Breathing is second nature. Most of us don’t think about it, especially when we’re sleeping. You might only think about your breathing when you’ve got a stuffy nose or your partner is elbowing you in the ribs to get your snoring to stop.
But even when snoring or congestion isn’t a problem, you may be breathing the “wrong” way at night — and that wrong way is through your mouth, instead of your nose.
It’s not clear how many of us are mouth breathers — it could be a whopping 75%. Some people may be mouth breathers for short periods of time — like when they’re ill or when pregnant, for example — while for others, it’s a life-long bad habit.
Mouth breathing sounds innocent enough but it affects your health, your sleep, and how you feel and function.
Below, we’ll cover why you might be mouth breathing, why you should attempt to fix it, and how you can stop mouth breathing at night. Plus, we’ll share how the RISE app can help you get a good night’s sleep, no matter how you’re breathing.
Mouth breathing is as simple as it sounds: it’s when you breathe through your mouth, instead of your nose. You may breathe through your mouth when your nose is blocked, when you’re exercising strenuously, or simply through habit.
Mouth breathing may not sound like too much of a problem, but it can lead to bad breath, tooth decay, high blood pressure, and even impaired brain function. Experts agree nasal breathing is the better way to get your oxygen. It can boost your energy levels, reduce anxiety, and reduce snoring.
Mouth breathing isn’t all bad, though. It’s sometimes the only way to breathe, such as when you’re congested, for example. Plus, when you’re doing intense exercise, it’s the quicker way to take in oxygen. The problem comes when it’s your go-to method of breathing, even when your nose is working perfectly fine.
You may even find yourself breathing fine through your nose during the day, but switching to mouth breathing at night. This could be habit, but another reason for this is because the blood vessels in your nose fill with blood when you’re lying down. This makes your nasal passages smaller and your body may switch to mouth breathing if it can’t get enough oxygen in.
Science journalist James Nester writes in his bestselling 2020 book, Breath, that 40% of us suffer from chronic nasal congestion (a key cause of mouth breathing), and about half of us are chronic mouth breathers. Women and kids seem to be affected the most, but mouth breathing can happen to anyone.
It can be hard to tell if you’re mouth breathing at night — you are asleep, afterall.
Look out for these mouth breathing symptoms:
If you have trouble breathing through your mouth during the day, or catch yourself doing it despite being able to breathe through your nose, you probably breathe through your mouth at night, too.
You can also speak to your healthcare provider who can help diagnose mouth breathing.
There are many reasons you might be breathing through your mouth instead of your nose.
Common culprits include:
For most of us, upper airway resistance lowers as we sleep when we breathe through the nose. So, we’ll subconsciously breathe through our noses unless there’s something getting in the way. If nasal breathing is too hard, or impossible, we’ll subconsciously switch to mouth breathing to get the oxygen we need.
Is mouth breathing really that bad? In short, yes. We’re meant to spend most of our time breathing through our noses, and any disturbances to our breathing can damage our health.
The list of health issues is long. Mouth breathing can lead to:
Mouth breathing and congestion can create a vicious cycle. When our nasal airways are congested, bacteria can thrive. This bacteria grows and can lead to infections and more congestion, and therefore more time spent mouth breathing.
The effects of mouth breathing can be harmful in kids, too. Mouth breathing in children can lead to development issues in their facial growth, crooked teeth, and sleep loss, which can impact their growth, behavior (leading to a misdiagnosis of ADHD), academic performance, and overall health and well-being.
Sleep apnea is when you temporarily stop breathing throughout the night. It’s a serious sleep disorder that can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure — among others.
You’d think breathing through your mouth would stop this from happening — it’s a bigger airway after all. But mouth breathing can actually lead to and worsen sleep apnea.
When you breathe only through your nose, and it’s unobstructed, air pushes soft tissue back, keeping your airways more open. Eventually, the tissue and muscle becomes more toned and stays back, meaning you can more easily breathe through your nose. Breathing through your nose regularly trains the tissues in your nasal airways to stay open.
It’s a vicious circle as mouth breathing makes sleep apnea worse, but sleep apnea can cause you to get into the habit of mouth breathing.
Insomnia is linked to poor breathing at night. A study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings found many of those with insomnia also have sleep apnea.
Even when you’re not mouth breathing completely, but breathing through obstructed nasal airways, you can be doing damage. Nasal obstruction has been linked to sleep-disordered breathing like snoring and sleep apnea.
Beyond sleep apnea, mouth breathing can impact your sleep in surprising ways.
Mouth breathing can cause you to wake up often during the night, cutting into your sleep time. This might happen because it causes snoring (maybe the noise wakes you up directly or it’s your partner waking you up), or you’re awoken by a sleep apnea episode. But mouth breathing can also wake you up during the night as it lowers your arousal threshold. Nasal breathing, on the other hand, improves your arousal threshold.
