It’s 2021 and it really couldn’t have come quick enough for pretty much all of us.
Although the striking of the clock at midnight didn’t change everything from a pumpkin into our heart’s delight in an instant, 2021 has got to be better than 2020.
As with any other new year, many of us set some goals for ourselves to improve and enrich our lives for the better.
The ending of one year can also be a great time for reflection on the previous year. (You might even reflect on what you’re grateful for?)
This reflection may even inform some of your goals for the coming year.
One particularly common goal is that of improving your health. What that looks like for each individual is different, but I hope that this post can serve to inform you on something that maybe you hadn’t considered before.
In this post, I’ll talk about one of the most important–and often overlooked–aspects of health.
An aspect of health that, if we spend a little time on daily, has the potential to result in some pretty dramatic changes elsewhere in our health.
The one Thing That will Have a Huge Impact
The one thing that you can focus on that can have a significant impact on your health is your breathing.
I know what you’re thinking, “but why breathing? I do that every day-it just sort of happens.”
I get it.
Breathing does just happen; it’s automatic.
However, breathing can also be influenced, changed and controlled, for the better to your overall health.
Seriously though, breathing can have a profound impact on your wellbeing.
Does it Matter if you breathe through your nose or your mouth?
The short answer is, yes it does matter.
You want to be breathing in and out through your nose.
There are, of course, a few exceptions where mouth breathing is appropriate. Like if you are entirely stuffed up from a cold or you’re extremely out of breath from sprinting in an exercise class or to catch a bus, but that’s really about it.
Benefits of breathing through your nose
- Warms and humidifies the air entering the lungs This is especially important in cold and/or dry climates. This also keeps you more hydrated both while awake and while asleep.
- Filters the air we’re breathing in by removing debris and germs via our sinuses and the cilia in our nasal cavity. Your nose is the first line of defense against germs-it’s part of your immune system.
- Better oxygen absorption in the lungs and body. This is due to two factors.
- First, it takes longer to inhale and exhale through the nose and this allows for more time for oxygen absorption.
- Second, the nose produces nitric oxide. Nitric oxide is produced in the nasal sinuses and it helps absorb oxygen from the air we’re inhaling and exhaling. This doesn’t happen when you breathe through your mouth.
Improved Immune and Stress Response
- Nasal breathing and nitric oxide are also part of the immune response because it’s antiviral and antibacterial and is being studied as it may help mitigate the severity of Covid-19.
- You breathe deeper and at a slower rate when breathing through your nose. This is because it taps into your parasympathetic nervous system-the opposite of the fight or flight mode.
- This in turn helps reduce stress by lowering stress hormones and lowering blood pressure…which can help reduce the likelihood of some diseases and illnesses.
- A slower rate of breathing also slows your heart rate, which in turns helps us feel less stressed and anxious.
Improved Sleep and Exercise Performance
- Improves your sleep because of the decreased stress response and lower heat rate.
- …which also decreases the potential for snoring.
- Improves your exercise performance because you’re absorbing more oxygen to help fuel muscles.
- Nasal breathing also helps the heart maintain a good working rhythm longer than breathing through the mouth.
What If You Can’t Breath Through Your Nose?
There can be structural things like a deviated septum and/or polyps or even severe allergies which leave you congested. I, for one, have a polyp in my left nostril and understand the feelings of restriction that come from breathing through your nose. Even if there are structural issues, there are things you can do.
The easiest remedy to try are those strips you can put over your nose. There are also nasal dilators or cones. Both of these can be worn while exercising and sleeping to help promote breathing through your nose.
An additional plus to wearing a mask at the gym is if you’re self-conscious, no one will see it under your mask.
These don’t always work for everyone, but they can be a great low-cost starting point.
Also, know that if you currently don’t breathe through your nose very often, it’s normal for it to feel difficult in the beginning. With practice and time, it begins to feel more and more normal and natural.
Give it some time. Be patient with yourself.
If after some time and some practice with nasal strips and/or cones, you still feel restricted, consulting with a medical professional might be a good next step. This could be a doctor, physical therapist or ENT.
I heard recently that if our chronically stuffed up nose were our kitchen sink, we’d work on fixing the sink right away, but that’s not often the case when we have a chronically stuffed up nose.
Is it because we have an alternate strategy-mouth breathing? Or is it because we have simply gotten used to it?
But mouth breathing isn’t the best for our health, so working on finding the cause of the nasal breathing difficulties could be a really great place to start. This discovery and slowly working on remedying mouth breathing can have a wonderful change for the better on other health and wellness areas of your life.
How’s My Breathing?
Now that we’ve talked about how we want to prioritize breathing through your nose, let’s talk about where the air is going.
Ever watch your cat, dog or pet triceratops breathe? They breathe in their bellies.
The air isn’t actually going in their bellies, or our bellies for that matter.
This movement of the belly is a result of breathing deeper into the lower regions of the lungs (as we do in diaphragmatic breathing), as opposed to the more shallow breath that occurs with chest-breathing (which causes our chest to rise and fall and not the belly–as shown above).
At rest, breathing into our bellies should be a natural thing, but it doesn’t always go that way for many of us.
Stress, posture and societal pressures to be and look thin are but a few things that can cause us to become chest breathers-even when we’re not feeling stressed or slumped over our computers.
Breathing into our chest, where the shoulders rise and fall, is actually a stress response.
When we continue to chest-breathe, we are subconsciously telling our body we are stressed or anxious. We are in fight or flight mode.
Aside from creating stress, chest breathing can also create headaches, migraines and neck, shoulder and back pain.
All things that we don’t want to deal with.
Higher levels of stress in the body can affect blood pressure, hormones, heart rate and disrupt restful sleep.
So let’s work on improving those things!
Check out this video: are you chest breathing or diaphragmatically (belly) breathing?
The video also works well as a guide to lead you through some deep belly breathing breaths. It’s a great exercise and practice.
Practicing Belly Breathing
A cue we often use to promote belly breathing is to breathe all the way down to your feet. Again, the air doesn’t go there, but it does help to visualize it going there to move the air from a shallow chest breath to a deeper belly breath.
As in the video above, it can also be helpful to place one hand on your chest and one on your belly so you can focus on the hand on the belly rising on the inhale and falling on the exhale.
I know for me in the beginning this type of breathing was hard. My breath actually felt less deep and my diaphragm felt tight…because it was.
Over time and with practice, belly breathing got easier for me. My breath got longer. My diaphragm felt like it could move in the direction I was asking it on the inhale.
Creating a breathing Practice
As with anything new that you are trying to add to your life and schedule, start small and go from there.
Even just 1 or 2 minutes a day where you focus on breathing through your nose–taking some long, slow breaths into your belly and exhaling nice and long–can go a long way to improving your overall health.
There are, of course, multiple apps that can help you create this practice.
It could be a simple as scheduling it on your calendar. And then sitting and doing it when the calendar reminder happens. Preferably scheduled at a time when you are not busy.
A great discovery I found when I got an Apple watch was that it came with a Breathe app and reminders. You can set it up to remind you to breathe as many times at day as you want. It cues you when to inhale and exhale, both visually and physically with vibration.
Other apps that have worked for people:
Each of these has a breathing function as well as meditation function.
Bonus: You can also try different breathing exercises.
4, 7, 8 Breathing
Give any of those a try and let me know how it goes!
My hope is that you find one that you like and practice even just for a couple of minutes a day.
This little practice can have such a large impact on your overall health and quality of life. And that is what I want for you: a feeling that you are less stressed, more rested, healthy and living a vivacious life.
Be Well, Theresa