In his classic book, Shut Your Mouth and Save Your Life (1870), American painter George Catlin described a correlation between pre-civil war Native Americans who were mouth breathers and various chronic illnesses. In a 30 year span (1830 to 1860), he visited over 150 Native tribes in North, Central, and South America.
Catlin observed that tribes with no Western influences had zero infant mortality, and no childhood deformities or diseases. He noted that Native American nose breathers tended to be much healthier compared to white “civilized” people who were more prone to mouth breathing and tended to be much more sickly in general. He also commented on how beautiful the natives’ smiles were with beautiful teeth.
An interesting story illustrates Catlin’s observation: Two Native Americans were in an argument and knives were drawn. Catlin and others were successful in calming the two men down and eventually, they were reconciled. Catlin later took aside one of the two men and asked if he was afraid of his opponent, who was much bigger and stronger. The man reportedly responded, “No, not in the least; I never fear harm from a man who can’t shut his mouth, no matter how large or how strong he maybe.”
Beautiful smiles and no cavities, but 100 years ago?
Almost 60 years later, Catlin’s observations were mirrored and expanded on in his classic book, Nutrition and Physical Degeneration (1939) by Dr. Weston Price. An active researcher in the Canadian and American Dental community, Price traveled to numerous remote areas of the world finding that cultures that ate completely off the land had broad faces, beautiful, full smiles, and minimal to no cavities. Only after the adoption of Western diets did their children’s teeth come in crooked with many more cavities and more chronic medical illnesses.
Why mouth breathing may make you sick
So what does mouth breathing have to do with viral infections? I’ve written before that our nose and sinuses make a gas called nitric oxide. This gas has two important features: proven antimicrobial properties and the ability to increase oxygen uptake in your lungs. There have been many studies showing nitric oxide’s ability to kill viruses, bacteria, fungi and even parasites. In particular, nitric oxide was also found to lower SARS Coronavirus replication by 82% in this study from 2005. The study authors showed that nitric oxide inhibits viral protein and RNA synthesis.
How nose breathing can increase oxygen in your lungs
This study found that blood oxygen levels were 10% higher in healthy volunteers who were nose breathing compared to mouth breathers. In ICU patients who were intubated, adding the patient’s own nasal airflow into the lungs increased arterial blood oxygen levels by 18%. Nitric oxide dilates blood vessels in your lungs, increasing oxygen uptake. Based on these findings, there is currently an ongoing study looking at nitric oxide in critically ill COVID-19 patients. This property was the basis for awarding of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1998.
You may be asking by now if this information is applicable. My answer is yes and no. Converting to nose breathing or adding nitric oxide is unlikely to cure you of a serious COVID-19 infection. There are so many known and unknown processes that are happening simultaneously. You can’t suddenly change your upper airway anatomy which took a lifetime to develop (or underdevelop).
Many people who are mouth breathers will be more prone to medical or mental health issues, or more likely to be overweight. Certain commonly prescribed prescription medications can also cause nasal congestion. There are countless other reasons that can lead to a stuffy nose. This is why it’s important to address this important issue aggressively whether using over-the-counter or holistic methods or by seeing an ENT physician.
Application to the COVID-19 pandemic
The one common theme that keeps surfacing during our current COVID-19 pandemic is that poor outcomes are seen mainly in the very elderly, obese, or people with a number of chronic medical conduits. Oftentimes, it’s a combination of all three. Yes, there are exceptions to this rule, with a handful of younger, healthy men and women succumbing to this virus. Yes, it’s important to find a vaccine for this virus, but it’s important to focus on the 25 to 50% of people who are infected with COVID-19 but are either asymptomatic or have only mild symptoms, even if you are older. What are they doing differently that’s keeping them healthy?
The main reason why I’m bringing up this issue is that focusing on proper nasal breathing, optimal health and wellness, and smart food choices can significantly lower your chances of catching any type of infection. You still have to use common sense and take appropriate precautions. But even you do catch a cold (rhinovirus), influenza or coronavirus, your body will be better equipped to fight off any infection.
The next time you watch an elite marathon competition, take a look at the winner’s face in the last mile of the race. More likely than not, you’ll see the winner breathing fully in and out through the nose with the mouth closed.