November 2006 – Nasal Breathing


As infants we are born obligate nose breathers, infants will try to breathe through their noses even when congested, when they can not inhale enough oxygen through their nose (putting the body in a fight or flight response) they cry which makes air enter their lungs through their mouth, when the “emergency” is over, they return to nose breathing.  As adults we should breathe the same way, most of our breathing should be through our nose, except in extreme situations when we need to fight or flight.

In the nose the entire nasal passage is lined with a protective mucus membrane to keep the air moist and ward off infection.  The mucous membranes work together with small hair-like cilia to clean and filter the air we breathe, the air is warmed, cooled, or moistened depending on the outside conditions.  When you inhale through your mouth the mucous membranes in the throat dry out increasing the risk if irritation and infection, it is a more direct “emergency” route, it bypasses all the preliminary phases letting cold, dry, unfiltered air enter directly into our lungs

Breathing through your mouth shunts the air to your upper lobes of the lungs.  This is where most of the lungs’ stress receptors and connections to the sympathetic nervous systems—the fight or flight response—are located.  Breathing through your nose delivers the air deeper into the lower lobes of the lungs; this is due to the turbinates inside the nasal passages.  These turbines spin the air and allow it to move in a thin rotating stream, this more forceful and direct stream of air effectively penetrates the lower lobes of the lungs.  Breathing into the lower lobes of the lungs is preferred because that is where 60-80% of the lungs’ blood supply awaits to receive oxygen delivery and gas exchange, also the receptors to the para-sympathetic nervous system (the calming part of our nervous system) are concentrated in the lower lobes of the lungs, nasal breathing connects our breath into the lower lobes of the lungs thereby calming our state of mind.  Mouth breathing is a shallower faster breath, most of the air stays in the upper chest area where there is less blood for gas exchanges and also the shorter breath allows less time for this exchange so there is less oxygen in the blood, thereby meaning the heart has to pump more blood to get the same amount of oxygen which increases the heart rate and breath rate!  Clearly making the conscious effort to breathe through your nose is a small and easy step toward living in a calmer state of mind.  We are designed to breathe through our nose and eat through our mouth!!

Nasal Breathing with Ujjayi and Bandhas = a recipe for success (success at getting the most air deepest into the lungs with the best gas exchanges and pumped through your body most efficiently):
Ujjayi breathing stimulates the diaphragm; the diaphragm is our most efficient breathing muscle, getting us more air with less effort.  Due to bad habits and stress many of us use our accessory muscles to breathe which gets us less O2 for more effort.  Our bandhas or upward lift of the abdominals pushes the abdominal organs up against the diaphragm and the lower lobes of the lungs during the exhale, aiding the removal of CO2.  The more CO2 we press out of the lungs the more O2 enters.  The contracting of the abdominal muscles is also said to put a slight pressure on the heart, improving the efficiency of the pumping action of the heart.  A more established benefit of abdominal contraction is in its calming effect on the nervous system.  The vagus nerve regulates much of the para-sympathetic activity in the body.  The vagus nerve attaches to the heart and is stimulated by the upward pressure the abdominals place on the diaphragm and the heart during exhale.  This stimulation of the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system to lower heart rate which gives a feeling of calm.  The next time you are feeling butterflies on your stomach or nervousness, sit with your nasal-ujjayi breath for 5-10 minutes and experience the calming effect.

Try this and see if you feel a difference in just three breaths:  Take 3 breaths through your mouth, then take another three through your nose.  Do you feel a difference?  You have approx. 26,000 chances each day to take a nasal breath 😉

Nasal breathing during exercise
Formula for the exercise high:  Dynamic activity coexisting with composure, comfort, and silence.

Take your nasal breathing one step further; try your nasal breath during aerobic exercise.  Breathing through your nose lowers heart rate, blood pressure, and stress—this allows you to work at a higher intensity (burning more calories and getting more fit) with less stress, also nasal breathing takes the air deeper into your lungs where the blood gets more saturated with 02.

