Breathing: The Key To Sleep

Dog Sleeping

Animals instinctively breathe properly while sleeping. Humans generally don't.


10 years ago, I made an accidental discovery that led me on a quest to improve my sleep.  One night, I unintentionally did something that caused me to have the best night of sleep I’d had in at least a decade.  When I woke up the next morning, I felt amazing, refreshed, and energized.  I couldn’t remember the last time I’d awakened feeling like that, but I was pretty sure it was sometime when I was in my early teens or before  It was shocking.  What happened from there is long story which I talk about in detail in The War On Sleep, but the crux of the incident was what I discovered: breathing is everything when it comes to sleep.  Everything.

If you read everything ever written about improving your sleep, you will never read anything more important than the following sentence: There is a proper way to breathe when you sleep, and if you do not breathe in this manner, nothing else you do will make any appreciable difference in improving your sleep.

When I figured this out, it was quite a revelation to me because I had never (and still have never) been told by anyone there’s a right and a wrong way to breathe during sleep.  Well, there is.  

When you sleep, you should be breathing 100%, all night long, through your nose.  Your mouth should be closed.  If you do not breathe nasally, you likely have a problem.   You can see this in action most of the time watching animals sleep.  Dogs, who respect sleep and it’s natural cycles, almost always sleep breathing nasally.  (some breeds that were selectively bred for short snouts, like bulldogs, have issues breathing properly and even snore loudly sometimes when asleep, so I am generally referring to breeds not selectively bred in this way.) An open mouth while asleep has an unnatural, uncomfortable look, and it results in a poorer quality of sleep.

I never knew this until I stumbled across it.  I’d had difficulty breathing nasally most of my life, and naturally would breathe orally when asleep.  I thought it was normal to snore and drool occasionally while asleep.  I also thought everyone needed a nap or two during most days and that taking forever to wake up and get out of bed after being awakened by an alarm was also normal.  Boy, was I wrong.

The surface area of the nostrils is obviously smaller than that of our mouth, and there is tremendous variation in the nasal airflow capacity of different individuals.  I have devised a simple test to get some idea of how well you can breathe nasally.  Try this:  take 2 deep, normal, breaths in and out though your mouth only, and try to be aware of how much air flows in and out.  Now try the same thing with your mouth closed, breathing only through your nose.  Compare the airflow between the two and think about what percentage of airflow your nasal breathing has compared to your oral breathing.  Assume that your oral breathing has a flow of 10, what number would your nasal airflow have in comparison?  If your nasal airflow is a 7 or better (70% of your oral airflow), you are in pretty good shape.  If it is a 6 or less, you likely have nasal breathing issues which affect your sleep.  If it is a 4 or less, you very probably have breathing issues impacting sleep.  Bear in mind, your nasal breathing ability changes at times – sometimes it is better than others depending on how clear your nasal passages are, whether or not you are impacted by allergy or a cold, your hydration level, your body position, blood pressure, and many other things.  In The War On Sleep, I discuss many ways that you can improve your nasal breathing capacity in ways ranging from surgery to simple things anyone can do to get up to a 50% improvement.

If you have generally good nasal breathing ability, you may still be prone to mouth breathing when you are asleep.  Fortunately, there are some extremely simple solutions to this problem that I also discuss in my book.  I will detail my favorite one here, which is simple and incredibly effective.  It also sounds crazy the first time you hear it, but I did research and found it had been developed and tested by many medical research teams and is completely safe and VERY effective.   It is the very effective practice of mouth taping.

Now, this is not quite what it sounds like.  You are probably envisioning someone looking like a hostage with duct tape covering their entire mouth, and that is NOT the idea.  Mouth taping is done by taking about a 2 inch strip of medical/surgical white tape and applying it to your closed mouth vertically from just under your nose to the cleft of your chin, like this:


Mouth taped properly


In this manner, the tape holds your mouth in a closed position, but you can still open your mouth on either side like this:


Mouth taped you can still breathe


So your mouth is NOT sealed shut, which would be dangerous and should NEVER be done, and you can still talk, drink water, or get air if it should become necessary. 

This simple trick makes your body automatically breathe through your nose.  You can also get a qualified dentist to make you a mouthpiece that will hold your mouth closed (they have small air holes to avoid sealing your mouth), but I personally have always found those to close my mouth too fully for my nasal breathing capacity (I’m a 6 or 7 most of the time) so taping is a lot more comfortable for me. 

I started experimenting with mouth taping about a year ago.  Since then, I have never had any negative impact from it and I have gotten an average sleep quality improvement from it of almost 10%.  What’s more, on the rare occasion when I fall asleep without doing it, like on a couch in the afternoon, I often wake up abruptly drawing a breath through my mouth and immediately know that my mouth isn’t taped and I’d have stayed asleep if it had been.  This is a very, very effective tool. Please note: some surgical tapes have VERY strong adhesive. Be VERY careful and remove the tape SLOWLY in the morning so as not to damage your skin.

So, if you have a nasal breathing index of 6 or better, give mouth taping a try.  If you don’t, it’s probably better to improve your nasal breathing capacity before trying mouth taping.  I talk a lot more about how to do this in The War On Sleep and will discuss some of these methods in a future blog post.






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