What is mouth breathing?
Mouth breathing is something many people do and they are completely unaware they are doing it. I was one of those people. I knew I was breathing through my mouth at night but during the day? No way! Not me! Say it ain’t so! No one wants to admit they are a mouth breather because you get made fun of for that.
Mouth breathing has a certain stigma attached to it. If you are a “mouth breather”, this is not something to be embarrassed about!
Putting all that aside since wearing masks for over two years it has become a major health concern.
Breathing possesses incredible power over your health, as it supplies your body with oxygen and removes excess carbon dioxide (CO2) to keep you alive. However, the way you breathe — whether fast or slow, shallow or deep — also sends messages to your body that affect your mood, stress level, blood pressure, immune function and more.
Mouth breathing is an underdiagnosed and under-discussed health issue that we all need to be paying much closer attention to.
What’s interesting about breathing is that it’s both a voluntary and an involuntary process. While your body breathes automatically, you also have the ability to consciously control your breathing — the speed, the depth and whether you breathe through your mouth or your nose.
So, simply by changing the way you breathe, you can actually influence your health in a variety of ways.
Whether you are a parent, a healthcare provider, or an adult who has spent your entire life breathing through your mouth, like me, you need to know why it’s such a big deal.
Always Breathe Through Your Nose
Perhaps the most basic of all breathing techniques is to make sure you’re always breathing through your nose. Mouth breathing tends to promote hyperventilation, which actually decreases tissue oxygenation.
Mouth breathing also results in diminished levels of CO2 in your body and a decreased ability to filter toxic pollutants from the air.
Your body needs a balance of oxygen and CO2 for optimal function. CO2 is not just a waste product but has actual biological roles, one of which is assisting in oxygen utilization. When your CO2 level is too low, changes in your blood pH impair your hemoglobin’s ability to release oxygen to your cells (the Bohr effect).
Mouth breathing can also elevate your heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes resulting in fatigue and dizziness. The elasticity of your lungs also depends on nasal resistance, which you only get from nasal breathing due to the smaller diameter of your nasal passages. Poor breathing is even associated with poor posture.
Mouth breathing starts when we can’t get enough air through the nose, so the mouth takes over. This forces us to breathe through the mouth out of sheer necessity, and this can become a life-long habit if not corrected.
It starts with awareness. We don’t give much thought to how we breathe. Breathing is automatic and not automatic at the same time. Respiratory function is controlled in the brain stem, the part of the brain that controls the basic things that keep us alive, like our heartbeat. You still breathe when you’re unconscious, asleep or anesthetized.
Just because breathing is an involuntary function doesn’t mean humans are unable to control it. If you have ever been told to take deep breaths before receiving a shot at the doctor, it’s in part because emotions can subconsciously impact our breathing pattern and bring down our oxygen levels and anxiety.
You breathe without thinking because your body does it for you automatically. But things can change your breathing pattern and make you feel short of breath, anxious, or ready to faint. Sometimes when this happens, it’s called hyperventilation, or overbreathing.
It is important to realize that mouth breathing and having an open mouth are really the same thing, and are equally detrimental to your health. When you breathe through your mouth you get 18% less oxygen to your brain and body.
Oxygen is the #1 thing that our bodies need to survive and thrive. We can not live without it for over 6 -10minutes.
It is perfectly natural to breathe through your mouth at certain times, such as when lifting a heavy load or exercising. Breathing through the mouth most of the time, however, can cause health problems.
Breathing through the nose, on the other hand, slows down and regularizes your breathing, thereby improving oxygenation. Nasal breathing also has a calming effect because it activates your parasympathetic nervous system.
That’s why I’ve joined the Breathe Institute, many other Myofunctional therapists and health care providers bringing Awareness to a topic that sounds funny to most people-Mouth Breathing.
It’s something that you should understand and learn more about in just the same way you would with any other health concern. It’s important to take charge of your own health, learn the symptoms and become more familiar with the risks and problems associated with mouth breathing.
Did you know that mouth breathing is a risk factor for sleep apnea? Or that if you breathe through your mouth, you are more likely to have allergies, inflammation, and changes to your digestion?
30 years ago, I didn’t know any of these things when I was trained as a dental hygienist. What’s even worse is that I learned that I was a mouth breather myself. I just learned about this two years ago because I was having issues sleeping because I was getting up three or four times a night to pee. That is a form of sleep disordered breathing. I was waking up with a dry mouth, sore throat , stuffy nose and was still tired after 6-8 hours in bed.
Why Is Mouth Breathing Bad?
