Updated: Oct 15
It may feel unnatural at first, but it’s the best thing for your body
Breathing easily has always been a vital part of well-being. Thanks to the pandemic, however, this simple biological function has been compromised for many infected people, and remains threatened for everyone else who’s susceptible to getting Covid-19.
But what if changing the way you breathe could potentially help protect you from the very thing that threatens your ability to breathe? That’s one theory some experts are suggesting. It has to do with the simple physiology of the nose, and the chemical compound nitric oxide (NO).
Aside from filtering, warming, and humidifying the air you breathe, the nose is your first line of defense against allergens and pathogens. The mucus and cilia inside are designed to block these outside invaders from going farther down the respiratory tract and making you sick. And NO, which is what the sinuses release when you breathe through your nose, is a vasodilator, meaning it relaxes the blood vessels and lowers blood pressure.
Doctors have been giving NO gas to people long before Covid-19 to help improve lung function in critically ill people suffering from adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), according to Albert Rizzo, MD, Chief Medical Officer for the American Lung Association. There are currently 11 clinical trials in the U.S. and Canada testing whether administering NO can improve recovery time of people with Covid-19 by boosting oxygen levels. The gas may also help fight respiratory tract infections like Covid-19 by inactivating viruses and inhibiting their replication.
Several studies, including one from 2004 that focused on the effects of inhaling NO on the SARS coronavirus, have shown that the compound has antiviral properties. A recent analysis of 45 relevant studies supports this oxygenation boosting effect that North American researchers are trying to demonstrate. It also notes that naturally produced NO from nasal breathing seems to have similar antiviral effects. For example, one discussed study found that humans who exhale more NO have fewer common cold symptoms, which suggests that nasally-produced NO may help protect humans from other respiratory viruses like Covid-19.
“Your lungs do have to work harder at accessing the oxygen in the air that you’re breathing in through your mouth versus your nose.”
Conversely, habitual mouth breathing may actually increase susceptibility to the virus as well as its level of severity, according to the May analysis. It states that mouth breathing during sleep may worsen the symptoms of Covid-19, just as it worsens other respiratory illnesses like the common cold and the flu.
“You do lose some of the benefit of the filtering mechanisms and potentially some of the triggering of the immune system that might be triggered by particles that go through the membranes of the nose,” says Rizzo.
People tend to breathe more through their mouths when they’re stressed or their body is working hard, because it feels like you’re getting more air that way. However, according to Zara Patel, MD, a rhinologist and otolaryngologist at Stanford Medicine, the lungs can’t utilize this air as effectively, because it’s not warmed or humidified as it is when you breathe through your nose.
“Your lungs do have to work harder at accessing the oxygen in the air that you’re breathing in through your mouth versus your nose,” says Patel.
We’re all guilty of occasional mouth breathing, but a number of people are habitual mouth breathers out of necessity, due to an obstruction, abnormal sinuses, or chronic sinus congestion, to name a few potential conditions. According to Patel, some individuals are relatively uninhibited by habitual mouth breathing, but others end up developing side effects that range from uncomfortable to potentially detrimental.
Some of the milder effects include difficulty falling and staying asleep, dry mouth and throat, gum disease, bad breath, and snoring. The more long-term potential effects are changes in jaw shape and position and chronic respiratory problems such as sleep apnea, which can lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular complications down the road. “Your blood pressure, specifically in your pulmonary arteries,