Breathing and sleep

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, your memory is organised and the body is given time to repair, recover and heal. Lack of quality sleep results in reduced fertility and increases the risk of a number of serious illnesses. Sleep is also crucial for maintaining a healthy weight and is as important as breathing, diet and exercise.

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. 

Mouth breathing during a Stanford study led to significantly impaired sleep

In the fall of 2018, James Nestor (author of the bestseller ‘Breath - The New Science of a Lost Art’) and 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.

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.

Clearly what was most affected was my sleep. 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.

There is a close connection between restless sleep, snoring, sleep apnea, and impaired breathing. Snoring is the main cause of sleep problems.


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.

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.

Sleep apnea

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.

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.

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 ‘sleep 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.

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 improve your breathing during the day, you will improve your breathing during the night as well. Practice conscious breathing whenever you can! 

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