How we breathe plays an important role in the quality of our sleep. Good sleep is not only essential for the body to heal, repair, and recover, but also for learning, memory, creativity and emotional processing. During sleep, the brain is cleared of waste products, and a lack of quality sleep results in reduced fertility and increases the risk of a number of serious illnesses, as well as car accidents.
How have you been sleeping lately?
We have all been through times when we have slept badly and experienced the negative impact lack of sleep has on our energy, creativity and mood. But a good night’s sleep is not just about the number of hours we sleep. In fact, sleep quality has more to do with how we breathe when we sleep than how long sleep lasts. Man is the only animal who has the bad habit of sleeping with his mouth open.
What is the quality of your sleep? Do you have trouble falling asleep, sleep restlessly, and wake up several times a night? Do you wake up too early, find you are unable to go back to sleep, or experience nightmares, sleepwalking, or fidgeting? Is your night’s sleep broken up by multiple visits to the toilet? Does every little sound wake you, or do you sleep like a log and would be able to sleep through an earthquake?
Is your mouth dry, nose blocked, throat irritated, or do you need to cough and clear your throat? Do you grind or clench your teeth, or wake up really tired even though you have slept for many hours? Perhaps you snore or take breathing pauses, which is also known as sleep apnea. Or maybe you sleep with a splint or CPAP-mask, which is a device that helps you to breathe properly while sleeping. As you can see, sleep disturbances can have many different faces.
Since we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, the quality of our sleep has a huge impact on our lives. Occasional sleeping problems are not a cause for serious concern; however, chronic sleep problems are unfortunately very common.
Impaired sleep will affect your weight
Not only is sleep vital in giving the body time to repair, recover and heal, but it’s also crucial for maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep is as important as breathing, diet and exercise in order to lose weight and/or maintain an optimal weight.
When we are tired due to poor sleep, we eat more in a desperate attempt to get more energy. If fatigued, we rarely make the smartest choices when it comes to food. Often, we will have sweets, soft drinks, cookies, ice cream, coffee and energy drinks to get a quick energy boost.
Sugar provides the quickest fix as it is rapidly absorbed in our mouth, thanks to the protein, amylase, in our saliva. Since our brain only uses sugar as fuel (except in the ketogenic or LCHF diet, i.e. low carbohydrate/high fat), it will gain access to energy quickly.
Historically, this has been a huge evolutionary advantage that has led to the development of our fantastic brain. But today’s artificially made food, which contains too much sugar, leads to weight problems, as the excess sugar is converted into fat and stored in unpleasant places like our middle or our bum.
Do you wake up to the alarm?
When the body hasn’t received the sleep it requires, the sympathetic nervous system is activated, and then, the body will secrete stress hormones. That is the reason why some feel alert after having slept too little, as adrenaline and cortisol have an invigorating effect. Our ancestors, as well as animals, would never shorten their sleep voluntarily. Being wakened meant that acute danger had arisen and that it was necessary to quickly be ready to fight or flee.
So when the alarm clock goes off in the morning, unfortunately, we awaken not only our physical selves but also our inner stress. In the Stone Age, not being rested but awake meant that our situation was simply too dangerous for sleep, and our stress system needed to be turned on for us to be able to stay alert. Later, the danger would be over and sleep could be resumed.
This is where the problem of our modern society comes in: in our modern world, lack of sleep that goes hand in hand with increased stress is a permanent condition with major consequences for public health.
The most obvious example of how sleep deprivation affects our health is when we switch to daylight savings time. One study shows that when we set the clock forward and get to sleep one hour less, the number of heart attacks increases by no less than 24 percent the following day.
And the same thing happens when we set the clock one hour back in the fall and get an extra hour of sleep. Then, the number of heart attacks decreases by 21 percent. Corresponding figures also apply to car accidents and even suicides, even just from one hour more or less sleep!
In addition to taping your mouth at night, it makes good sense to go to bed early enough to wake up in the morning before the alarm clock goes off.
Mouth breathing during a Stanford study led to significantly impaired sleep
In the fall of 2018, I participated in a study at Stanford University, USA, where we blocked our nose so that we could only breathe through our mouths for 10 days. Thereafter, we practiced Conscious Breathing for 10 days.
It was a very educational experience, and although it was really hard to plug up my nose for such a long time, I definitely would not want to be without the experience. The study gave me the opportunity to really understand how impaired breathing can severely worsen your health and cause highly impaired sleep, low energy, cravings for sugar, junk food and alcohol, increased stress, impaired mental ability, poor balance, etc.
Sleep was clearly what I was most affected by. With a blocked nose, I slept anxiously, woke up five or six times every night, turned and twisted and needed to get out of bed to pee. My mouth was dry like a desert when I woke up. Eventually, I hardly wanted to go to bed because I knew what a difficult experience it would be. As the sleep deprivation took its toll, my inner stress, the adrenaline rush and craving for quick energy like fast food, ice cream, chocolate and alcohol increased. The difference was striking.
