What do you think of when you hear the term “airway health?”
If you’re like us, it may be something you haven’t thought about for most of your life, but chances are, if it is not affecting you personally, airway health is affecting someone close to you.
While most often associated with sleep issues such as snoring, grinding, or obstructive sleep apnea, poor airway health can be the culprit behind conditions such as chronic fatigue, nighttime urination, excess weight gain, headaches, and behavioral issues in children, just to name a few. You may be surprised to learn that many common medical conditions can be caused by airway disorders. More surprisingly, there are shockingly few practitioners who consider the airway when treating these conditions.
Let’s dig into what causes airway disorders, how they can affect us, and why they’ve been so overlooked by modern medicine.
By Anders Olmanson & Gunnar Hodnefield
What are airway disorders, and why do we have them?
To keep things simple, modern humans are eating softer foods than our ancestors (even just since the industrial revolution) that do not require us to chew as much. Because our jaws aren’t engaging properly, our facial muscles don’t get the workout they need – if jaws aren’t chewing, facial muscles won’t work as they should. Take wisdom teeth, for example – many people need to have them removed because their teeth are too crowded – something that almost never happened even 150 years ago. Allergies, obesity, improper swallowing, breathing patterns, and restricted tongue function can make these conditions even worse. Airway issues can be present in four main areas. Hard structures such as your jaw, teeth, and skull, soft tissues (primarily muscles), muscle reaction, as in how your muscles respond to your airway closing), and oral posture, the positioning of your tongue and mouth. Let’s take a closer look.
The hard structures are essentially the housing of the mouth and throat. When we were young, these hard structures developed based on the pressure created by our tongue and jaw while chewing foods and resting, as well as counteracting pressure from our cheeks and lips.
By the age of 6, a child’s orofacial development is 60% complete – that number is 90% by age 12. Because of this, early intervention is critical in ensuring this development happens properly. Having good tongue posture, nasal breathing, correct swallowing technique, and muscle strength will have a greater (positive) effect the younger you are. That said, improvement can still happen when you are an adult, it just takes a little longer. Let’s look at a common condition in children, tongue-tie (ankyloglossia).
This condition inhibits the tongue’s range of motion and makes it extremely difficult, or even impossible, to keep the tongue on the roof of the mouth where it’s supposed to be. Because the tongue doesn’t press outward on the palate, the mouth may not expand the way it should – potentially leading to teeth crowding, speech difficulties, and even obstructive sleep apnea. Learn more about tongue ties here – you’d be surprised how common they can be in children.
The soft tissues are the muscles, fat, and fascia, which house the space inside the hard structure of the mouth. When we gain weight, we can also gain added soft and fatty tissue in our tongue, soft palate, and throat. Inflammation of these soft tissues due to allergies or enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids can also take up room in the airway. The more tissue there is, the less room we have in our airways for breathing.
For most people, losing weight and exercising can greatly improve airway health. You can also specifically exercise the soft tissues in your mouth and throat to tone and strengthen muscles. It’s important to figure out what is causing inflammation in your mouth and throat to be able to address it.
Every time you take a breath in, your airway muscles work hard to prevent your airway from collapsing due to the negative pressure that is created. Try taking a big breath with your mouth open in front of a mirror. You will see your tongue move to counteract this pressure. Ever wonder why people snore at night but not during the day? Our mouth and throat muscles are relaxed while we sleep – meaning it is easier for the airway to collapse. Poor airway muscle response can lead to disordered breathing during sleep.
Upper airway exercises or myofunctional therapy can help improve muscle coordination, tone, and responsiveness. Here are some exercises that you can try at home.
The best way to help our airway muscles work properly is to put them into a position of strength. Proper oral posture is crucial in keeping your airway healthy. Have you ever played sports or done an activity where the good form or position matters? Being in a strong stance makes it easier to perform the same tasks with less energy.
By consciously keeping your tongue and mouth in the proper position during the day, you’ll better train your muscles to keep your airway open at night and make it less likely your tongue will fall back, creating an obstruction.
What is the proper posture? Your mouth should be lightly closed with the front and back of the tongue lightly suctioned to the roof of our mouth. You should be breathing both in and out through your nose. Did you know that breathing through your mouth can also dehydrate you 42% faster?
How can you improve your airway health?
You have an idea of what causes airway issues and their negative consequences, but now what? How do you improve your airway health so you can live your best life? For us, we want to improve our airway health so we can get the best sleep, have more energy during the day, and not disturb our loved ones at night.
