Nose Breathing vs Mouth Breathing
We were recently asked some great questions by YogaLight member:
- Why is it easier to breathe out longer through the mouth than the nose?
- Is it better to breathe in/out through the nose OR breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth?
- Does nose breathing affect us differently to mouth breathing?
The answers to these questions are hugely important, as they can be the key to perfecting your breath and unleashing all the benefits that come from breathing correctly.
Before we answer these questions though, let’s talk a bit about the benefits of conscious breathing. Breath work is the only consciously controllable means of improving, maintaining, and repairing the other automatically run systems of the body. We can control, regulate and even heal our digestion, blood pressure, circulation, hormone secretion and our mental and emotional states through specific breathing techniques.
Belly breathing, while breathing through the nose, is the most efficient way to breathe your way to vibrant health. It moves the diaphragm which massages the digestive organs and helps remove toxins from the body. It also stimulates the vagus nerve which starts in the brain stem and moves through the neck, chest and into the abdomen. The vagus nerve transmits sensory information about the state of the body’s organs to the central nervous system.
The most effective and optimum belly breathing pattern practiced slowly, at around 8-10 breaths per minute, through the nose. This reduced breathing rate increases the carbon dioxide levels in the blood and allows the body and mind to calm down and let go of negative emotions, bringing clarity again.
Question 1: Why is it easier to breathe out for a longer time through the mouth than the nose?
The simple answer to this question is RESISTANCE. We have less resistance when we breathe out through our mouths and this can make some people feel less panicky, especially if the nose is a bit blocked. Less panic equals more control, and this can allow a longer, calmer breath out through the mouth. From personal experimentation, there’s also a sense of more diaphragmatic control when breathing out through the mouth. A feeling of being able to draw the diaphragm in more easily and release a stronger breath. I haven’t found any other evidence to support why this may feel easier for some people but breathing out through the mouth because it’s easier, can lead to breathing in through the mouth for the same reason. And there’s definitely a few reasons to avoid mouth breathing:
- Creates dehydration in the body.
- Can lead to shallow chest breathing, rather than deep breaths into the diaphragm and belly, which causes anxiety and tension.
- The lungs extract oxygen from the air during exhalation as well as inhalation, and because the nostrils are smaller than the mouth, air exhaled through the nose creates a back flow of air (and oxygen) into the lungs. We usually exhale more slowly through the nose than the mouth, so exhaling through the mouth will mean the lungs have less time to extract oxygen from the air we’ve inhaled.
- Proper oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange during respiration is required for the blood to maintain a balanced pH. If carbon dioxide is lost too quickly, as in mouth breathing, oxygen absorption is decreased, which can result in dizziness or even fainting.
- The mouth provides around 50% less resistance for incoming air than the nose. This means the air isn’t coming in slowly and there’s less chance to engage in the deep and slow breathing pattern that the nose provides.
- Breathing out through the mouth sends warm breath over the tongue, which can heat the rest of the system. This isn’t ideal when we’re trying to cool and calm ourselves.
- If you breathe through your mouth, bad bacteria are able to enter your body. Breathing through the nose allows the nitric oxide in our sinuses to kill any inhaled bacteria or viruses.
- The upper lungs are stimulated by chest and mouth breathing, which prompts us to hyperventilate and trigger sympathetic nerve receptors, producing a fight or flight reaction.
Question 2: Is it better to breathe in/out through the nose OR breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth?
We’ve covered several reasons why mouth breathing can be detrimental but conversely, there are actually a few reasons why you can and should do it:
- By breathing out through pursed lips, you can extend your exhalation through conscious control. Lengthening your exhale will create back-pressure in the lungs that opens the airways and allows more time for oxygen exchange in the air sacs. The conscious release of breath through the mouth could also help train the breath until it feels more comfortable to exhale through the nose.
- Pursed lips breathing can benefit anyone that suffers from a lung disease that leads to air being trapped in areas of the lungs. It helps open the closed portion of the lung and release the trapped air.
- Sighing out air through the mouth can help your body and mind to relax. This is why we yawn when we’re tired! It’ll help your jaw release and your tongue relax into the base of the mouth, creating a calming affect for your mind.
Question 3: Does breathing out through the nose affect us differently to breathing out through the mouth?
In general, nose breathing is ultimately the healthiest way to breathe and is better for us than mouth breathing.
Here are just some of the reasons why its physically beneficial:
- The nose filters air through the fine hairs in the nasal passage called the cilia. The cilia filter, humidify and warm or cool the air (depending on the temperature) before it enters the lungs. The cilia protect our bodies against an estimated 20 billion particles of foreign matter every day!
- As we inhale through the nose, air passes through the nasal mucosa, which stimulates the reflex nerves that control breathing. The breath bypasses the nasal mucosa when entering through the mouth and regular breathing can become difficult. This can lead to snoring, breathing irregularities and sleep apnoea.
- Nasal breathing helps maintain body temperature as it provides around 90% of the air-conditioning requirement for the respiratory system. It also recovers around 33% of exhaled heat and moisture.
- The nitric oxide that is produced by our sinuses is carried into the body on an inhale through the nose. Nitric oxide combats harmful bacteria and viruses in our bodies, regulates blood pressure and boosts the immune system.
- Not only do we benefit from the germ-killing power of nitric oxide in the sinuses, but germs get caught in the mucus produced by the mucous (white blood cells that kill germs) membrane that lines the nostrils, and extends down the trachea to the bronchi and then directly into the lungs.
