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Nose breathing is best: the surprising benefits of nasal breathing

Do you feel the need to breathe through your mouth to take in enough air? If that’s the case, you’re not alone. Estimates on the prevalence of mouthbreathing tend to range from 5 to 75% of a population. In Brazil, two independent studies showed that more than 50% of children are mouthbreathers, but it may be more common than that.

However, breathing through your nose is the natural way to breathe. Mastering nasal breathing is a simple technique that can really make a big difference to how you feel.

In this article, we explore how to breathe well, methods, and the consequences of not breathing well.

Who might benefit from better breathing?

People of different genders and ethnicities and ages in a business office setting to represent that most of us could potentially benefit from slower breathing through the nose.

Since the typical respiratory rate in adults at rest is considerably faster than what’s considered good for a healthy stress response (12-20 breaths per min compared to the more optimum 5.510 breaths per minute), most of us could potentially benefit from slower breathing through the nose.

Nasal breathing could have particular benefits for people with asthma, allergies, stress, anxiety, poor exercise tolerance, poor dental health and infections, nasal congestion, those with sleep apnoea, and snorers.

Breathing therapy might also be helpful for people with cardiovascular disease.

Slow breathing at around 6 breaths per minute is linked with improved response to stress caused by low oxygen levels and the preservation of healthy blood pressure responses in well individuals, people at high altitude, and people with heart failure and hypertension.

Slower breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system – the calming arm of our nervous system. Measuring your Heart Rate Variability (HRV), which is the beat-to-beat fluctuations in time between heartbeats, may help you to observe the calming influence of mindful rhythmic breathing. There are tools (with earpieces or chest straps) that can measure HRV in real time as we breathe. You can find out more here.

Warning in a circle with a green border

Very rarely, breathing at a rate of fewer than 12 breaths per minute can be a sign of conditions, such as poisoning / overdose / head injury. If you’re feeling otherwise unwell with a slower breathing rate, please consult a medical professional.

Why you should practise nasal breathing

Nasal breathing has some major advantages over mouth breathing including:

  • It’s important for your sense of smell and your ability to “sniff out” and remember both good and bad odours in the environment, which has implications for memory more generally.

  • May improve cognitive function. Studies have found that controlled nasal breathing can lead to an improvement in some cognitive processes, leading to faster response times.

  • Keeps your nasal lining moist. In your nasal and respiratory passages, the mucous lining and small hairs called cilia constantly clear your airways of inhaled particles. For this process to work, it needs to be moist.

  • Warms, humidifies and pressurises the air as you breathe which improves your ability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide in your lungs.

  • Studies indicate that it can boost nitric oxide concentrations. Your nose and sinuses produce the antibacterial, antiviral, anticoagulant (prevents blood from clotting) gas called nitric oxide (NO).

One of the easiest ways to regulate your autonomic nervous system is to take control of your breathing as often as possible. That means breathing through the nose and controlling the diaphragm.

Why you should avoid breathing through your mouth

There are major disadvantages to breathing through your mouth:

  • Produces less nitric oxide.

  • Is shallow and inefficient.

  • Causes your body to lose 42% more water by exhaling from your mouth compared to breathing out through your nose.

  • Some researchers suggest that breathing through the mouth at a faster rate during childhood may contribute to developing constricted facial features such as crowded and crooked teeth.

Whilst research in adults is limited, in a study amongst mouth breathing children, 86% slept with their mouth open, 79% snored, 77% had itchy noses, 62% drooled on the pillow, 62% had night-time breathing difficulties or restless sleep, 49% had blocked nose and 43% showed daytime irritability.

Causes of mouth breathing

Mouth breathing can be caused by a chronically blocked up nose, for example due to allergies, or infection nasal septal defects, or enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Other causes include stress, inflammation, air pollution, dry indoor air, or lower duration of breastfeeding as an infant.

Consequences of over-breathing – also known as hyperventilation

A middle-aged woman sitting with her face in her hands looking pained to represent over-breathing and hyperventilation.

When we breathe through our mouth, we tend to over-breathe. Over-breathing can be defined as hyperventilation (i.e., breathing too fast and too deep). It’s a normal response to sudden danger or stress which can become habitual. If you regularly breathe through your mouth, especially when resting, it’s likely you’re over-breathing.

What happens when we over-breathe?

An illustration in a comic book style explaining what happens when we over-breathe and how red blood cells know where to release oxygen.

How to breathe well: low and slow and through the nose

A woman's torso with one hand on her diaphragm and one hand one her stomach to illustrate how to be aware of your breathing and how to breathe well.