Since the air enters your lungs slower through the nose, it will take some time to adjust.  Initially it will actually slow you down, but if you stick with it, you will become fitter as you will be able to sustain a higher level of exercise at a lower intensity with a feeling of calm.  In most of the studies, it takes anywhere from 3-6 months of nasal breathing during exercise to adjust—it is worth the effort!  To add even more benefit, use your bandhas and ujjayi breathing on the exhale to assist in efficient gas exchanges and stimulate the vagus nerve (generally on the inhale we will need to take in as much 02 as we can so you do not want to constrict the throat on the inhale during exercise).

During exercise the sympathetic nervous systems gears up to increase heart rate and stimulate the adrenals to release stress fighting hormones, which are useful in gearing us up for movement.  However the production of adrenal steroids ultimately has a catabolic effect, breaking the body down and accelerating the degeneration of body tissues (pre-mature aging)—just like steroids pump up the body but break down the tissues in the long run, so can exercise!  Nasal breathing reduces this side effect of exercise giving rise to fewer injuries and less wear and tear on the body.

In ancient times the great runners—mail runners, martial artists among other Eastern Cultures, and running tribes from Pre-Columbian Native Americans to Northern Mexico were all taught how to breathe while running.  The training involved running long distances with a mouthful of water or pebbles!  This would force the runners to breathe through their nose while running.

Have you ever gone snorkeling and experience the calm of being underwater while breathing and watching a beautiful world and feeling as if nothing above the water exists or affects you?  When I ride my bike and use my nasal breathing, this is how my world feels—calm and serene.

Nasal Breathing and Prana
It is understood in Ayurveda that nasal breathing creates a stronger nervous system and a sharper intellect.

The breath has long been associated with the force of life itself, in yoga terms this is called prana, in China chi, in Japan ki—the Greek word for breath is pneuma which means spirit or soul.  The knowledge or control of one’s prana is said to be the key to mental and physical success.

Prana is brought into the body through water, food, and air.  When you breathe through your nose, prana which is carried by oxygen enters the nose.  The air will go down into the lungs for processing while the prana goes up into the brain along the olfactory nerve (which also processes scents and send them to the appropriate centers in the brain).  Nasal breathing moves prana into the brain and central nervous system!  When we breathe through our mouth the air and prana go unprocessed into the lungs, and leaves the body without coming into contact with the brain.  The primary role of prana is to establish the highest level of coordination between body and mind, when we breathe though our nose we are absorbing more prana and encouraging the mind-body connection.  When prana is flowing through the mind and body it produces a natural state of euphoria.

If your nasal passages are blocked, the best thing you can do is to try to breathe through them!  If they are blocked and you stop using them the problem will only get worse (just like a child who has to wear an eye patch because they have a lazy eye, if they do not make an attempt to use the eye the body will stop sending “prana” to the eye and it will go blind).  If you suffer from such breathing difficulties it will take more time to adjust, go easy on yourself and allow yourself to slowly adapt to nasal breathing, but your body will adapt and it may even solve the problem!

Nasal care:  keep your nasal passages clean with the neti pot or even by snorting up a little water and snorting it out.  Then you want to lubricate the nasal passages so the mucous membranes can do their job—place sesame oil in an eye dropper or on a q-tip, sniff it up into the nasal passages and gently massage with your pinky finger.  This is especially important in the winter months.

In summary Nasal Breathing:

  • Filters and moisturizes the air for our lungs reducing our risk of colds and illnesses
  • Takes the air deeper into our lungs where there is more oxygen rich blood, this also has a calming effect on the nervous system, body, and mind.
  • Reduces the effect of exercise stress (degeneration or aging of the tissues) when nasal breathing during exercise.
  • Gets more prana into the brain and central nervous system.

Remember to breathe through your nose all day everyday and night!  Mouth breathing is used for emergency situations only.  This simple step alone will improve your health and well being.

References: Body, Mind, and Sport and Perfect Health for Kids  by Dr. John Douillard

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