Free the Nose

Free the Nose!

Human beings are the worst breathers in the animal kingdom. Respiratory diseases, a group that includes asthma, COPD, bronchitis, emphysema and pneumonia, are collectively the third biggest killer in the UK, behind only cancer and heart disease. On top of this some forty percent of us suffer from chronic nasal obstruction, with one in ten of us suffering from acute sinusitis and over twenty percent of us experiencing allergies of some kind or another.

So what is going on here? The causes are many and varied – pollution, dry air, allergens, deforestation, stress and pharmaceuticals all undoubtedly play a part, but much of the blame can be placed on our inability to breathe properly. We have over time evolved to become a species of mouth-breathers.

Anyone who has ever been to a yoga, qigong or meditation class will recognise the instruction to breathe in and out through the nose. This is a common fundamental practice throughout all of the ancient Eastern arts. However the prevailing belief in the West was that the nose was more or less an ancillary organ. We should breathe in and out of it if we can but it’s no great problem if we don’t, we have a mouth after all. Modern research has begun to show that this is in fact incorrect and is evidence beginning to support the Eastern notion.

We are starting to realise that the nose is much more than just an aperture of the face. There is an intricate airflow system situated behind the nose that spirals the breath before it enters the lungs. These nasal cavities have been shown to:

  • reduce exposure to foreign substances
  • humidify and warm inhaled air
  • increase air flow to arteries, veins, and nerves
  • increase oxygen uptake and circulation
  • slow down breathing
  • improve lung volume
  • help your diaphragm work properly
  • reduce your risk of coughing
  • aid your immune system
  • lower your risk of snoring and sleep apnoea
  • support the correct formation of teeth and mouth
  • lower your risk of allergies

So why do many of us seem to automatically breathe through the mouth? Anthropologists have begun to look into this. Studying ancient human skulls they have discovered that since we began cooking our food our mouths have become smaller due to the decline in the necessary amount of chewing. This has continued to become much worse in modern humans where our diet consists largely of soft processed foods. Apparently ancient humans had straight teeth and our wonky versions have only came about due to the reduction in our mouths capacity. Modern dentistry has exacerbated this shrinkage due to their practice of pulling out the back teeth and pushing back the front ones. When our mouths don’t grow out enough, the roof of the mouth tends to rise up and forms a high-arched palate. This upward growth subsequently impedes the development of the nasal cavity, shrinking it and disrupting the delicate structures in the nose. This leads to obstruction which inhibits airflow and causes us to mouth-breathe more often. (And then to make matters worse we have to go and cover it over with a mask!)

The nose is clearly a very important organ. When I was studying acupuncture up in London I was amazed at the amount of black snot and detritus that would build up in my nostrils after just two days of visiting. I remarked about this to one of my teachers and he replied that I should only worry about it when it stops happening. There seems to be only so much a nose can take.

Luckily there are many ways to increase our nasal capacity and many of them stem from the ancient Eastern cultures who first recognised the noses importance. Acupuncture is very effective and there are two acu-points either side of the nostril that are almost instantaneous in their ability to open up the nasal passageways. Other methods include neti nasal douches, Nadi shodana or alternate nasal breathing or even the new extreme practice of night-time mouth taping.

Once we manage to get the air through our nose though we have to take it deeper. Much deeper… but that will have to wait until another article.

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