When, after ten days, I was finally allowed to remove the blockage from my nose and instead sleep with a taped mouth, I woke up in the morning with lots of energy and felt so happy! I couldn’t stop smiling or singing, and my energy and harmony were at their peak. For the ten days following the study, I applied Conscious Breathing instead, and the difference was like night and day.
During the study, my snoring was measured, and on average, I snored for almost three hours a night when my nose was blocked. The contrast was striking when I taped my mouth and only breathed through my nose. Then, I basically didn’t snore at all. However, one evening I tried drinking a beer and eating pizza, ice cream and chocolate, and immediately there was a significant increase in my nighttime snoring.
I have measured my snoring many times before, and snoring is always evident from my sleep data if there is too much stress and pressure in my life: if I am exercising too hard, working too intensely, eating too late, eating too much, eating junk food or drinking alcohol.
My snoring sounds from the Stanford study with blocked nose and taped mouth respectively
The brain’s cleaning squad is called in when we sleep
During evolution, sleep has been one of the most dangerous activities we’ve engaged in. Sleep means, after all, a kind of unconsciousness where we cannot keep an eye on either hungry beasts or poisonous insects. Despite these disadvantages, our need to sleep has continued throughout evolution, suggesting that something very important is going on during sleep.
One of those important things involves our lymphatic system, also called the body’s drainage system, which takes care of the toxins and waste products that are formed in our bodies all the time. Our brain also requires a good cleaning but has no lymph capillaries. So how does the brain get rid of the waste that cells produce? Although the brain only constitutes 2% of the body weight, it consumes 20 percent of the body’s energy. So much activity generates a lot of waste, but when we are awake our brain is very busy processing incoming stimuli, so it simply does not have the time to tidy up. This is where sleep comes in.
When we fall asleep, for our brain it is like pressing the button on the dishwasher, as the lymphatic system comes to life, the central nervous system’s glymphatic system. The brain’s glial cells, which when you are awake help with the signaling between the nerve cells, are when you are asleep, given the task of flushing the brain with a fluid that takes all the waste products with it and brings them to the body’s lymphatic system.
Research shows that breathing that is low and slow gives a better flow in the glymphatic system than a quick and superficial breath. Additionally, experiments on rats have shown that physical activity during the day increases the flow in the glymphatic system when the rats are asleep, which is likely to apply to us humans as well.
Sleep is essential for memory and learning
A common misconception is that the best way to learn something new is to practice and practice and study and study. But this is simply not true, as recent research suggests that good sleep is crucial to how much we actually learn. When we sleep, the brain can sort out the most important things we have been through during the day and categorize and put them into different compartments.
Sleep gives us a broader perspective that increases our ability to detect patterns and contexts. Studies have shown that if a person learns something in the morning and is questioned about it in the evening, the result will be worse compared to those questioned in the morning after a night’s sleep, when the brain has been able to organize and categorize the facts.
When we are having a hard time making a decision, and someone urges us to sleep on it, that is probably the best advice we can get. There are many examples where people have gained important insights during sleep or suddenly cracked the code in a creative process. When we are awake, our thinking is limited by logic and reason, but when the brain unleashes itself during dream sleep, there are no such restrictions and creativity gets free space.
One study explored allowing subjects solving lots of tasks with numbers, to do so in two rounds, where one group was allowed to sleep before the second round. There was a secret rule that the participants did not know about: a connection between the numbers that made it possible to solve the tasks faster. Those who had been allowed to sleep solved the tasks more than twice as fast during the second round than those who had been awake. Furthermore, there were three times as many in the sleep group that discovered the secret shortcut to the answer. A good night’s sleep helps us to zoom out and see things in a larger perspective, which can be of great use in many situations in life—not just when you are solving math problems.
Snoring the main cause of sleeping problems
There is a close connection between restless sleep, snoring, sleep apnea, and impaired breathing. Snoring is the main cause of sleep problems. Studies show that about 25 percent of the population snore regularly and that snoring is more common among men than women.
Mostly we make jokes about it and otherwise don’t pay too much attention to snoring, but the fact is that snoring causes a great strain, not only on your partner whose sleep is also disturbed, but also on your own body.
Snoring occurs when the pressure in the pharynx (throat) increases so that the uvula and the soft palate begin to vibrate. Snoring generally happens when breathing through the mouth, but it can also happen during nasal breathing.
The louder the snoring sound, the narrower the openings are in the throat or nose. Since it is more difficult to pass air into and out of the lungs through narrow air passages, we then use more force and breathe faster in order to compensate.
