Does Mouth Breathing Actually Matter That Much?

The topic of how we take in our breaths has become increasingly important as more data about how airway and sleep affect the body has become more available. How we take in our air can affect the position of our teeth, how we talk, the quality of our sleep (and subsequent daytime energy and function), and facial development and growth in children.

Many of us feel stressed out, overworked, and overstimulated during our daily lives, which leaves us in a chronic state of fight or flight response. Breathing in and out through the nose helps us take fuller, deeper breaths, which stimulates the lower lung to distribute greater amounts of oxygen throughout the body and allow the body to enter a deep sleep. In addition, the lower lung is associated with our parasympathetic nerve system, which is responsible for calming the body and mind. On the other hand, mouth breathing is stimulated by the upper lungs, which triggers the sympathetic nerve receptors to push us to become more hyperactive and prevents us from entering into a deep sleep. As a result, our body produces adrenaline to compensate for sleepiness. Children that has a resting open mouth often aren’t able to achieve their academic potential because their brains and bodies aren’t at their best in this deep sleep-deprived state. They’re often diagnosed with ADHD and other behavioral issues along with a lowered immune system.

Effects of nasal vs mouth breathing:

Facial growth & development: Air that we inhale through the nose passes through the nasal mucosa, which stimulates the reflex nerves that control breathing and help us achieve a deep sleep. Mouth breathing bypasses the nasal mucosa and makes regular breathing difficult, which can lead to snoring, breath irregularities and sleep apnea. Deep sleep is when Human Growth Hormone (HGH) is released, which is essential to a child’s brain development and long bone growth. A child with an open mouth will very likely grow into an adult with flatter facial features, less prominent cheekbones, a longer face, droopier eyes and lower facial muscle tone, a narrower palate, and even a smaller lower jaw in most cases. Check for allergies that could block the nasal airway.

Oxygen & Sleep: When adults and children breathe through their mouths during the day, chances are very high that they also breathe through their mouths all night long as well. Mouth breathing at night, combined with an obstructed airway, are two symptoms directly connected to sleep apnea and altered levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the bloodstream. When less oxygen is able to reach the brain, learning and the ability to focus at school becomes a problem for many children. In adults, chronic fatigue, tiredness, and brain fog are common symptoms.

Speech: When children have an open mouth, they are more likely to struggle with certain speech sounds. The most commonly associated speech problem is a lisp, or the inability to say “S” sounds correctly. Speech is affected because when you have an open mouth, you also have what we refer to as a “tongue thrust swallowing pattern.” This type of swallowing pattern causes the tongue to protrude, or push forward during speaking and swallowing. Look for signs of a tongue-tie and/or flared out teeth.

Braces & Teeth Stability: If mouth breathing or tongue thrusting is present, the stability of the alignment of your teeth will be compromised once your braces are removed. This means you are likely to experience orthodontic relapse and you may need braces again in the future if mouth breathing persists. 

Nasal Breathing Training During Daytime:

– The most effective and optimal breathing pattern is slow (around 8-10 breaths per minute), deep (from the belly), nose breathing. The reduced breathing rate increases the carbon dioxide levels in the blood and allows the body to return to calm and leave the stressed state. This has an extraordinary impact on your ability to let go of sadness, anxiety, anger, pain, and find clarity.

– Use sticky notes to remind yourself to breathe through your nose. If you’re having issues breathing through your nose because it’s a habit, you can leave written reminders for yourself. Write “breathing” on sticky notes and place them on your computer or inside of books to remind yourself to use your nose to breathe.

– Perform nose clearing exercises. Breathe through your nose for 2-3 minutes straight, then close your mouth, inhale deeply, and pinch your nose with your fingers. When you can’t hold your breath any longer, slowly start to exhale through your nose. Continue to do this several times until you clear your nose.

Nasal Breathing Training During Sleep:

– Using a nasal steroid or saline decongestant spray before bedtime to clear nasal passage. Can be used in the daytime also if prone to allergies. Clear your nose first by blowing it, then carefully place the end of the nozzle into your nostril and press down on the applicator to spray the solution into your nose.

– Using micropore tape to seal the lips until nasal breathing has become habitual.

– Wear a nasal strip on your nose as you sleep. An over-the-counter nasal strip can clear your nasal passages and help you breathe through your nose while you sleep. To use the strip, remove the plastic backing on the nasal strip and place the strip over the bridge of your nose

– Sleep on your side. Mouth breathing typically occurs when sleeping on your back. When you sleep on your back, you’re forced to take heavier breaths through your mouth. Try to change how you sleep to minimize the chances of mouth breathing and snoring while you sleep.

– Elevate your head and upper back if you sleep on your back. If you can’t help but roll over on your back out of habit, using a pillow that elevates your head can help you breathe properly while you sleep. Get a pillow or wedge that elevates your upper back and head on a 30-60 degree angle. This should help you keep your mouth closed while you sleep and promote breathing through your nose.

Dr. Jason Perlman is a qualified dentist of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine. We routinely screen all children and adults for airway in our new patient comprehensive exams. If you observe mouth breathing in yourself or your child and it’s affecting sleep quality, misaligned teeth, facial development, and/or speech, please contact our office for an evaluation.

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