Your arousal threshold is how easily you’re awoken from sleep. If your arousal threshold is low, you’ll be a lighter sleeper and it’ll be easier for things to wake you up during the night.
This isn’t just noise or light in your bedroom, though. Poor sleep hygiene can also wake you up more easily when your arousal threshold is low.
Sleep hygiene is the name for the set of behaviors you can do to get the best night’s sleep possible. They include things like avoiding caffeine and alcohol too late in the day, keeping a consistent sleep schedule, and getting and avoiding bright light at the right times.
When you have poor sleep hygiene, it can take you longer to drift off and you may wake up more often during the night. Mouth breathing may make an alcoholic beverage or evening light even more disruptive to your sleep.
You might also wake up needing to use the bathroom. Mouth breathing can cause your body to lose 40% more water — one reason you wake up with a dry mouth.
When your sleep is disrupted through sleep-disordered breathing or sleep apnea, increased intra-abdominal pressure, higher secretion of atrial natriuretic peptide and arousals lead to nocturnal urination. Nocturnal urination is related to severity of OSA. And if you pee more, you might get the urge to drink more, and need to go again.
Essentially, mouth breathing is a recipe for disturbed sleep, which leads to lowered productivity, energy levels, and a whole host of health issues.
Not sure if you’ve got good sleep hygiene? RISE can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits to help you get a good night’s sleep.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications.
Nasal breathing is exactly what it sounds like: breathing through your nose. But it’s actually much more complex than most of us realize.
Your nasal cavities can have an effect on your body temperature, blood pressure, mood, and sleep. And it differs between the left and right nostrils, too.
When you breathe in through your left nostril, your blood pressure, temperature, and anxiety all decrease. This side is linked to your parasympathetic nervous system, your body’s rest-and-digest mode, which promotes relaxation in the body.
When you breathe in through your right nostril, your circulation, body temperature, cortisol levels, blood pressure, and heart rate all increase. It activates your sympathetic nervous system, your body’s fight-or-flight mode, making you more alert.
Nasal breathing can help:
Now you know how bad mouth breathing is for you, and the many benefits of nasal breathing, it’s time to make the switch. How you stop mouth breathing in your sleep will depend on what’s causing it. Here are a few treatments to consider.
Sometimes congestion will come and go, like when you’re battling a cold or when it's allergy season. Other times, you may be congested for longer periods of time.
Pregnancy, for example, can cause nasal congestion, as can medications for blood pressure, erectile dysfunction, depression, and seizures.
Try these tips to ease congestion:
Want to stop congestion from ruining your sleep? We’ve covered how to sleep with a stuffy nose here and more advice on sleeping with allergies here.
Nasal strips stick to the outside of your nose and stretch open your nostrils. Nasal dilators sit inside your nostrils, pushing them open.
Both devices widen your nasal passages, making it easier to get enough air through them.
What does nighttime eating have to do with nighttime breathing? When you eat and lay down, digestive juices can flow up into your nose, ears, mouth, and sinuses, causing inflammation and congestion and making it more likely you’ll breathe through your nose.
Eating close to bedtime can also cause digestive issues that can keep you awake, and it can disrupt your circadian rhythm, or body clock.
Avoid eating spicy foods in particular close to bedtime as these can not only cause congestion, but cause digestive issues that can disrupt your sleep. They can also trigger acid reflux, which can also cause congestion and keep you awake.
We’ve covered more on when to stop eating before bed in more detail here.
The RISE app can also remind you when to have your last large meal of the day to stop it from impacting your sleep.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late meals reminder.
If there’s no obvious reason you’re breathing through your mouth at night, it may be down to habit. And while tricky, habits can be broken.
One paper states with certain exercises, “the breath can be “trained” to restore nasal breathing, improve diaphragm function, slow the respiratory rate, and increase tolerance to changes in arterial carbon dioxide (CO2) pressure.”
These exercises can help your breathing during the day and night. The paper adds: “If poor breathing patterns during wakefulness can be addressed, it is likely that this may provide a mechanism whereby sleep-disordered breathing can also benefit.”
Breathing re-education (BRE) aims to do this. It includes exercises to help you:
One benefit of BRE is that it treats the root cause of the problem. You train yourself to breathe through your nose, instead of relying on mouth tape or nasal dilators to make this happen.
For example, try taking deep breaths through your nose during the day to improve your nasal function and get used to breathing this way. Remind yourself to breathe nasally throughout the day by setting reminders on your phone or sticking a Post-it note to your bathroom mirror.
Here’s one breathing exercise you can try to decongest your nose and make nose breathing easier:
We’ve covered other breathing exercises before bed here, including many which encourage nasal breathing.
If your mouth opens during the night, mouth taping can literally stop this from happening.
