Recently, I went to see a new dentist.
Asked if I have any complaints, I mentioned my chronic jaw clenching and night-time teeth-grinding.
I did not expect any significant response. I dismiss this issue as a symptom of the inherited stress I carry and perpetually create for myself despite my best efforts otherwise.
Much to my surprise, this perfunctory complaint sparked an expansive conversation about how habitual mouth-breathing and improper oral posture are involved in basically every major health concern I’ve ever experienced.
For example, growing up, I struggled with chronic sinus and ear infections. My nose bled regularly. I wet the bed longer than expected and I got strep throat at least once per year.
As a teen, I was exhausted every morning, no matter how long I’d slept. I was diagnosed with ADHD and given Adderall, but that amphetamine did little to soothe what ailed me. I’ve been navigating bipolar bouts of anxiety and depression all my life.
By the time I graduated college, I had a septum so deviated that a neti pot could not pour water from one nostril to the next. My sinus cavities were dense with unwanted goop and I could not take a full nasal inhale without strenuous effort, if at all. I eventually got surgery to repair what I presumed was the result of several indistinct soccer injuries.
Many Issues (Many Tissues), One Source?
As it turns out, every single one of the above-listed issues can be significantly attributed to poor oral posture and habitual mouth-breathing, especially when sleeping.
As it turns out, I am not the only one to suffer like this, and there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that there is a “jaws epidemic” plaguing humanity in this phase of our collective evolution.
So for the past few weeks I have been absorbing as much information on this topic as possible and instituting several of the recommended practices — one of which is mouth-taping.
That’s right. Right before I lay down to rest at night, I place a Breathe-Rite strip across my nostrils and secure a strip of surgical tape across my closed mouth.
Years of stuffy noses and sinus infections in my youth meant that I very often had no choice but to breathe through my mouth. As an adult yogi, I actively practice all types of breathing but as is confirmed by my dentist, my mouth tends to slag open when I sleep and this has myriad deleterious effects on my well-being.
Over the course of millions of breaths during thousands of nights, this open-mouth posture has instructed my jaw to close in such a way that my rear molars connect while my front teeth rest quite separate. This is the source of clenching and grinding; it takes great effort from my mastoid and pterygoid muscles to hold this unnatural pose.
Generally speaking, nasal breathing warms and filters the air that comes in. It also oxygenates the blood most efficiently, produces the greatest amount of nitric oxide (“the panacea molecule”) and keeps the parasympathetic nerve receptors switched on, allowing the body to remain in rest & digest mode.
Mouth breathing, on the other hand, does none of these things. Quite the opposite — unfiltered air goes straight into the lungs, increasing sensitivity to allergens and airborne toxins; it dries out the mouth, leading to unwanted oral bacteria, bad breath and gum disease; and it is directly linked to snoring and apnea, when the breathing channel is blocked and we temporarily choke in our sleep.
At best, sleep apnea disrupts sleep patterns and prevents proper rest. This has its own laundry list of consequences for our health, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes, not to mention chronic grumpiness, loss of libido and signs of ADHD.
Mouth breathing is also linked to all the issues I mentioned above: increased susceptibility to viral and bacterial infections (especially in the ears, nose, throat, lungs); stress, anxiety, depression (which are an underlying cause of bedwetting); and nosebleeds, due to the drying out of the whole oro-nasal cavity.
Chronic mouth breathing and poor oral posture literally changes the shape of the mouth and face. The jaw and mouth are designed to chew, talk and swallow. When it is consistently used to breathe, our intelligent bodies adapt their form to that function, making the oral cavity round and smooth instead of square and wide.
This structural shift has wide-ranging consequences, including narrower airways, sinus compression and long-face syndrome, in which otherwise well-defined cheek bones droop and strong chins become double.
These are not desirable changes. No one I know would consciously choose this. The common sense is simple and the science supports it: nasal breathing is the way to live.
But next time you’re at the park, or in the grocery store, notice how many people are walking around with their jaws hung open, breathing through their mouths. How often are you doing that?
Why No Space for Wisdom?
This is just the tip of the iceberg, as improper oral posture in childhood impacts the development of facial anatomy and bone structure, leading to the pervasive issue of impacted wisdom teeth and the need for orthodontic intervention (which, with its focus on aesthetics over function, often makes the problem worse).
In “Jaws: The Story of a Hidden Epidemic,” the authors describe their examination of hunter-gatherer skulls with movie star smiles — nary a hint of decay, gum disease or crooked arrangements. They go into detail about why they think this has changed so drastically in an evolutionarily tiny period of time.
If you are a parent, it might be worth investigating your child’s nighttime breathing habits and gently helping them to breathe through their nose. It might make an enormous difference for the rest of their lives (and eventually save you a few bucks on braces).
Here are some of the resources that have been a revelation and inspiration to me. May they be of benefit to you and yours as well.
Dr. John Douillard: How Nose Breathing Can Prevent Dental Cavities