The hard structures, soft tissues, muscle reaction, and oral posture are all levers you can pull to help. The amount you can benefit from improving each one will depend on your condition and which factors are causing your airway to be small, vibrate (snore), and/or collapse (obstructive sleep apnea). To figure out what is best for your condition, we strongly recommend working with a healthcare professional who is trained in airway health.
Here are some basic things you can try right now to improve your airway health:
- Exercise and lose weight
- Eat foods that are less processed and require more chewing
- Exercise your upper airway/myofunctional therapy
- Consciously breathe in and out through your nose throughout the day
- Establish proper tongue posture
- Make sure you’re swallowing correctly
- Remove or address sources of allergies and inflammation
REMplenish combines upper airway exercises with the natural action of drinking.
Drinking from REMplenish provides targeted resistance to the muscles in your mouth and throat, helping to exercise your airway and keep it healthier. A healthy airway can lead to better breathing, reduced snoring & better sleep, and more energy during the day.
In a 2020 REMplenish usability study, 93% of snorers reported a reduction in snoring, and 34% said they were more awake during the day.
Anders Olmanson, our CEO, first became interested in Sleep Health through a clinical immersion program while working on his Master of Science in Medical Device Innovation program at the University of Minnesota in 2017
While most often associated with sleep issues such as snoring or sleep apnea, poor airway health can contribute to a multitude of conditions, including chronic fatigue, headaches, depression, anxiety, excess weight gain, behavioral issues, bedwetting in children, and many more.
Compared to our ancestors, we eat a softer food diet and don’t use our muscles for chewing and swallowing as much. Our tongue and facial muscles have weakened over time, and our mouths don’t develop the way they should. This can lead to vibration and collapsibility of the airway.
The tongue’s resting position can impact everything from chewing to swallowing and even the way you look and speak. Abnormal tongue position can lead to airway health disorders in children and adults – here are just a few of the conditions that can have their cause poor airway health:
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Up to 50% of Americans snore. Do you snore?
Andres Omen is the CEO of REM mastered sleep. Their water bottle can help stop storage. His background is in Biomedical Engineering, he has a Master of Science degree. And visited numerous different sleep clinics for his master’s program. He saw severe obstructive sleep apnea patients just outright refuse CPAP therapy or the Darth Vader mask. So while looking for alternatives came across a didgeridoo study, that long wooden instrument in Australia you see you guys on the beach actually helped reduce obstructive sleep bad from moderate to mild how functional therapy are these exercises that you can do that can help the same thing even better than the didgeridoo?
While brainstorming, he was actually at his parent’s place and watching their dog peanut butter and didn’t even realize it was doing this tongue exercise to get the peanut butter out.
So he was like, Okay, what do people do every day? They drink water out of a water bottle. So they created the device with a straw that’s helping exercise those muscles. Yet when you drink, it actually causes you to target exercise that’s during the back of your mouth and throat muscles. And what that’s doing is tying up your soft tissues, so they’re less likely to vibrate or collapse or sleep.
So you drink, keeping both the front and the back of your tongue up on the roof of your mouth with a light suction and nasal breathing at rest. So this carries over into sleep to stabilize your jaw, so your tongue is less likely to fall. Back into your airway. It kind of makes you have to work a little harder to drink. Your tongue is actually trained with suction, so you’re not using your cheeks you are using your tongue to actually draw the water and compress it and then swallow.
People will say within a week they’re getting better sleep, you know they’re not snoring as much but normally, you know, a lot of other people, if you don’t have that bad oral posture take a month to see results.
How does snoring even happen?
Snoring is when the soft tissues vibrate in the back of the throat. What can happen is your tongue when your back is telling back and pushing against the soft palate and then that’s causing restriction of airflow, and then the vibration is making that noise. So when you turn on the side, the tongue is no longer falling back, and the airway snoring stops.
In the summer of 2020, they did a before and after study to have qualitative results 93 times, and they saw improvement in snoring. An additional 34% saw improvement in tiredness when they said I used to wake up every hour or two to go to the bathroom. Now I don’t need to go, you know, it’s five or six hours of solid sleep, or I’m, you know, feeling more rested. I have more energy and fewer morning headaches or fogginess because people who snore aren’t really getting to rest. I mean, they’re going to wake up tired, right?
A lot of people don’t want a CPAP machine or struggle, so if this is another alternative, that is way easier for people. Why not give it a try?
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