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Health Hack #39 - Am I Breathing Correctly?

It’s easy to conjure an image of a fatigued professional athlete. Picture Usain Bolt after a 100 meter dash, or LeBron James on the foul line after a 4th quarter coast to coast finish, and one. Doubled over, hands on knees, heaving breathes with mouths agape. 

Picture yourself as a kid, challenged to an underwater breath holding contest. Your stomach hardens as you let out a long, deep exhale through the mouth to empty everything out, and then an equally intense inhale, mouth open, before tightening your lips and sinking underwater.

Now you may be an exception to this underwater breath-holding norm, or you may be able to visualize an exasperated athlete whose lips remained sealed while they catch their breath. In those cases, great. But if you’re primed to breathe through your mouth while exercising, you’re of the norm. 

An Evolutionary Narrative

Readers of our blog are by now well aware of the homage that is paid to evolution on repeat. From our diet to our sleep and all things in between, Mother Nature serves as a useful guide for how to live, and modern science has provided us the luxury of validating her guidance. Ironically, breathing properly happens to have a very straightforward evolutionary narrative, but we’re primed to overlook it because breathing is automatic. It happens for us even if we’re not thinking about it, so therefore we don’t think about it. When stepping back, however, the tale is crystal clear.

What is the primary purpose of our mouth? It’s to engulf food and kick-start the digestive process. This is a highly preserved feature apparent across all mammals and virtually all living species. We humans have evolved strong jaws and teeth for chewing, and are now appropriately equipped to obtain sustenance via a whole spectrum of food types through this process. Evolution has furnished our mouths with precisely what we need to survive in our modern world, in the context of consuming calorie-containing nutrients.

Now consider the nose and its constituent parts. The primary function of the nose is to support our respiratory system by working harmoniously with our lungs. Yes, it enables us to smell also, much like our mouths evolved for us to taste. But these are secondary functions, not necessary for life. First and foremost, our nose was formed for breath and our mouths for eating.

We’re not born with nasal hairs so that we can be ridiculed for their length in our old age. Our nasal hairs and nostrils provide a complex filtration system, helping to block pathogens from entering our lungs, while also providing the oxygen that we inhale with the necessary humidity to be of optimal use. Evolution seldom makes mistakes, since changes manifest only after eons of behavioral observation. On these principle alone, the case should be fairly clear. And think – have you ever seen a fit animal in the wild huffing and puffing after a lengthy chase? But let’s consider many of the other advantages to nasal breathing before crystalizing our case here.

The Benefits of Nasal Breathing

As alluded to already, the nose functions as a filtration system for our lungs, much in the same way an air filter preserves the integrity and functionality of an air conditioner unit: capturing disruptors like allergens or dust, keeping things clean. When breathing through the mouth, the floodgates are open to pathogens and clean air alike.

The volume of our nasal cavity is much larger than most would suspect, equivalent to the width of a billiard ball. Don’t be fooled by the notion that the mouth seems to be the sensible option for deep, heavy breathing. The nose is actually the superior choice. A common misnomer is that huffing and puffing enables us to capture large quantities of oxygen. The reverse is actually true. We’re not taking in oxygen so much as we’re dumping large quantities of CO2, and in the context of breathing (as we’ll learn momentarily) CO2 preservation has its benefits.

The nose produces nitric oxide when we inhale, unlike the mouth. Nitric oxide production plays a vital role in breath optimization. When we breathe through the nose, the nitric oxide increases carbon dioxide in the blood, which in turn releases oxygen. Through this process our cells become more satiated with oxygen, proving advantageous for cellular energy and stress reduction. Overall we’re able to generate 20% more oxygen by breathing through our nose. This mechanism spawns a remarkable benefit in that when breathing through the nose, we can breathe less and achieve a greater net result. Various studies have proven the efficacy of nasal breathing in relation to endurance sports, such as jogging and biking. Fewer breaths per minute + greater overall oxygen output per minute = increased endurance and energy.

Nasal breathing goes a long way in everyday life as well. Many of us instinctively breathe through the nose when relaxed and through the mouth during exercise or under other forms of duress. But a good number of us don’t. Statistics show that somewhere between 25-50% of the population breathes through the mouth all of the time.

Nasal breathing has shown to reduce blood pressure, both long term and short. In the long term, a habitual practice will reduce levels beneath your mouth breathing induced baseline. In the short term, bouts of breathing exercises (6 seconds in through the nose, 6 seconds out through the nose, repeat, repeat, …, for example) have shown to reduce blood pressure in a matter of minutes. Deeply embedded in the practice of various forms of yoga is Ujjayi breathing, a preserved tradition which has lasted centuries. Through this form of breath, internal body temperature is elevated and the mind is settled. This form of nasal based breathing practice - as well as many other similar ones- have been used to accompany a strenuous yoga class, and to treat issues like anxiety, asthma, and depression.

Red blood cell count has shown time and again to increase via nasal breathing, in this case confirming the oft-cited (and oft questionable) benefit of increased immune function. Everyone likes to hurl increased immune function around as a benefit of virtually every health hack and supplement on the planet, but in this case it’s legitimately true. The filtration system described above is shown to reduce the contraction of common colds, while the uptick in red blood cells increases the health of our respiratory system and overall health.


For some, such as those with a deviated septum, breathing through the nose may be downright impossible. If this is the case, consult a medical professional before trying to squeeze a square peg through a round hole.

The transition can prove as stark as driving an automatic car your whole life only to wake up and be told that starting today, you’ll be driving a stick. If entertaining a change, do so slowly and mindfully, and consider consulting a breathing specialist. Yes, they do in fact exist. Like all forms of training, proper technique is vital.

Don’t expect athletic gains in explosive movements right off the bat. Were an Olympic sprinter considering a conversion, it would be wise to introduce it in the off-season, and do so carefully. Like any reader who's complied with a strict ketogenic diet for any period of time, there is an adaptation phase that sets you back and leaves your mind and energy wobbly before you’ve fully recalibrated and found a new equilibrium.

Anecdotal Evidence

Full disclosure. Me, personally, I’ve fit into the mouth-breathing athletic camp my entire life. That is, until this past week. I’m still stumped on whether or not I’m a habitual mouth breather in everyday life, but it seems as though I vacillate back and forth. That shall (hopefully) soon be changing too, given the new paradigm I’ve stumbled upon and quickly educated myself in.

Having taken up jogging as a Zone 2 hobby (The Benefits of Zone 2 Training) not too long ago, I’ve been tracking my progress for the past 3 months. I’m continuing to improve on my speed and endurance overall, but the incline of improvement hasn’t been perfectly steady. Particularly with the heat the past 45 days, I’ve had some setbacks where I’ve lost ground on prior gains.

For whatever it’s worth, my first deployment of nasal breathing while jogging equated to my best time for a 5 mile run to date. Frankly, had I not needed to start my workday soon thereafter, I’d have likely gone for another 5 miles, eclipsing my distance PR as well. I would never rest my hat on anecdotal evidence nor suggest any reader doing the same, but suffice it to say that the experience has me quite intrigued and eager for my next jog…

Breathe easy.