The power of breathing has been known for thousands of years around the world and there are hundreds of different techniques, traditions and methods of breathing, for example pranayama and yoga. Some new interpretations of ancient breathing techniques include: Buteyko, Wim Hof, and Soma.

Constantine Buteyko was a Ukrainian doctor who, in the 1950s, watched how sick people breathe and noticed the sicker they were the worse their breathing became. The Buteyko breathing techniques (BTT) he developed, mostly involves breathing through the nose, breathing less and breath holding. Progress is monitored by tracking breath hold times in a controlled way. Buteyko himself, attributed the resolution of his own hypertension to the BTT he developed. Also, the Buteyko Breathing Technique might be an effective way to manage asthma symptoms.

Soma Breath, on the other hand, is a system of breathing developed by Niraj Naik who, similarly to Wim Hof, teaches breathing techniques based on traditional yoga breathing practices.

This article discusses the potential benefits of “low and slow” breathing through the nose.

To begin, notice how you’re currently breathing:

  • Bring your attention to your breath and notice the flow of air as you breath in and out.

  • Try it in front of a mirror. Place one hand on your stomach between your navel and lower ribs and the other hand on your chest. Take a deep breath in and notice which hand rises first?
An illustration of a woman in front of a mirror with one hand on her diaphragm and one hand on her stomach with a speech bubble saying 'Which parts moves first' referring to her diaphragm or stomach to see if her breathing pattern is natural.

When breathing in through the nose (which is the physiologically natural way), the belly should rise first, with minimal upper chest movement. Abnormal breathing is observed as an increased movement of the upper compared with the lower chest.

So now that you’ve noticed your current breathing, let’s explore the steps for nasal breathing.

How to breathe through your nose and engage your diaphragm:

Engaging your diaphragm, also called diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing, increases the volume of air you inhale, whilst reducing the number of breaths per minute. Breathing “low and slow” and exhaling slowly buys time and allows CO2 to build up before the next inhalation.

Here’s how to get started with nasal breathing:

  • Stand or sit up straight with shoulders relaxed.

  • Close your mouth (lips and teeth together) with your tongue touching the roof of your mouth.

  • Place one hand on your stomach between your navel and lower ribs and breath in gently through your nose into the area behind your hand. Your belly should rise naturally.

  • As you breathe out through your nose, you let go effortlessly, allowing your belly to fall, as your diaphragm (the muscle which separates your chest cavity from your abdomen) returns to its domed resting position around the abdomen. 

  • Your breath should be gentle, smooth and silent and not forced or effortful.

  • Focus on a slow “out and in” rather than up and down, breathing from your belly. Feel your belly expand as you breathe in and relax as you breathe out. Your back and sides should also expand, and your chest should remain relaxed.

  • If you find yourself breathing in a jerky way, mildly resisted breathing can help control your diaphragm. Place a book on the area around your navel whilst lying down. Once you’re comfortable with that, try a slightly heavier one. If you have problems with gastro-oesophageal reflux, practice in a semi-reclining position.
An illustration of a man lying down with a pillow behind his head and another behind his legs with a book on his navel to practise mildly resisted breathing which can help with hyperventilation syndrome
  • Practice makes perfect – if you’ve been breathing through your mouth for a long time, it might take a bit of getting used to.

Time honoured breathing techniques from yogic, Buddhist chants and the Catholic rosary all seem to support a pattern of about 6 breaths a minute (or approximately 5.5 seconds inhale and 5.5 seconds exhale). This is further supported by modern studies which have found this breathing pattern may lead to reduction in anxiety, improved blood pressure and greater ventilation of the lungs.

How to stop mouth breathing at night

A young man lying in bad asleep with his mouth open mouth breathing during the night.

Whilst not for everyone, one approach that has been suggested is to consider gently taping your mouth at night.

If you want to give mouth taping a go, try placing a small 1-2 cm wide strip of tape placed across both lips in the centre of the mouth. This should act as a prompt to keep your mouth closed, but for safety reasons should not completely cover your mouth. You should be able to remove the tape easily with your tongue.

Even those with sleep apnoea or people who use a CPAP machine are thought to be safe to try mouth taping.

Good air quality is crucial for healthy lungs, so investing in an air purifier can also be beneficial.

Warning in a circle with a green border

Babies and very young children shouldn’t mouth-tape. However, it can be generally safe for older children providing their mouth isn’t fully covered and they can open their mouths to talk and breathe if they need to. Only a small strip of tape in the middle is required to serve as a reminder to keep the mouth closed.

If you have severe claustrophobia or allergies, a deviated septum or if you’re pregnant, sick or congested we strongly recommend you speak to your GP before considering mouth taping.