Mouth breathing is a red flag for so many other health conditions including:
- Sleep disordered breathing
- Sleep apnea
- Impaired craniofacial development
- TMJ disorders
- Digestive problems
- Speech problems
- Periodontal disease
- Dental cavities
- Orthodontic complications
What Causes Mouth Breathing?
The most common causes of mouth breathing are:
- Allergies and/or food sensitivities
- Enlarged tonsils or adenoids
- Chronic nasal congestion
- Respiratory infection
- Deviated septum
- Nasal polyps
Each of these factors make it physically impossible for a person to breathe. If nasal breathing is not possible, the body’s only choice is to breathe. If you can’t breath through your nose for two minutes you should see an ENT.
How Does Mouth Breathing Affect The Body?
Mouth breathing has a number of detrimental effects on the mouth and body:
Mouth breathing changes the way the tongue works and where it rests in the mouth.
Your tongue should naturally rest in the top of your mouth, however, when your mouth is open it rests in the bottom. This leads to underdeveloped oral musculature, and can cause problems with speech, swallowing, breathing and chewing. When the tongue rests low in the mouth, it must push forward to swallow – this is called a tongue thrust.
A tongue thrust and mouth breathing always go hand in hand – so if you’re mouth breathing, you also have a tongue thrust swallowing pattern.
Facial Growth and Development
Believe it or not, breathing through your mouth can actually change the shape of your face and alter your appearance.
This is especially true for children because they are still growing. Children whose mouth breathing is not corrected may suffer from abnormal facial and dental development.
Symptoms of untreated mouth breathing include long, narrow faces and mouths, less defined cheekbones, small lower jaws, and weak chins. Other facial symptoms include gummy smiles and crooked teeth.
A “mouth breather” facial expression is typically not viewed as an attractive or desirable appearance.
Other Effects on the Body
Using the mouth for breathing disrupts our natural body mechanics. The root of the problem in many cases is oxygen deprivation, which can affect a number of bodily functions and lead to symptoms such as:
- Gingivitis and gum disease
- Sore throat and cold symptoms
- Bad breath
- Increased risk of cavities
- Poor sleep leading to chronic fatigue
- Digestive disturbances – gas, upset stomach, acid reflux, etc.
In children, mouth breathing has been linked to poor growth and weak academic performance, as well as ADD and ADHD symptoms.
In adults, poor oxygen concentration in the bloodstream has been associated with high blood pressure, heart problems, sleep apnea and other medical issues.
In addition, breathing through your mouth can lead to postural changes and spinal issues. When the tongue is in the wrong position, the head tends to rest forward, causing the shoulders to slump. When the mouth is open, it’s also more difficult to sit up straight.
The Teeth and Braces
Mouth breathing can also affect the position of your teeth and your bite. When the mouth is open, the lips are weak and there’s no external support for the teeth. The tongue simultaneously pushes forward, progressively moving the teeth over time.
This can cause problems with orthodontic treatment. Time spent in braces will be longer, and the chance that the results won’t be permanent is far higher.
WHAT HAPPENS IF WE CONTINUE TO MOUTH BREATHE?
As the tongue grows during childhood, whilst resting in the roof of the mouth it exerts a force on the upper jaw that supports its growth up and forward. This outward force from the tongue also counteracts the inward force of the cheeks/upper lip. Without the tongue in the roof of the mouth exerting this force, the upper jaw doesn’t fully develop.
Look at any child who has adopted an open mouth posture for a lengthier period of time and you may notice that the tongue appears to outgrow their “small” mouth and the tongue becomes “too big” to fit in the roof of the mouth. The child now has an under-developed upper jaw and this will result in significant overcrowding and malocclusion once the adult teeth come through, which may lead to the need for extractions and braces in the teenage years.
Mouth breathing in children affects jaw development and facial structure. As a direct result of reduced forward growth of the jaw, the airway is compromised and the body will correct this with compensations including forward head posture, which can have a knock-on effect on ribcage and pelvis position.
Photo: The Breathe Institute
Here are a few obvious reasons why a child would have difficulty maintaining correct tongue position for longer periods of time:
Allergies, asthma, deviated septum – can affect nasal breathing and so mouth breathing becomes normal.
Tongue-tie – the child physically can’t lift their tongue flat to the roof of the mouth, the upper jaw won’t develop, the child will often develop a lisp and bad bite (malocclusion) which can lead to extraction orthodontics.
Sucking a pacifier or thumb sucking – this puts a physical barrier in the way of the tongue’s correct resting position. Not only that, but it can often lead to more complex malocclusion issues. The earlier a child stops sucking their thumb or dummy, the better.
