When you want to say something comes natural to you, it’s common to use the phrase, “it’s as easy as breathing.” But that, my friends, isn’t exactly true—as much as you’d like to think breathing is as simple as “in and out,” it’s not. In fact, Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage, says the majority of us are doing our bodies more harm than good when looking at the way we breathe. Ever the type A who has to do it the right way, I picked his brain a bit more to find out just what he meant. These are the mistakes he helped me realize I—and probably you—make on the reg.
#1: You’re Taking A Deep Breath.
Let’s set the scene: You’re at the start of a hot yoga class, sitting cross-legged on your mat, trying not to think about how damn hot it is. Because you’re supposed to be all zen and stuff. So you take a deep breath in through your nose, just like the instructors always tell you, to get in the zone. Consider that a mistake. “When you take a deep breath, it’s stress breathing,” says McKeown. “We tend to think that the more air we breathe into our body the better, but doing that changes your breathing volume…and could eventually deplete the amount of oxygen going to your brain because of a change in your CO2 levels.” Instead, do your best to take steady breaths—ones that aren’t audible— and use your diaphragm.
#2: You Breathe Through Your Chest.
When you take a breath, notice what part of your body is moving–is it your chest or your stomach? If it’s your chest, you’re doing it wrong. Still not sure? Michael Roizen, M.D., co-author of You: Staying Young, suggests this test: Stand up and lay a hand gently on your stomach. If your belly button goes in when you take a breath, that means you’re breathing with your chest; when you use your diaphragm, your belly button will go out (that’s also why you’ll see a lot of singers’ stomachs puff out when they amp up for a big note).”When you breathe through the chest wall, you tend not to move the bottom third of your lungs at all,” says Roizen. “So air is only going to the top of your lung. Eventually, that could lead to infections in the bottom of your lungs.”
To break yourself of a chest-breathing habit, he recommends practicing whenever you’re lying around the house (like when your #TGIT shows are on). Lying on your back, place your hand on your stomach—or better yet, something that can fall over, like an empty can—and breathe so that your stomach pushes the can up ever-so-slightly. Gently bring it down, and repeat. Once you’ve got that down, practice while you’re at your work desk and eventually it’ll become natural.
#3: You’re A Mouth-Breather, Especially At Night.
While your dentist is concerned about mouth-breathing leading to dry mouth or even gum disease, there’s plenty more problems that come along with this dirty little habit. “When you breathe through your mouth, it’s really easy to develop crooked teeth, especially as a child,” explains McKeown. You see, you’re supposed to rest your tongue on the roof of your mouth, but mouth breathers don’t. Instead, it goes down and forward—when that happens as a kid (when your face is still developing), it can cause the upper jaw to narrow and create crooked teeth. Mckeown says it can also cause overcrowding of the teeth or a set-back jaw, creating a smaller airway that could set you up for sleep apnea later in life.
As if that wasn’t enough, he also says that when people sleep with their mouth open, they usually wake up exhausted. “That’s because there’s dehydration caused by the mouth breathing, which can disrupt your sleep” and prevent you from really capitalizing on those Z’s.
All that doesn’t even begin to cover the major health bennies you’re missing out on from breathing through your nose (that’s the right way to do it). “It boosts your lung and blood vessel function because it allows you to pick up nitric oxide, something inhaling through mouth doesn’t do,” says Roizen. Nitric oxide is a molecule that gets the trillions of cells in our body talking to each other so that we don’t get sick, have lower blood pressure, and get better sleep. So basically, it’s a big deal and you want to keep it flowing.
So how can you fix it? McKeown has clients practice this technique, which also helps reduce snoring and sleep apnea: Pick up some gentle paper tape (he recommends 3M one-inch micropore tape) and lightly lay it over your closed lips when you go to bed. That’ll help keep your mouth closed, forcing you to breathe through your nose, without causing any freakouts—you can simply take off the strip when needed. Do it nightly for a couple of months, then gradually reduce the number of nights you use the tape until you don’t need it anymore (you’ll know it worked when you wake up with better morning breath and a not-so-parched mouth).
#4: You Sleep on Your Back
This one’s pretty simple. When you sleep on your back, not only are you suppressing your airway more than necessary (because gravity is pulling down your throat and belly, making it harder to breathe), says Roizen, but you’re also weakening your jaw muscles. That can lead to the not-so-great habit of mouth breathing, and we’ve already talked about why that’s no bueno. Instead, try sleeping on your side, as Roizen says that will help you fall asleep faster and keep your lungs open for optimal nose-breathing action.
#5: You Yawn All Day, Every Day
When you’re tired, you yawn. Plain and simple. Or so we thought. But it turns out that yawning is actually your body’s way of saying you’re forgetting to breathe—seriously. The average adult inhales eight to 12 times per minute, says Roizen, so when you do less than that, there could be a lack of oxygen getting to the brain. When that happens, it signals to the brain that something might be wrong. The easiest way to fix that is with a big ole’ yawn. It’s basically tell your brain it’s cool; everything’s all good. So if you catch yourself yawning throughout the day, go on and let your body take in some more air. Pinky promise you’ll like it. 😉