Everything in our body has a purpose (except apparently your tailbone, appendix and nipples on men!).
If you do some (non-creepy) people watching you’d be forgiven for thinking most people believe their nose is only for smelling, piercing or picking. They’re wrong. The nose is critical to our health and we should be using it to breathe 99% of the time (those who say to only ever nose breathe are also wrong - sorry again).
Here’s 7 reasons why nose breathing is so important.
Helps you to stay calm & relaxed
Improves blood flow & oxygen uptake
Improves exercise performance
Fights infections (bacterial, fungal & viral)
Helps maintain body temperature & decrease dehydration
Can help you sleep better
Makes you more attractive (I’m not kidding)
If you forget all of those, just remember “Noses are for breathing. Mouths are for eating.”
Continue reading to understand the how & why or make a start with these nose-specific breathing exercises.
stay calm & relaxed
The tissues (no pun intended) in your nose contain nerves that activate when you breathe through it. These nerves form part of the parasympathetic nervous system, your ‘rest and digest’ system. In this state your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate are lower. It’s why you feel calmer and more relaxed when you nose breathe.
Alternatively, breathing through your mouth activates the sympathetic nervous system (your ‘fight or flight’ mode). It signals to the body to prepare for intense physical activity by releasing adrenaline & cortisol, increasing your heart rate, blood pressure & breathing rate and decreasing the activity of your digestive & reproductive systems. While this is a healthy, biological response, it’s designed to work short term. By continually breathing through your mouth, your body is kept in this constant state of stress.
By switching to nose breathing, not only will you feel more relaxed, you’ll also be de-stressing the body and improving your overall health & wellbeing.
Improve blood flow & oxygen uptake
Carbon dioxide (CO2) plays an important role in our body. Among other things, it triggers the breathing reflex and helps deliver oxygen (O2) to where it’s needed in the body.
When we breathe through our mouth, we use the upper chest instead of the diaphragm. We also exhale more CO2 than normal (the mouth has a bigger opening than the nose). Both of these things lower CO2 levels in our body, causing an imbalance in body chemistry, and the diaphragm to stop working properly, creating a negative feedback loop of poor breathing.
Nasal breathing has the opposite effect. When we use our nose to breathe, the full lung is activated, especially the lower part which, due to the shape of the lung, contains more blood vessels. We also exhale slower via our nose (there’s 50% more air resistance via the nose vs mouth). This gives the lungs more time to extract the oxygen needed and allows for proper oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange. Using your nose has been shown to result in a 10-20% greater oxygen uptake in the blood.
Nose breathing also helps maintain a balanced pH level which is needed for oxygen absorption. Low CO2 levels make the blood alkaline (high pH). If the environment is too alkaline, the red blood cell is not able to release the O2 it’s carrying. This means your blood is saturated with oxygen, but the cells that need oxygen don’t end up getting it.
Lastly, the nasal cavity (the biggest part of your nose you don’t see, inside your skull), produces a gas called Nitric Oxide (NO). NO is a vasodilator, meaning it opens up blood vessels. When you inhale through your nose, you take NO deep into your lungs, which helps to open them up, improving air flow. This article explains the role of NO.
Problems with mouth breathing
Breathing through your mouth lowers CO2 levels, reduces blood circulation and decreases oxygen delivery to the brain & body. It also leads to chronic over breathing causing your body to work harder than it needs to (while not actually benefiting from increased air intake). This has been shown to cause or worsen conditions including asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease and other serious medical problems.
Improve exercise performance
Part 1 - Improve oxygen delivery
When we exercise our metabolism increases, requiring us to use more O2 and give off more CO2. The better we are at doing this, the better we’ll perform athletically. As we saw above, nasal breathing helps to improve this process.
Nose breathing during exercise has been shown to reduce breathing rates by 50%, and decrease perceived exertion by 60%, potentially helping you work harder for longer.
At low intensity (walking, jogging), you should be able to maintain nose-only breathing the entire time. For higher intensity activities (HIIT, boxing, sprinting), a combination of nasal and mouth breathing will be required, with the goal to breathe via the nose for as long as possible. This study showed that subjects were able to achieve 90% of their max workload while nasal breathing.
