“I think sleep is the most important thing in the world,” said Erling Haaland during his recent appearance on Logan Paul’s Impaulsive podcast. The Manchester City striker spoke about the blue-light-blocking glasses he puts on three hours before bedtime and how he blocks out “all the signals in the bedroom” to induce a night of deep, restorative sleep.
So far, so typically ‘wellness’. But then came something a little more surprising.
In response to Paul’s revelation that he’s just discovered nasal strips and believes them to be “god’s greatest creation”, because “nostril breathing is the way to go”, Haaland suggests: “You should try to tape your mouth, then.”
“At night?” asks an incredulous Paul.
“Yeah, why not?” says Haaland. “Or when you train. Seriously… I sleep with it.”
Before Haaland can explain why he chooses to sleep with his mouth taped shut, the conversation swiftly moves on to cold plunges, saunas and whether Haaland likes America.
So, why does Haaland do it? And what is it about “nostril breathing” that makes it “the way to go?”
The first thing to understand is that mouth-taping isn’t a new thing.
“We’ve been taping mouths for 25 years,” says international breath training coach Patrick McKeown, who, for safety reasons, recommends using a tape that doesn’t cover the lips but surrounds them, bringing the lips together.
According to McKeown, every other adult is a mouth breather, which can be detrimental to health (and sleep).
“During rest, when you breathe through your nose you’ve got a better recruitment of the diaphragm,” he explains. “And the diaphragm breathing muscle provides stabilisation for the spine, so you’ve got reduced risk of lower back pain — 50 per cent of people with lower back pain have dysfunctional breathing patterns.”
Your breathing is slower when nasal breathing too, says McKeown, which helps induce a relaxation response — his early work in the breathing field (which he’s been working in since 2002) was focused on helping people with anxiety and panic disorder.
But initially it was all about helping himself. “I had asthma and undiagnosed sleep apnoea (when your breathing stops and starts while you sleep); I was a mouth breather,” says McKeown. “So I had dysfunctional breathing patterns. I suppose you live with what you have. But then, in 1998, I read a newspaper article about the work of a Ukrainian doctor, Konstantin Buteyko, and he said two things: ‘Breathe through your nose’, and that, ‘Your breathing should be light and slow’. So I started practising his technique, and it made a huge difference to me, and how I was feeling; waking up more alert but also with a sense of calm, and less breathlessness during physical exercise.”
He reels off a list of further benefits to nasal breathing: increased oxygen uptake from the lungs to the blood, better dental health (“mouth breathers are more prone to a higher plaque index”), improved memory and attention, and better hydration (“if you breathe out through your mouth, there’s a 42 per cent greater water loss”).
It also, says McKeown, helps protect the lower airways.
“If you’re breathing through your mouth you’re bypassing the nose, meaning you don’t harness nasal nitric oxide, a gas that’s probably the primary defence for airborne viruses coming into the body. It’s antiviral, it’s antibacterial, it helps open up the airways and redistributes blood throughout the lungs.”
And then there’s sleep.
“If you have your mouth open during sleep you spend more time in stage-one sleep, which is light sleep, and not enough time in stage-three sleep, which is slow-wave sleep — this is restorative sleep, when the brain cleans itself.”
In young children, this can have a sizeable impact. McKeown cites a study of 11,000 British schoolchildren aged from six months to 57 months (three months away from turning five), in which the author concluded that if children had sleep-disordered breathing or behavioural sleep problems that were left untreated at the age of five, they had a 40 per cent increased risk of special education needs by the age of eight.
“That’s because the brain is developing during slow-wave sleep,” says McKeown. “Especially the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for empathy, for planning and decision-making.”
Studies also suggest breathing can also change the shape of their face.
“If children have their mouth open (consistently) it causes craniofacial alterations. Because the mouth is open, the face then grows longer, the jaws are set back and the pallet is high, and the nose looks bent. I have a mouth-breathing face. My nose is bent, my top jaw is set back. My lower jaw is set back and my airway is small. I had my mouth open for 20 years.”
In short, McKeown says mouth breathers “don’t reach their full potential”.
He adds: “They’re tired, they tend to be more stressed, they’re breathing faster and in the upper chest, there’s reduced oxygen transfer, reduced oxygen delivery to the blood and they’re more prone to snoring and obstructive sleep apnoea (where the walls of the throat relax and narrow during sleep, interrupting normal breathing).
“Your nose is the only organ in the human body that’s serving any function in terms of the airflow in and out. The mouth does nothing. There’s no part of the mouth that’s devoted to breathing. The mouth is for eating, speaking and drinking. The nose is for smelling and breathing.”
Proponents of nasal breathing believe it can also have huge benefits when it comes to fitness and high performance.
