From reducing anxiety levels to altering facial structure, we’re only just beginning to understand how breath technique can affect our health…

From Wim Hof to clean air initiatives, meditation to mindfulness, in recent years there’s been a renewed interest in breath, breathing and how it fits into our changing attitudes towards health. 

It’s worthwhile taking a moment to examine the benefits of correct breathing – and the consequences of poor breathing habits – to look at how they can contribute to (or frustrate) long term health outcomes. 

Poor breathing 

While it might seem like a slight thing, incorrect breathing habits can have real costs. Take mouth breathing for example. Mouth-breathing syndrome (MBS) – a predominately oral breathing pattern – can have consequences both profound and long lasting. 

Potential effects 

  • Chronically dry lips
  • Cavities (caused by dry mouth and teeth) 
  • Crooked teeth
  • Respiratory ailments
  • Stress on the neck, shoulder and cervical muscles
  • Postural changes and back pain

Over a long enough time period, mouth breathing can even lead to an underdeveloped jaw and poor development of the face. When the mouth is left open for extended periods, pressure is applied to the upper and lower jaw which can create a narrowing of the dental arch and the face as a whole, a condition known, for obvious reasons, as ‘long face’. 

Even worse, the negative effects for the jaw and face are often compounded by the lowering of the tongue (which should rest on the roof of the mouth). As the pressure on the upper palate is reduced, facial narrowing is accelerated, causing further deformity as the absence of natural pressure from the tongue fails to push the mid-face out as part of natural facial maturation (dependent on genetic predisposition).  

And the bad news doesn’t end there. Poor breathing habits can also lead to problems due to lower oxygen levels in the blood. Mouth breathers may start taking extra breaths (or develop a yawning habit) as the body tries to drive up low oxygen levels, preventing the nervous system from relaxing, and creating a perpetual ‘fight or flight’ affect in the sufferer. 

One study, Influence of Mouth Breathing on the Dentofacial Growth of Children: A Cephalometric Study, published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, takes the potential trouble even further, saying that, in addition to the link between mouth-breathing and significant increases in lower incisor proclination, lip incompetence and convex facial profile, there is also the potential for “cardiorespiratory and endocrine disease, sleep and mood disorders and poor performance at school”. 

“Furthermore, MBS is related to genetic factors, unhealthy oral habits and nasal obstructions of varying severity and duration.”

(If you suspect your child might be at risk, consult a dentist with experience in mouth breathing conditions or other medical professional.)

 The good news

Luckily, with early diagnosis and a little effort, chronic mouth breathing can be corrected. And once it is, the benefits of better breathing techniques are manifold.  

Most obviously, good breathing technique helps improve oxygen transport in the bloodstream.   

“To deliver oxygen, our cells need a certain amount of carbon dioxide for the oxygen to unload into our biological cells,” says Dr Steven Lin, ‘functional dentist’ and author of The Dental Diet.  

“There is a molecule called nitric oxide released from the paranasal sinuses. Nitric oxide both facilitates blood flow to the lungs and helps oxygen transport.”

But the effects go well beyond simple oxygenation, says Lin: “When you inhale and exhale, you change the pressure in your chest cavity. That forces a shift through the venous plexus in the chest to force cerebrospinal fluid up the spine into the head.”

“Breathing in decreases the pressure in the chest (opens up) and causes CSF to flow from your ventricles down the spinal column.” 

“Breathing out increases chest pressure and causes a flood of CSF to flow up into the brain (some eventuating in lymphatic emptying). That’s why breathing out has a calming feeling; it flows CSF to the brain and is parasympathetic.”

And deep breathing provides benefits beyond feelings of calm. Other improvements to wellbeing include:

  • Better sleeping
  • Improved brain health
  • Lowered stress
  • Improved posture
  • Greater lung capacity
  • Better pain management
  • Increased energy
  • Reduced inflammation

So just how does one breathe ‘better’?

Diaphragmatic breathing (or ‘belly breathing’) is a useful technique for managing the breath, can be done (almost) anywhere and takes only moments. 

  1. Sit or lie down
  2. Place one hand on the belly
  3. Breath in through the nose for two seconds, feeling your belly expand
  4. Hold for a moment, then breathe out slowly, drawing your abdominal wall towards your lower spine
  5. Repeat