We’ve all been there: waking up with a dry mouth, hoarse throat, and the feeling of fatigue, despite having just slept the whole night through.
If that sounds familiar, the culprit could be mouth breathing.
According to a study conducted by the nasal strip company Breathe RightÒ, more than 60% of people identify as mouth breathers. Unfortunately, this can impact lung function, snoring, oral health, breath smell, and other elements of health. Though the nose and mouth may seem equally efficient in getting air into your body, breathing through your nose actually helps your body optimize its oxygen intake. Nose breathing enables your body to filter and warm the breaths you take, reducing intake of germs and bacteria, and improving overall oxygenation.
Why do some people mouth-breathe at night?
There is no one root cause that you can point to for mouth breathing when you sleep. Dr. J. Michael King, a Colorado-based otolaryngologist (an ear, nose, and throat doctor [ENT]) who specializes in laryngology (the airways, vocal cords, and throat), notes that there are some commonalities that many who breathe through their mouths share.
“Most people are capable of breathing through their noses, but for a variety of reasons, both physical and mental, don’t seem to be capable of doing so consistently while they sleep,” explains King.
King noted that there are numerous reasons that could cause someone to become a perpetual mouth breather at night: a deviated septum, enlarged turbinates, and nasal polyps are just a few. Those who suspect that they may have any physical reasons why they must breathe through their mouths should consult with their medical professionals to explore the causes of their issues, and the ways to fix them.
Is nose breathing really better than mouth breathing?
The short answer: yes.
While some people will intake air through their mouths during sleep for their entire lives without issue, researchers have determined that repeated mouth breathing during sleep puts one at higher risk for health challenges such as sleep apnea, snoring, and high blood pressure.
Our bodies are naturally designed to best intake air via our noses. “The nasal lining is designed for filtering, warming, and moisturizing the air as it comes into your nose and nasal passages,” says King. “This process of filtering, warming, and humidifying all happens in a split second as the air enters your nose and then reaches your lungs. When you breathe through your mouth, you bypass all of the benefits your nose provides from an air intake standpoint.”
On top of the nose being built to best manage air as it enters the body, breathing through your nose at night has other benefits, too.
Nose breathing is much quieter than mouth breathing. When you breathe in through your mouth, you’re more likely to cause snoring, as your tongue, soft palate, and neck muscles relax and potentially reverberate with each breath.
Nose breathing is also more likely to net you a better night’s sleep. Because your nose is built to move air silently, efficiently, and quickly from your nasal passageways into your lungs, your body can carry out this task while you sleep (barring other health issues).
When you breathe through your mouth, however, your body misses out on the filtering and lung-preparing aspects of nose breathing, as your mouth is open and acting as an airway. This means you could wake up with a dry mouth, scratchy throat, and the feeling that you didn’t sleep well, even if your eyes were shut for eight hours. And you’d be right — mouth breathing has been shown to lessen how restful our shuteye is.
In essence, breathing through your nose is your body’s preferred way of inhaling and expelling air. For many, though, making the switch from mouth breathing to nose breathing isn’t as easy as just shutting their mouths.
How to stop mouth breathing
A lot of the time, mouth breathing can be a result of a nasal blockage. Trying a saline spray, neti pot, or allergy medication can often relieve nasal pressure and open up your nasal airways for easier nose breathing. Another at-home solution is to switch to a different pillow. Pillows of varying heights or materials can prop your head up more. Sleeping on your back may cause you to breathe through your mouth, so tipping your pillow up or using an adjustable base to elevate your head could give you a better chance of successfully breathing through your nose.
If those at-home solutions aren’t making a difference, a great way to figure out if there are deeper issues is with an at-home sleep study. In the past, you would have to spend the night in a controlled sleep lab to find out if you snored, had sleep apnea, preferred lying in one position, etc. Now, there are numerous legitimate and cost-effective at-home sleep studies that allow you to better understand your sleep habits right from home.
At-home sleep studies are great starting points for digging deeper into your sleep issues, but they are in no way comprehensive in terms of establishing anything and everything that could be hampering your time in dreamland.
There are other devices aimed at converting mouth breathers to nighttime nose breathers, but not all of them are necessarily advisable for everyone.
“People have sold things like chin straps, mouth tape, and other contraptions for years,” says Dr. Chris Winter, a sleep neurologist and Sleep.com Sleep Advisor. “Keep in mind, though, not all of those solutions may be particularly meaningful — or safe — for everyone.”
Can sleep tape help prevent mouth breathing?
Googling “sleep tape” yields hundreds of results, blogs, and stories of those who have found both success and irritation from trying this newly popular trend. Sleep tape is a gentle tape that is placed over the lips to seal them and prevent wearers from breathing through their mouths at night, forcing nasal breathing, which can pose hazards physically and mentally for sleepers. King suggests Breathe Right strips as another choice to explore for those looking to widen their nasal passageways temporarily at night.
Practicing breath work outside of sleeping hours can be beneficial, too, for those looking to leverage specific breathing skills as a tool to move from mouth breathing to nose breathing.
“There have been a lot of claims in recent years about new breathing styles, and how they might be able to change your life,” says Winter. “While many of those claims haven’t yet been investigated thoroughly by the medical community, it doesn’t necessarily mean those anecdotes about breath work aren’t true — we just haven’t researched them yet.”
If you’ve exhausted all over-the-counter options and are still struggling with getting a restful night’s sleep because of mouth breathing, snoring, or sleep apnea, it’s time to visit a doctor, likely an ENT or sleep specialist.
King performs anywhere from 40-60 septoplasties a year, which help correct people’s deviated septa to allow for easier breathing via the nose. Other less-invasive surgeries include turbinate reduction via radiofrequency.
“There’s no wrong time to see a doctor about improving your sleep habits,” said Winter, “especially if your snoring, sleep apnea, or other sleep-related issues are beginning to jeopardize your or your partner’s ability to get a good night’s sleep.”