Don’t forget the mental and emotional benefits of nose breathing:
- Breathing through the nose forces us to slow down the breath and reduce hypertension and stress. It also helps prevent us from overexerting ourselves during a workout.
- The increased oxygen we get through nasal breath increases energy and vitality.
- When we’re stressed out or overstimulated, we can enter a chronic fight or flight state. Breathing in and out through the nose lets us take fuller and deeper breaths, which stimulates the lower lung to distribute greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body. The lower lung is filled with parasympathetic nerve receptors that calm the body and mind when activated with breath.
- The yogic perspective is more concerned with how our breathing affects our nervous system. The ancient texts describe a network of subtle channels called Nadis. The three most important Nadis originate at the base of the spine and are called the Ida, the Pingala and the Sushumna. The Ida flows to the left nostril, the Pingala flows to the right nostril, and the Sushumna is the central channel and balance point of the other two. Nose breathing is more effective in creating energy changes because it stimulates the olfactory nerve. This impulse is passed on to the hypothalamus, which is connected to the pineal gland and is associated with the ‘third eye’ area between the eyebrows. There is the belief that the Ida and Pingala interlace their way up the Sushumna and end somewhere in the sinuses; another opinion is that it moves further up to end in the ‘third eye’. Whatever the end point, when you breathe through your nose, it helps to open and balance the Sushumna and quiet and steady the mind.
- Yogis also believe that prana (energy) is only absorbed from the air through the nose, not the mouth.
B.K.S. Iyengar has been quoted as saying “The nose is made for breathing; the mouth is made for eating. So, if you breathe through the mouth, I will have to push food up through your nose!”
Why do we breathe through our mouth when nose breathing is better for us?
Most of the time, we end up breathing through our mouth because of nasal congestion. This can be caused by allergies, sinusitis (nasal passage inflammation usually from a cold) or rhinitis (allergic reaction). Nasal irrigation, or Jala Neti as the yogis call it, is a practice that helps rid the nose of allergens and mucus. Toxins can accumulate and flushing the nasal passages with salt water using a Neti Pot is a natural and non-addictive way to get rid of them and normalise our cells. This practice is also useful in the treatment and prevention of sinus infection and allergic rhinitis and may even reduce the need for antibiotics in people prone to sinus infections. Using a Neti Pot or any other form of nasal cleansing will leave you feeling invigorated, decrease drowsiness, and balance and strengthen the nervous system.
Sometimes mouth breathing can start with a blocked or stuffy nose and ends up becoming a habit long after stuffiness has gone. Habits can stick around, even if we don’t like them, but there’s no reason we can’t replace a bad habit with a good one. A commitment to breathing through the nose whenever you notice your mouth breathing and regular breathing practices will retrain your automatic breath into a positive and beneficial experience. Mouth breathing is only there as a backup when we need air quickly.
Nadi Shodhana – a breathing practice to cleanse and balance your mind and body
Nadi is a Sanskrit word meaning ‘channel or flow’ and Shodhana means ‘purification’. So, the practice of Nadi Shodhana (or alternate nostril breathing) is aimed at clearing and purifying the subtle channels of our mind and body, while balancing our masculine and feminine aspects.
There are so many benefits that come from a regular practice of Nadi Shodhana:
- Every couple of hours either the right or the left nostril becomes more open to receiving airflow than the other. The more open nostril has a specific effect on the hypothalamic functions via the olfactory nerve. Breathing more through the right activates your system and provides energy; breathing more through the left will calm your system.
- Regulates the flow of air through the nasal passages and cleanses the lungs by removing stale air and impurities from the bottom of your lungs.
- Calms an agitated mind. The ancient yogis believe that if you can regulate your breath, then you can control your mind.
- Merges the left ‘thinking’ brain and right ‘feeling’ brain. Alternate nostril breathing balances both sides of your brain so you can access and activate your whole brain, and all the benefits that go with it.
- Your nose is directly linked to your brain and nervous system. The Indian yogis believe that many diseases are connected to disturbed nasal breathing.
- If you can’t sleep at night, lay on your right-hand side and gently close your right nostril with your right thumb so that you’re only breathing through your left nostril. Your parasympathetic nervous system will activate and slow your heart rate, letting you drift into sleepyland.
- Regulates the cooling and warming cycles of the body. The left nostril is feminine, nurturing, calm, receiving and cooling. The right nostril is masculine, heat, competitive, doing, active and force. Favouring one nostril more than the other can affect the warmth or coolness of your body.
Yoga poses to encourage healthy breathing
We recommend the below poses as a way to open your chest and ribcage, improve your posture and achieve your perfect breath. Ideally practice one or some of these before beginning Nadi Shodhana:
- Camel Pose
- Reclining or Seated Twists
- Fish Pose
- Cobra or Sphinx
- Cow pose
- Upward Facing Dog
- Triangle Pose
- Revolved Triangle Pose
- Bow pose
YogaLight has all of these poses within our extensive library of classes but also many classes specific to opening the chest, ribs, side body and shoulders to breathe better.
Try out our Hatha Breath Flow classes: Breathe, Flow, Feel Better or Breathe, Slow Down, Feel Better to open your body and then move on to our Nadi Shodhana Pranayama Classes: Pranayama To Calm & Balance The Mind or Pranayama To Reduce Stress & Anxiety to focus and improve your breath while calming your system.
We take breathing for granted because it happens automatically, and we end up missing out on many of the mental, emotional and physical benefits that come from breathing correctly. Let your breath practice become as essential and normal as brushing your teeth every day and your body will find its optimal holistic healthy balance!