It’s like driving a car with the parking brake slightly engaged. You apply more pressure on the gas-pedal in an attempt to drive faster. This is a very inefficient way of solving the problem; instead the focus should be on unlocking the “parking brake” to widen the airways.
A 50 percent reduction in the diameter of your airways means that 16 times more effort is needed to push the air in and out of your lungs, which makes your breathing shallow. Fast and shallow breathing is the definition of stressed breathing, which obviously is not very conducive to resting well.
In a study where a group of healthy individuals had their nostrils blocked so that they could only breathe through their mouths during sleep, all participants started snoring from the first night. One person developed sleep apnea (breathing pauses). Everyone also felt that they had slept worse (than normal). Read more about the study here.
Our brain and nervous system are our bodies’ largest oxygen consumers. When snoring our airways are narrower and less oxygen will reach our brain, which will cause added stress and ultimately prohibit the deep sleep that would normally allow healing, repair, and recovery to take place.
Snoring implies that our sleep is shallow, and the problem often becomes worse as the years go by, until it eventually produces symptoms of sleep apnea, i.e., when breathing actually stops intermittently during the night.
Sleep apnea is another sleep-related problem in which sufferers stop breathing during sleep. For various reasons, the airways may become clogged and the apnea occurs when the air can’t get through. It’s common in sleep apnea to wake up tired, even after sleeping for a long time.
Sleep apnea is defined as a breathing pause lasting longer than ten seconds. It generally occurs between 5–30 times per hour, but in some cases, it may happen even more often. In the United States, it’s estimated that 15 percent of the population suffers from sleep apnea. In an American study of 602 randomly selected people, 24 percent of the men and 9 percent of the women had five or more apneic events during the night.
Blockage of the airways can occur in several places in sleep apnea sufferers. An underdeveloped jaw gives little room for the soft palate, which interferes with the posterior airway at the level of the upper pharynx. In addition, a receded lower jaw will press the tongue backwards and reduce the space in the lower pharynx.
The body must work very hard when someone suffers from sleep apnea. Breathing shifts like a yo-yo between extended pauses where there is no breathing to heavy breathing, i.e., hyperventilation. During the pause, the oxygen level in the blood decreases, just as it would do during physical exercise. The breathing pause triggers a stress response that increases adrenaline levels, thus causing the heart to work harder, which in turn increases the blood pressure.
The basic problem in sleep apnea is blocked airways. One study showed that patients with allergic nasal inflammation had more apneic events during the allergy season when their nose was more blocked. Another study carried out over an 18-year period showed that the test subjects were more than three times as likely to die prematurely if their sleep apnea remained untreated.
Sleep apnea increases the risk of high blood pressure, stroke, depression, traffic accidents, asthma, and premature death. When the number of apneic events increases, so does the risk of developing health problems.
Close your mouth to sleep better
At rest, nose breathing is by far the most efficient way to breathe. If we sleep with our mouths open, it automatically means that the breathing exceeds our body’s needs. This hyperventilation causes an imbalance between oxygen (too much) and carbon dioxide (too little).
Applying tape to your mouth at night is an easy and inexpensive way to ensure that your mouth stays closed and respiration occurs only through your nose. This will make breathing work for you instead of against you. We recommend using Sleep Tape, specially designed for use at night.
You may think it sounds barbaric, or feel uncomfortable with the idea of applying tape to your mouth—a common reaction among the participants in my courses. The discomfort is generally just a mental block, and after trying it out for a few minutes most people find they get used to it.
If you do feel discomfort, I suggest you start by applying the tape for about 15 minutes during the day or 15 minutes before bedtime for a few evenings, in order to become more comfortable with the sensation. The Sleep Tape could be applied either horizontally or vertically, from the nose to the chin. Some users perceive the vertical approach to be less intimidating. Read more about practical experience of taping the mouth at night. >>
Taping your mouth at night is a remarkably simple, yet extremely powerful tool. The feedback frequently received is that people sleep more calmly, don’t wake up during the night, wake up more alert in the morning, and need less sleep. You may think that it’s not very sexy, but you can always cuddle first, and then tape your mouth. Some prefer to wait until their partner has fallen asleep before applying the tape to their mouth. Perhaps you can get your partner to tape their mouth too.
Improve your daily breathing habits
All too often, we see snoring and sleep apnea as breathing problems that only occur at night. But since we sleep about one third of our lives and are awake about two thirds, our breathing habits when we are awake have a major impact on how we breathe when we sleep.
If we do something often enough, new habits are formed, and breathing through the mouth during the day or holding the breath has a negative impact on our breathing even when we sleep. As you breathe during the day, you breathe during the night as well.
Check out your breathing by answering the questions in The Breathing Index. If the result shows that your breathing habits have room for improvement, you will probably benefit greatly from doing The 28 days of Conscious Breathing Retraining Program.
This article is based on the book Conscious Breathing.