If you have any sort of nasal blockage, it can be valuable to think about possible causes. For example, a dusty bedroom or mould issues in the home can all contribute to nasal congestion. If you’re struggling to resolve the source of your congestion, please consult a GP or suitable healthcare practitioner.

Take control of your breathing

Now you have had some insight into the benefits of nasal breathing, why not give one of the breathing techniques mentioned above a try, if you haven’t already, and see if you notice a difference to how you feel?

Close your eyes, breathe in through your nose, into your belly. 5 seconds in and 5 seconds out. And repeat.

In the spirit of improving or maintaining your wellness, the Evergreen Life app is bursting with helpful overall wellbeing tips and helps you stay in control of your health and related information. Why not download the app today?

Reviewed by:

Anna Keeble MA BA Wellbeing Expert

Dr Claire Marie Thomas MRCGP DFSRH DTMH DipNLP MBChB BMedSci Medical Expert

Asthma and mouth breathing

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Buteyko method

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Facial structure and breathing

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Mouth Breathing

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Abreu RR, Rocha RL, Lamounier JA, et al. (2008) Prevalence of mouth breathing among children. J Pediatr (Rio J). 84: 467-70 (doi: 10.2223/JPED.1806).

De Menezes VA, Leal RB, Pessoa RS, et al. (2006) Prevalence and factors related to mouth breathing in school children at the Santo Amaro project-Recife. Braz J Otorhinolaryngol. 72: 394-9 (doi: 10.1016/s1808-8694(15)30975-7).

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Stewart M, Ferguson B and Fromer L (2010) Epidemiology and burden of nasal congestion. Int J Gen Med. 3: 37-45 (doi: 10.2147/ijgm.s8077).

Svensson S, Olin AC, Hellgren J (2006) Increased net water loss by oral compared to nasal expiration in healthy subjects. Rhinology 44: 74-7.

Trabalon M and Schaal B (2012) It Takes a Mouth to Eat and a Nose to Breathe: Abnormal Oral Respiration Affects Neonates’ Oral Competence and Systemic Adaptation. International Journal of Pediatrics 2012: 207605 (doi: 10.1155/2012/207605).

Triana CBEG, Ali AH and León IBG (2016) Mouth breathing and its relationship to some oral and medical conditions physiopathological mechanisms involved. Revista Habanera de Ciencias Medicas 15: 200-212.

Valdenice Aparecida de Menezes et al., “Prevalence and Factors Related to Mouth Breathing in School Children at the Santo Amaro Project—Recife, 2005,” Brazilian Journal of Otorhinolaryngology 72, no. 3 (May–June 2006): 394–98.

Veron HL, Antunes AG, Milanesi JDM, et al. (2016) Implications of mouth breathing on the pulmonary function and respiratory muscles. Revista CEFAC 18: 242-251 (doi: 10.1590/1982-0216201618111915).

Wasnik M, Kulkarni S, Gahlod N, et al. (2021) Mouth breathing habit: a review. Int J Community Med Pub Health. 2021: 495-501 (doi: 10.18203/2394-6040.ijcmph20205742).

Nitric Oxide

Lundberg JO (2008) Nitric oxide and the paranasal sinuses. Anat Rec (Hoboken) 291:1479-84. (doi: 10.1002/ar.20782).

Roberts JD Jr, Fineman JR, Morin FC 3rd, et al. (1997) Inhaled nitric oxide and persistent pulmonary hypertension of the newborn. N Engl J Med. 336: 605-10 (doi: 10.1056/NEJM199702273360902).

Törnberg DCF, Marteus H, Schedin U, et al. (2002) Nasal and oral contribution to inhaled and exhaled nitric oxide: a study in tracheotomized patients. European Respiratory Journal 19: 859-864 (doi: 10.1183/09031936.02.00273502).

Nasal Breathing

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Esposito L (2022) Mucociliary Escalator: What is your airway clearance routine? Mayo Clinic.

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Thomas SA, Phillips V, Mock C, et al. (2009) The effects of nasal breathing on exercise tolerance. Paper presented at Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Annual Congress 2009

Soni S, Joshi LN and Datta A (2015). Effect of controlled deep breathing on psychomotor and higher mental functions in normal individuals. Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 59: 41-47.

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Zelano C, Jiang H, Zhou G, et al. (2016) Nasal Respiration Entrains Human Limbic Oscillations and Modulates Cognitive Function. J Neurosci. 36: 12448-12467 (doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2586-16.2016).


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Slow breathing

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Picture of Nicky Verity

Nicky Verity

Nicky Verity is a wellbeing researcher at Evergreen Life. A former clinical pharmacist, Nicky is passionate about empowering others to help themselves.