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You can breathe your way to better sleep
Photo by James Nestor / Contributor
August 26, 2020
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Perhaps you pull out all the stops for a good night's sleep: You keep your bedroom cool; you avoid social media in the evening; you try aromatherapy or invest in natural sleep supplements. And yet, you may find yourself waking up throughout the night or feeling groggy and bleary-eyed come morning.

Well, according to James Nestor, New York Times bestselling author of Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, you might be breathing incorrectly. Yes, the way we breathe during sleep matters; in fact, better nighttime breathing habits are "the first thing I suggest people take care of," he tells me on this episode of the mindbodygreen podcast. 

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So, how exactly can you breathe your way to better sleep? Allow us to explain. 

The connection between breath and sleep. 

"The first pillar of sleep is that you have to be breathing well," Nestor explains. It makes sense: While proper sleep habits (like the ones mentioned above) are key, the way you breathe is paramount. After all, you can't expect to get a deep, restful sleep if you're struggling to breathe—no matter how balanced your circadian rhythm may be.

In fact, studies have shown that patients with diagnosed sleep apnea have a higher prevalence of insomnia1. On the flip side, another study uncovered that in individuals who suffer from insomnia, 90% of total awakenings were preceded by sleep breathing events2 (like sleep apnea), despite no previously diagnosed symptoms. 

How to breathe for better sleep.

Nestor is a fan of nasal breathing. Aside from the fact that breathing through your nose can support immune health (our nostrils act as a filter for bacteria and viruses), breathing through your nose actually allows you to retain more oxygen.

"This air has to curve and twist through the airway, and it's getting heated up. You are removing particulates, adding moisture, so by the time it reaches the lungs it is conditioned so you can absorb more of that oxygen more efficiently," he explains. "You can get a lot more oxygen with fewer breaths." As opposed to mouth breathing, which causes your tongue to fall back toward the upper palate of the mouth, obstructing the airway—in fact, one study showed that individuals who breathe through their mouths are more likely to experience sleep disorders3, like sleep apnea.

Now, you might be thinking, How can I make sure I'm breathing through my nose if I'm, well, asleep? It's something Nestor has personally struggled with, as he knew he was a "100% mouth breather" overnight. That's why he practices a clever trick called "mouth taping." 

"I place a little piece of tape on my lips to help train my jaw shut," he notes. Now, taping your mouth shut while you sleep may (understandably) sound scary, but it's not as absurd as it may sound. "Not a fat piece of duct tape," he says. "Use blue painter's tape." Take a postage-stamp-size piece, and place it at the center of the lips. "You can still breathe if you want, but you want to train your jaw shut at night," he explains. 

It's such a small act, but it can be powerful for some who struggle with sleep: "This alone has been a complete life-changer. Some people aren't snoring anymore; for others, their sleep apnea has gone down 80%," he says. 

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The takeaway. 

Your breath affects so many of your body's processes—stress4, anxiety, cognition5, and pain management, to name a select few. It only makes sense that breath has a strong link to sleep as well. If you do all the right things and still can't seem to catch Z's, perhaps it's time to pay more attention to your breath. According to Nestor, it's the foundation for healthy living.

Enjoy this episode! And don't forget to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or Spotify!
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