In these examples the allergies and asthma could fluctuate allowing periods of normal nasal breathing. This doesn’t mean that their inability to nasal breathe can’t be and shouldn’t be addressed. The more nasal breathing becomes the norm, the better.
Tongue tie to be a major issue if it affects a mother’s ability to feed her young baby, a tongue tie in an older baby or child can often be left untreated. I routinely assess my patient’s ability to nasal breathe and aim for a proper resting tongue position. In many cases patients will require surgery to address their posterior tongue tie along with an expansion dental appliance to create room for the tongue in the roof of the mouth.
What are the implications of chronic (long-term) mouth breathing?
Skeletal remains show that only 300 years ago, humans had straight, perfectly aligned teeth, wide jaws, flat palates and the large nasal passages that signal habitual, healthy nasal breathing.
But more recently, our faces have begun to deform. When children lose their baby teeth, there’s typically inadequate room for the adult teeth, which leads to crowding and misaligned teeth. Worst of all, this change encourages mouth-breathing, which can, in turn, lead to under-the-radar sleep difficulties and a whole array of problems ranging from behavioral challenges, anxiety and depression to cognitive issues. These conditions can have wider reaching implications and can cost thousands of dollars to correct through orthodontics, dentistry, therapy, and even surgery to remove tonsils and adenoids.’
In children between the ages of 2-8, chronic mouth breathing can change the jaw growth and development which will in turn cause the jaw to never reach its true position naturally and they will have narrower dental arches than they would otherwise have had as a nasal breather.
This affects the whole facial structure, which can impact the jaw, it develops in the correct upwards and forward trajectory, the airway is compromised. The body “corrects” this compromised airway with a “compensation” – a forward head posture to open the restricted airway.
Many adults reading this will identify themselves or their child as a chronic mouth breather. As well as the changes in facial structure and forward head posture outlined above, many also report clenching and grinding of teeth – a symptom of your jaw being out of position; snoring (and sleep apnoea) – without enough room for the tongue in the smaller mouth, it falls back on lying flat and further restricts the already compromised airway.
In mouth breathing children the jaw does not develop properly and grow forward as it should. The airway becomes compromised. Mouth breathing children may snore as without enough room for the tongue in the smaller mouth, it falls back on lying down flat and further restricts the already compromised airway.
What Can Be Done to Treat Mouth Breathing?
Mouth breathing may seem like an easy habit to change – just close your mouth, right?
There is day time mouth breathing and night time mouth breathing. DAy time is a little easier to treat once you are aware. Night time is a bit more difficult due not being awake to keep your lips together.
Unfortunately, for people who struggle with mouth breathing, it’s not that easy. The body simply doesn’t know how to breathe normally, and the muscles of the face and mouth have compensated and learned to work incorrectly.
As a myofunctional therapist, my goals are to help you retrain your muscles and to help you stop breathing through your mouth. When my patients switch from mouth breathing to nasal breathing, the changes to their health and quality of life can be astonishing.
If you or someone in your family’s mouth breathes during the day or at night, or even if your mouth is open just a little bit, you should talk to a myofunctional therapist.
Studies show that mouth breathing may be related to “ITP” incorrect tongue posture.
The tongue may be in an improper position. When the tongue is in an incorrect resting position it can lead to low tone in the face and also create an incorrect swallowing pattern, known as a “tongue thrust”
Improper tongue position affects your airway; the way you breathe. It can cause neck pain, jaw pain, bad body posture, long flatter face shape, sleep apnea, crowded teeth, and tongue thrust movement as you swallow.
An improper tongue position can be congenital, or it can be a habit that may include incorrect function of the muscles and incorrect habits formed over the years.
The real issue of this condition is that we are not focusing on the right problems early enough because the pain may not be obvious (or even non-existent) which allows us to ignore early warning signs. A Myofunctional Therapist will create an individualized program to retrain your orofacial muscles and improve function. Some goals of your training might include stabilizing the resting posture for your tongue and lips, establishing nasal breathing patterns, or eliminating harmful habits like thumb-sucking or tongue thrust swallow.
Contact me today for a comprehensive evaluation. I see patients from all over the world using video conferencing, you can find out more about this incredibly effective treatment method right here:
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How can you help spread the word
I’ll be sharing information about mouth breathing every day in the month of May! You can find my daily posts across my social media channels listed below.
If you share this information with family and friends, your dentist, pediatrician, physician or other health providers, you’ll be helping to increase the awareness about the effects of mouth breathing.
You can make a huge difference! A healthy Mouth is a healthy body and a happy healthy life!