Breathing, the most natural thing in the world, occurs on average 20,000 times per day without a fleeting thought. Yet, the wrong respiratory cycle can profoundly impact every cell in our bodies. Mouth taping for sleep gained traction a few years ago, spurred by research compiled in “Breath” by James Nestor.
Do you or your partner snore and often feel tired the next day? Do you wake up with a scratchy throat? Is your child frequently sick, and have you not considered respiratory dysfunction as the root cause?
Training to nose breathe at night offers crucial physiological benefits for the immune and cardiovascular systems. Furthermore, how we breathe during the day can influence our mental health.
What is respiratory dysfunction?
People suffering from anxiety and panic disorder may be more familiar with breathing techniques to restore calm. However, “90 percent of us have some kind of respiratory dysfunction,” Nestor says. To develop the research for his book, Nestor delved deeply into the physiology of respiration and even forced himself to breathe through his mouth only for a week and a half. He found that his sleep deteriorated, and his blood pressure went up.
Respiratory dysfunction can be triggered by infection, chronic pulmonary conditions, and snoring, but it also includes habitual breathing patterns such as chronically hyperventilating and failing to fully exhale. Those with a weaker soft palate and tongue muscles may snore, causing airway obstruction, which can progress to sleep apnea.
What benefits does nose breathing offer?
Breathing through our mouths at night can cause us to wake up with a dry, scratchy throat and an impaired respiratory cycle with wide-ranging effects from blood pressure to tissue oxygenation. Nose breathing warms and filters the air to remove dust and pathogens. It also pressurizes the air and allows the lungs to draw more oxygen out. The passages of the nose release nitric oxide, an important neurotransmitter affecting gas transport.
Mouth-taping, while not necessary to improve your breathing, can be a useful exercise to see if your sleep quality improves and if you notice other health benefits the next day. Understanding how nose breathing improves the three-gas respiratory cycle may encourage you to try breathing through your nose during the day as well.
Mouth taping resources
Surgical micropore tape is made to be put on skin and can be found online or at your local pharmacy retailer. Harsh tapes can cause skin irritation and are not necessary for mouth-taping.
Oxygen and carbon dioxide
Hold your breath for a moment. You have full lungs, but your desire to breathe mounts quickly. This is because your body wants to exhale carbon dioxide.
Oxygen and carbon dioxide (CO2) are two of the three gases in the respiratory cycle. Our physiological trigger to take a breath is rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. However, CO2 is not a toxin and learning to tolerate higher CO2 levels is important to certain activities, such as free diving.
We now understand that allowing CO2 levels to rise also pulls oxygen out to the tissues. Called the Bohr effect, increasing CO2 in the peripheral tissues causes the oxygen-hemoglobin dissociation curve to right-shift, delivering more oxygen to the tissues.
Nitric oxide (NO) is produced in the nasal passages and carried to the lungs when we breathe in. The third gas in the respiratory cycle, NO, is a vital part of regulating gas transport to the tissues via local delivery.
Endothelial cells lining blood vessels also synthesize NO from the amino acid L-arginine. This local release of NO regulates blood pressure and even helps delay atherosclerosis. People with conditions like diabetes, heart failure, hypertension, and high cholesterol have decreased NO release in the walls of the arteries.
This important neurotransmitter also plays a role as a cell-to-cell messenger in the brain, the sleep-wake cycle, and the immune system.
When we breathe through the mouth, we carry less NO to our lungs and tissues and impairs our body’s ability to deliver the oxygen and nutrients we need based on local metabolic demands in those tissues.
Breathing, panic, and anxiety disorders
Research into anxiety and respiration in the late 1980s began to shed light on the role of hyperventilation in people with anxiety. In fact, researchers found that patients with panic disorder are hypersensitive to carbon dioxide. Inhaling CO2 could induce a panic attack.
Many people with anxiety and panic often over-breathe, taking too many shallow breaths due to chemoreceptor sensitivity. They feel an urge to breathe at a lower level of CO2.
Over-breathing drives the CO2 trigger lower and lower, making it harder for people with chronic hyperventilation to hold their breath for even a few seconds. When we over-breathe, taking too many shallow breaths, our carbon dioxide tolerance drops. In other words, we feel the urge to breathe too soon.
Breath-holding may help the body develop a higher tolerance for CO2. Holding our breath for a long cycle drives CO2 levels up. As we get used to enduring higher and higher levels of CO2, we can normalize our breathing cycle and stop shallow panic-breathing.
Carbon dioxide therapy may come back into vogue as well, Nestor says, to help people with anxiety and panic who may have a physiologic issue, not necessarily a psychiatric condition.
Breath as medicine
Mouth-taping may be the latest trend to optimize health and is one of many ways we can harness natural processes to improve wellbeing. You can start breath work during the day as well. This may help manage anxiety and stress while building your CO2 tolerance.
One method is box breathing or 4+4+4+4. These steps can guide you through the process:
- Breathe in for four counts;
- Hold for four counts;
- Breathe out for four counts;
- Hold for four counts;
Now that we have reawakened to the importance of breathing to our cardiovascular and immune systems, you may be interested in finding others guided breathing techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing. Breath awareness studios provide guidance on deep awareness of our breathing and a structured session led by an expert practitioner.
Mouth taping for sleep started in 2020 with James Nestor’s book, "Breath."
The practice surged on TikTok over the summer of 2022.
The nose is designed to filter and warm the air entering the body.
Breathing through the nose also pressurizes the air so that the lungs can extract more oxygen.
Nose breathing at night may improve sleep cycles, reduce sleep apnea, and prevent illness.
- General Hospital Psychiatry. Respiratory physiology and pathological anxiety.
- Journal of Psychiatric Research. A systematic review and network meta-analysis of carbon dioxide provocation in psychiatric disorders.
- Psychological Research. Physiology of nitric oxide in the respiratory system.
- Circulation Research. Role of Nitric Oxide Carried by Hemoglobin in Cardiovascular Physiology.
- Nature Reviews Neuroscience. Nitric oxide in the central nervous system: neuroprotection versus neurotoxicity.
- Elise Loehnen podcast - Pulling the Thread. It Begins and Ends with Breath (James Nestor).