental health.
The way in which we breathe — specifically, whether we breathe through the nose or the mouth — can have a significant impact on our mental and physical well-being.
Today, I’d like to cover the science behind this phenomenon so that you can start to use this in your own life!
Let’s dive in.
Why Nose Breathing?
Nose breathing has several advantages over mouth breathing in terms of health and stress reduction.
When we breathe through our noses, the air is naturally filtered, warmed, and humidified, creating an optimized intake for our lungs.
Beyond this, nose breathing tends to slow our breathing rate and deepen our diaphragm use, both of which can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Let’s break these down some more.
Improved Oxygen Uptake
When we breathe through our nose, we pull the air deeper into our lungs, increasing oxygen uptake.
This is because nose breathing leads to more consistent and controlled breaths, which is more beneficial than short, shallow breaths often associated with mouth breathing.
More oxygen reaching the cells throughout the body means better overall function and lower stress levels.
Moisture and Filtration
The nostrils and sinuses filter and warm the air entering the lungs, removing a significant amount of bacteria, viruses, and dust.
They also add moisture to the incoming air, preventing dryness in the throat and lungs, which can cause discomfort and inflammation.
Nitric Oxide Production
Our nasal passages produce nitric oxide, a molecule that plays a crucial role in oxygen absorption in the lungs.
Nitric oxide also has a vasodilatory effect, meaning it helps to widen blood vessels and improve circulation.
This molecule can also increase immunity, reduce inflammation, and aid in digestion, all of which help improve mental health.
Nitric oxide is not produced when we breathe through our mouths, so we miss out on its beneficial effects when we default to mouth breathing.
Stimulation of the Parasympathetic Nervous System
Perhaps most importantly, nose breathing promotes activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and digestion.
This is our calm, cool, and collected state of being. In this state, our body clears our stress chemicals like cortisol, repairs our cells, digests our food, relaxes our mental state, and increases subjective happiness & well-being!
Nose breathing does this by encouraging slower, deeper breaths that stimulate the vagus nerve, the master nerve of the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which can help to calm the mind and reduce anxiety levels.
The Downside of Mouth Breathing
Contrarily, mouth breathing tends to lead to hyperventilation, or fast, shallow breaths.
This breathing style can exacerbate feelings of anxiety and lead to a vicious cycle of stress and hyperventilation.
Meaning, anxiety/panic causes shallow breathing, which then leads to worse panic, which then leads to more hyperventilation, which leads to worse panic…
You get the point, it’s a cycle, and it sucks when you’re stuck in it.
Mouth breathing also bypasses the filtering mechanisms of the nasal passages, meaning the air we breathe is colder and contains more particles and pathogens.
Additionally, mouth breathing doesn't stimulate nitric oxide production, so we lose out on its benefits.
The Neuroscience Behind It
The Amygdala and Breathing
Deep in our brain sits the amygdala, a primary emotional processing center.
For survivors of abuse, this area can be hypersensitive, reacting more strongly to triggers and often leading to feelings of anxiety or heightened alertness.
When we nose breathe, and subsequently activate our parasympathetic nervous system, we help to soothe this part of the brain.
It’s like giving the amygdala a gentle reminder that we are safe.
The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC)
The PFC, responsible for higher cognitive functions, can become dysregulated due to trauma.
Nose breathing can help strengthen the connection between the amygdala and the PFC, thereby improving emotional regulation.
It does this, in part, by turning off the alarm system that has the amygdala overactive, which then allows blood & glucose to flow back to the PFC!
Using This Knowledge In Your Life
I had a client once that we will call Anna for the purpose of this story and her privacy.
After escaping an abusive relationship, Anna often found herself startled by sudden noises, like we talked about above. This is often called hypervigilance.
These startling noises would cause her to hyperventilate, resorting to quick mouth breaths, causing the panic loop we talked about earlier.
So, I taught her how to breathe through her nose during moments like this to help calm her nervous system instead.
Over time, she noticed a decrease in her anxiety responses, in part to learning how to cope with moments like this through nose breathing!
Obviously, she and I also did a lot of work with her traumatized Parts, regulating her nervous system through the Heroes Body, and many other things as well, but that doesn’t take away from the agency she regained by simply learning to breathe through her nose!
Nose Breathers Unite!
In conclusion, while both nose and mouth breathing can sustain life, when it comes to mitigating anxiety and supporting overall health, nose breathing clearly has the upper hand.
By cultivating a habit of nose breathing, we can support our body's innate mechanisms to regulate stress responses, improve physical health, and contribute to a more serene state of mind.
To survivors and their supporters: remember, every breath is a step towards recovery and peace.
Embrace the science, but also listen to your body, and find what works best for you in your unique journey.
And as always, Live Heroically 🧠
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