Whether discussing exercise, sleep, or everyday life, there seems to be a general consensus that it’s worse to be a mouth breather vs nose breather, and that mouth breathers should learn a nasal breathing technique to replace mouth breathing.
But, is mouth breathing bad? Is breathing through the nose better than breathing through the mouth? Are there any benefits of mouth breathing vs nose breathing? Are there tips for breathing through the nose vs mouth?
In this article, we will discuss the pros and cons of being a mouth breather vs nose breather and provide you with tips for nasal breathing vs mouth breathing if you decide that you want to start breathing through nose vs your mouth.
We will look at:
- What Is the Difference Between A Mouth Breather vs Nose Breather?
- Is It Better to Breathe Through the Nose or Mouth During Exercise?
- Can You Change How You Breathe?
- How to Train Yourself to Breathe Through the Nose vs Mouth
Let’s get started!
What Is the Difference Between A Mouth Breather vs Nose Breather?
The general consensus in the medical community is that it is better to breathe through the nose vs mouth when possible.
Improper breathing techniques can cause shortness of breath, even in the absence of health conditions that impact breathing, such as asthma, emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), allergies, heart disease, pneumonia, and anxiety disorders.
Nasal breathing affords many health benefits over mouth breathing.
The nasal passages are designed to help warm, humidify, and filter inspired air before it reaches your lungs.
This not only helps remove debris and trap pathogens and allergens, but it also helps prepare the air for entering your lungs and body.
By warming and humidifying the air that you breathe in via nasal breathing, your trachea, which is the windpipe, your bronchioles, which are the airways that branch off to the lungs, and the alveoli, which are the little air sacs in the lungs responsible for gas exchange between carbon dioxide and oxygen, receive inhaled air that is closer to body temperature and moisture conditions than when you breathe through the mouth.
This can potentially prevent dryness, coughing, allergies, asthma, burning lungs, and other breathing problems that can occur, particularly if you are breathing heavily in cold, dusty, or allergen-rich environments such as exercising outdoors in the winter, in the spring when there’s a lot of pollen in the air, or in dank, dirty, or poorly-ventilated areas.
Ultimately, mouth breathing does not filter, warm, or humidify the air, which means that you are gulping in potential allergens, viruses, and dry and cold air.
This can shock your respiratory system and introduce pathogens and irritants into your respiratory system and body at large. As a result, the air you inhale through the mouth doesn’t get the same special treatment, so it’s colder, drier, and may contain environmental allergens or irritants.
Is It Better to Breathe Through the Nose or Mouth During Exercise?
The primary reason that people deliberately engage in mouth breathing vs nose breathing, aside from instances where they may have nasal congestion or a deviated septum, which makes it difficult to use nasal breathing, is because the mouth is much bigger than the nose.
This leads us to believe that we can take in much more oxygen by breathing through the mouth vs nose.
So, for example, runners often choose to use mouth breathing vs nose breathing while running to help inhale more oxygen for the heart and muscles.
Interestingly, while the concept of being a mouth breather vs nose breather during exercise makes sense for this reason, in theory, research actually shows that breathing through the mouth decreases the activity of the respiratory muscles, reduces the expansion of the diaphragm, and thus decreases the overall breathing efficiency.
Essentially, when you inhale through the nose, the respiratory muscles, such as the diaphragm and intercostals between the ribs, are activated more significantly than when you breathe through the mouth.
Because these muscles allow for the maximal expansion of the lungs within the thoracic cavity, you are actually able to take in more oxygen in a more efficient manner when engaging in nose breathing vs mouth breathing.
Therefore, despite the fact it feels easier to breathe through the mouth during high-intensity exercise, it is not because you are getting more oxygen for your muscles but because there is less muscle activity in the respiratory muscles, so the resistance to the breath and the muscular workload for breathing is easier.
Plus, as mentioned, nasal breathing provides other health and respiratory benefits because the nasal passages filter, warm, and humidify the air that you are breathing.
Consequently, when air inhaled through the mouth hits the bronchi, it can cause exercise-induced bronchoconstriction, or EIB, and/or an asthmatic response.
Symptoms of EIB can include shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness, sore throat, and decreased endurance.
Therefore, as long as you strengthen your respiratory muscles, you will actually become a more efficient, oxygenated, healthy athlete for aerobic endurance exercise if you can transition to becoming a nose breather vs mouth breather.
To this end, research has found that nasal breathing during high-intensity anaerobic exercise reduces the risk of hyperventilation.
Furthermore, recent research into breathing techniques while running found that when runners and endurance athletes take the time to adapt to nose breathing while running or doing any type of endurance exercise, they can perform just as well at maximum (anaerobic) efforts than when breathing through the mouth and nose together.
Moreover, as explained, because nasal breathing better recruits the respiratory muscles when you are breathing through the nose during aerobic exercise, it improves running economy because it reduces the oxygen cost of running at a given pace.
Can You Change How You Breathe?
Most of the time, breathing is entirely under unconscious control; we breathe the way we breathe and don’t have to put thought into it.
This is because breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, a division of the nervous system that is involuntary or under unconscious control.
Of course, we can voluntarily alter our breathing mechanics, both in terms of the breath rate and depth, as well as if we are breathing through the mouth or breathing through the nose.
For example, during breathwork exercises that are often included in the practice of yoga, during mindfulness meditation, or even during exercise, we may put conscious attention to our breath and deliberately try to breathe deeper, slower, or patterned in a particular way to be either a mouth breather vs nose breather.
Consider a scenario in which you are lifting weights.
Fitness professionals recommend that when you breathe during exercise, you breathe in during the concentric or shortening contraction as you lift the weight, and you breathe out as you lower the weight back down.
Here, you may need to slow down the rate of your breathing to match the pace of your weightlifting exercise.
Alternatively, when you are performing maximal effort squats, the recommendation is actually to hold your breath throughout the duration of the movement, performing the Valsalva maneuver, in order to help provide extra stability to the spine and brace your core.
Then, when you have stood back up after the squat, you will take a full, regular breath.
Here again, you are intentionally overriding the natural, unconscious breath control in order to use your breath to support your body movements during exercise.
If you have dealt with bouts of anxiety, you may have been introduced to different types of relaxation breathing techniques like alternate nostril breathing, boxed breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing.
During an anxiety spell, you may have been coached to breathe in slowly through the nose, pause and hold the breath, and then exhale through your mouth.
All of these examples show that while we do not have to devote conscious work and attention to breathing every single second of every single day, it is possible to be mindful of your breathing technique and override the autonomic breathing control to change how you are breathing.
How to Train Yourself to Breathe Through the Nose vs Mouth
Here are a few tips to help encourage the shift from being a mouth breather vs nose breather:
- Lightly tape the mouth shut while sleeping or during everyday life.
- Wear nasal strips or internal nasal dilators and use a neti pot or nasal spray if nasal congestion is a hindrance to nasal breathing.
- Practicing belly breathing, alternate nostril breathing, and diaphragmatic breathing.
Want to learn more about improving your breathing technique? Check out our guide to diaphragmatic breathing here.