That other 10%, when you’re giving it all you’ve got, switch to mouth breathing. It has its purpose. The key is to breathe according to the metabolic needs of your body.
Part 2 - Delay the onset of fatigue
If you don’t get enough oxygen into the body, you produce less energy and you fatigue quicker. By nose breathing you’re better able to give your body the oxygen it needs to perform.
We get the energy to exercise (and live!) by converting oxygen + glucose into carbon dioxide + water within our cells. This energy is in the form of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). With enough O2, around 36 units of ATP are released (aerobic respiration). However, if there’s not enough O2 present, only 2 units of ATP are released (anaerobic respiration), along with another byproduct, lactic acid, which builds up in the muscles causing fatigue.
The inside of your nose has a four stage filtration system, as part of your immune system’s first line of defence.
The tiny hairs help filter out large particles and the mucous helps to trap pathogens like bacteria and viruses. Your nose, via the sinuses, warms and humidifies air, which helps to reduce your risk of colds (cold viruses replicate at lower temperatures). Lastly, nasal nitric oxide helps to sterilise the airway and has antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties. This article and this article discuss the role of nasal nitric oxide in fighting SARS and other Coronaviruses.
When you breathe through your mouth, you bypass all of these filters, greatly increasing the risk of harmful pathogens entering your highly sensitive lungs.
Maintain body temperature & decrease dehydration
Exhaling through the mouth results in a loss of heat and moisture from the body, resulting in dehydration, blocked nose and difficulty breathing (which continue the cycle of poor breathing). This study discovered that nose breathing helps to recover around 33% of exhaled heat and moisture, while this study showed that exhaling through the mouth instead of the nose can result in up to 42% more water loss. By switching to breathing via the nose you help to keep your airways clear by preventing dehydration, and preserve body heat.
Help you sleep better
Poor breathing, especially breathing through the mouth is linked to poor sleep, with this study showing that blocking the nose (therefore breathing via the mouth) during sleep caused participants to wake up more often, reduced the quality of their sleep, and caused a significant increase in sleep disorders.
Breathing through the nose, stimulates nerves that regulate breathing. When you breathe via your mouth, you bypass this process, which can restrict breathing causing everything from snoring to obstructive sleep apnea (which lowers oxygen levels and can lead to a heart attack).
The simplest way to get a good night’s sleep by breathing through your nose is to tape your mouth using some 3M tape (you can buy it everywhere). While it may not look sexy… a good night’s sleep can be a sexy thing… just ask any parent!
Make you more attractive
Breathing through your nose causes your tongue to rest on the roof of your mouth, creating pressure on the hard palate. If you constantly breathe through your mouth, this pressure isn’t there. This can narrow the palate, resulting in a long, narrow, face, less prominent jaw, and a retracted chin. Not only is this facial structure viewed as less desirable, it may also require corrective orthodontics like braces, teeth extraction or surgery.
While attractiveness is a superficial benefit, there are biological triggers behind it including indicators of reproductive suitability. To me, this benefit further highlights the complex way the body functions and the interrelationship between it’s seemingly vastly different parts.
Our noses are the first and last part of the body involved in the respiration process, a process that impacts absolutely every single system inside of us. By breathing through your nose you’re quite literally impacting the health of your entire body.
There’s definitely more to the nose than just being able to smell the roses ;-)
Put it into practice
Now that you understand the importance of nose breathing it’s time to put it into practice.
Start by practicing some of these breathing exercises for your nose.
A huge thank you to the following people for the work they do promoting the importance of nasal breathing in work, sport and life, and for the inspiration for this article.
Patrick McKeowan, The Oxygen Advantage
Brian MacKenzie, Shift
David Bidler, The Distance Project
Kasper van der Meulen, Mindlift Learning
P.S. Like the NASAL™ t-shirt? It's a new clothing brand from fellow Aussie breathworker, Leigh Ewin. Check it out at nasal.io