Last month, four-time Grand Slam champion tennis player Iga Swiatek was pictured hitting balls on a practice court with her mouth taped.
Speaking to the media before her next tournament in Montreal, Canada, Swiatek explained that it was the idea of her fitness coach, Maciej Ryszczuk. “It’s harder to breathe when you’re only breathing with your nose, and it’s easier for my heart rate to go up,” she told reporters. “You can see the difference in how everything you do on the court is getting harder and harder with that tape on your mouth. It’s a way to work on my endurance by not having me run so fast and do extreme things.”
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— Eurosport (@eurosport) August 6, 2023
McKeown names Irish boxer Michael Conlan and American MMA fighter Sean O’Malley as two of his clients, and has also worked with tennis players, cyclists and footballers. He believes nasal breathing during exercise can add the extra “one per cent” every elite athlete is looking for.
“When you do physical exercise with your mouth closed, the gas carbon dioxide increases slightly in the blood,” McKeown says. “That dilates your blood vessels, your airways and it also causes haemoglobin, which is the main carrier of oxygen, to release oxygen more readily. So you’ve got better oxygen delivery to the working muscles during physical exercise when your mouth is closed, versus your mouth open.”
@selfsup Sean O’Malley Speaks About the Importance of Nasal Breathing on the Andrew Schultz Podcast ???? #selfsup #ufc ♬ original sound – Selfsup
Initially, when switching from mouth to nose breathing during exercise, McKeown says the individual will feel a “greater air hunger”, but that diminishes the more they do it, and over time, he claims their ventilation during exercise will significantly reduce.
Most people consider that feeling of “air hunger” to be due to a drop in oxygen, but McKeown says that the primary stimulus to breathe is actually carbon dioxide, not oxygen.
“With the mouth closed, carbon dioxide cannot leave the body so quickly through the nose, so it accumulates in the lungs. Then it will accumulate in the blood leaving the lungs. As carbon dioxide increases in the blood, blood pH levels drop, and the brain reacts by sending increased stimulus to breathe. So there’s a strong feeling of ‘air hunger’ there.
“But I want the athlete to experience that because this way, I can train their body to adapt to a higher tolerance of carbon dioxide. So when they do physical exercise, they don’t feel the same degree of air hunger and they can push themselves harder.”
Studies also show nasal breathing significantly reduces ventilation (meaning you don’t need as much air).
“If you don’t need as much air during physical exercise, you’re less likely to gas out. You’ve got more reserves in the tank.
“What athlete doesn’t want to do physical exercise with less breathing? Because that is efficient. How do you improve that? Aside from swimming regularly (the only activity McKeown says can improve breathing patterns), you can’t improve it by any other means than breathing practices, which are aimed at that.”
Breathholds often form part of McKeown’s training. He describes an exercise where individuals will be asked to take a breath in and out, then hold their nose and sprint 40 metres with their breath held. They get 30 seconds to recover before being asked to repeat the exercise. And then the same again.
“Doing that drops the blood oxygen saturation and increases carbon dioxide. It forces the body to make adaptations including improved buffering capacity (the ability of muscles to neutralise the acid that accumulates in them during high-intensity exercise, thus delaying the onset of fatigue).
“It also adds an extra load on the diaphragm. Athletes spend time training muscles in the gym, but the one muscle that they don’t train is the breathing muscle. What happens if the breathing muscle gets tired? Blood is stolen from the legs to feed the diaphragm. So the legs give out. And that’s going to slow the athlete down or cease their exercise altogether.”
How much of an athlete’s training should they be doing using nasal breathing, then?
“It’s not that we want an athlete to be 100 per cent nose breathing, that would be stupid,” says McKeown. “I would say do about 50 per cent of your training with nasal breathing, at an intensity whereby you feel the air hunger (desire to gulp in air), and it’s a challenge, but it’s not excruciating.”
McKeown adds a caveat — breathing is very individual, so breath training is a tool that will be more important to some athletes than others.
“Our breathing changes depending on our genetics, stress, trauma, and perfectionist tendencies. It’s a function that’s very unique to the individual. And it needs to be tailored according to the traits of the individual.”
It has benefits for all though, says McKeown, largely down to the role that breathing has to play in self-regulation.
“If I was asked, ‘What’s the most important thing in terms of breathing?’, it’s the ability that if you get into a tricky situation, you’re not going to go into hyperventilation (rapid or deep breathing). You can bring down your breathing and bring down your heart rate. And you then are in a much better position to come up with a solution.
“Whether that applies to the athlete, the office worker, the family person, it doesn’t matter.
“There are a few things we’re not taught: we’re not taught how to concentrate and we’re not taught how to deal with stress — breathing is a means of improving both.”
(Lead images: Getty Images)