Dr. Jeremy Montrose
Today more than ever we all want our immune systems to be functioning at optimal capacity, however few people are aware that the way they breathe can be one of the most important factors.
While it will always be important to have a healthy lifestyle including diet and exercise, all of the healthy choices a person makes can be off set if they are not breathing properly day and night. It may be surprising but research on the importance of proper breathing has been around for hundreds of years and has gained significant popularity in the last couple decades. Today there are plenty of studies which establish how breathing can not only affect the development and shape of your face and position of your teeth, but also has a direct affect on your overall health and functioning of the immune system.
A person can survive days without water and weeks without food, but only minutes without air. With that in mind it makes sense how important breathing is to the body, but not all breathing is equal. The human body is designed to breathe through the nose and eat and speak through the mouth. The only time that the body is designed to breathe through the mouth is during extreme exercise and only for a short period of time.
One of the things that happens when you breathe through the mouth is that unfiltered air goes straight to the throat and then to the lungs. This air can be filled with anything from dust, to pollution, to bacteria, viruses, or any other infectious particle. In these days of respiratory infections, even when wearing a mask, the first line of defense is to breathe through your nose. The nose is built to prepare air for the throat and lungs, and it does this in a variety of ways. The first is to use the structures inside the nose, such as the nasal turbinates and cilia, to physically filter out larger particles from the air. While the air coming in through the nose is being filtered it is also being warmed and humidified before it gets to the throat and lungs. When air comes in through the mouth and this process does not happen the air not only may contain more infectious particles but it also is not prepared for the body and can be irritating to the throat and lungs which causes inflammation and further increases susceptibility to infection.
Another important benefit of breathing through the nose is the addition of nitric oxide to the inhaled air. Nitric oxide is a molecule that is produced in the paranasal sinuses, the sinuses that are next to the nose, and as a gas it is mixed in with air that is inhaled through the nose. Nitric oxide is an extremely important molecule for the body as it helps to relax the lining of the lungs and blood vessels and also acts as a powerful antimicrobial. This means that a powerful antimicrobial is mixed in with the air when you breathe through the nose but not when you breathe through the mouth. Air that comes in through the mouth does not pass by the paranasal sinus so does not get this benefit. By relaxing the lining of the lungs and blood vessels nitric oxide has also been shown to lower blood pressure and increase circulation, both of which are essential for optimum immune system function.
Lastly breathing through the nose generally requires slower and deeper breathing since the nostrils are much smaller than the mouth. Both of these attributes are necessary for proper breathing as slower breathing actually increases the amount of oxygen released to the lungs and body while deeper breathing utilizes more of the lung capacity. It may seem counterintuitive to think that slower breathing will actually give your body more oxygen but the truth is that when you over-breathe with fast and shallow breathes less of the oxygen in the air is released into the lungs and more of the oxygen is simply exhaled back out of the body.
When the quality of breathing goes down, the stress on the body goes up. This stress can manifest in activation of the sympathetic nervous system and increase in the level of systemic inflammation. Both of these factors will negatively impact the immune system. The sympathetic nervous system is known as the fight or flight system and is meant to be active for short bursts of time during exercise or extreme stress. When this system is over activated by poor breathing it increases inflammation and this takes a toll on the body, and the immune system. Alternatively, proper breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system which is known as the rest and digest system. When the parasympathetic nervous system is active the body repairs, decreases inflammation, and immune system function is increased.
The way you breathe during sleep is even more crucial as this is the most important time to rest and repair the body and immune system. If the body is in a state of stress during sleep due to mouth breathing, snoring, poor sleep quality, or sleep apnea then the immune system cannot function properly and the impact on health can be significant.
There are a variety of treatment options to help improve breathing and subsequently immune system function including functional therapies such as orofacial myofunctional therapy, breathing therapies such as Buteyko breathing, dental oral appliances, devices to improve nasal breathing and procedures provided by an ENT. Now more than ever is the time to make sure you are breathing your best to make sure your immune system is functioning at optimal capacity.