Mouth taping involves placing a small piece of tape over your lips to keep your mouth closed while you sleep. It could be useful for those who are able to breathe through their nose, but have a bad habit of mouth breathing.
Some people find they only have to mouth tape for a few weeks to get used to nasal breathing. They can then breathe through their nose while sleeping without any tape at all.
It sounds like an easy fix, but mouth taping can be dangerous, especially if you can’t get enough air through your nose.
You can buy mouth tape that doesn’t actually cover the lips, it just surrounds the mouth and keeps the lips closed. You can also buy devices like chin straps that hold the mouth closed while you sleep.
Seek medical advice before you try mouth taping, especially if you have asthma or sleep apnea.
For more advice, we’ve covered mouth taping for sleep in more detail here.
Alcohol may make you feel relaxed and sleepy, but it isn’t doing your breathing (or sleep!) any favors.
Alcohol can irritate your airways and cause congestion, making it much harder to get air in through your nose. It can also increase your odds of sleep apnea, which can cause mouth breathing.
Cut down on alcohol to see if this eases congestion. Avoiding alcohol in the run-up to bedtime will also make sure it doesn’t disrupt your sleep.
Want to dive deeper? We’ve covered how long before bed you should stop drinking alcohol here.
RISE can tell you when to have your last alcoholic drink each day.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their avoid late alcohol reminder.
Smoking can cause irritation and inflammation in your nasal airways, meaning you may breathe through your nose. And smoking, again, isn’t a friend of sleep.
Quit or at least cut down to see if it helps you reduce your mouth breathing.
If you live with a smoker, this too can be a cause of your mouth breathing as tobacco smoke in the air can irritate your airways.
Stress and anxiety may trigger mouth breathing by activating the sympathetic nervous system, which controls your flight-or-fight response. Instead of slow nasal breathing, you may be breathing quickly, shallowly, and through your mouth.
Stress and anxiety can also cut into your sleep time. Here’s how to reduce them:
You can learn more about how to sleep with anxiety here.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their Brain Dump Habit notification
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to go right to their relaxation audio guide homepage and get started.
You may be mouth breathing because of sleep apnea. And, as sleep apnea is a serious medical condition that can lead to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart failure, it’s important to get tested for it if you have symptoms.
Symptoms of sleep apnea include:
We’ve covered how to know if you have sleep apnea here.
A doctor will be able to test you for sleep apnea and recommend the best treatment options for you.
The position you sleep in could make a difference to how you breathe at night.
Back sleeping can make you more likely to mouth breath as you may get more congestion build-up in your nose. Back sleeping is also the worst position for sleep apnea and snoring.
If you’re a back sleeper, try switching to sleeping on your side instead. If you find this difficult, experiment with body pillows to make side sleeping more comfortable, and try sleeping with a firm pillow behind you to stop you from rolling onto your back.
Which side exactly should you choose? We’ve covered the best side to sleep on here.
Find side sleeping uncomfortable or impossible? Sleeping on your back with your head elevated is another position that can reduce mouth breathing.
Try using a wedge-shaped pillow to elevate your head and upper torso while you sleep. Aim for an elevation of 30 to 60 degrees. This should help to keep your mouth closed, making you breathe through your nose.
Sleeping with your head elevated can also help to reduce snoring and improve sleep apnea.
We’ve covered more about whether to sleep with or without a pillow and proper pillow position for sleeping here.
Not sure the reason behind your mouth breathing? Speak to your healthcare provider. They may be able to determine what exactly is stopping you from breathing through your nose and suggest treatment options or lifestyle changes to help.
In some cases, surgery may be needed. Nasal blockages, like excess tissue, tonsils, or adenoids can be removed. Fixing a deviated septum may also help.
Even if you manage to fix your mouth breathing and start breathing through your nose at night, you can’t forget about the two things that are fundamental to health and energy: low sleep debt and living in sync with your circadian rhythm.
Get these two things right, and they’ll boost your energy and health on top of nasal breathing. Get them wrong, and nasal breathing will only help marginally in the overall picture of health and well-being.
Here’s what they are and what to do.
Sleep debt is the measure of how much sleep you owe your body. It’s compared against your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need each night.
We measure your sleep need over the past 14 nights and recommend you keep it below five hours to feel and function your best.
Got more sleep debt than that? You can pay it back by:
The RISE app can work out how much sleep debt you have and keep track of it as you pay it back.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view their sleep debt.
Your circadian rhythm is your internal biological clock. It runs on a roughly 24-hour cycle and dictates everything from your sleep-wake cycle to your body temperature fluctuations and hormone production.
You can get out of sync with your body clock when you eat or sleep at odd times, like when you work night shifts or simply don’t keep a regular schedule.
Here’s how to get in sync:
The RISE app predicts your circadian rhythm each day to help you sync up your daily life to it.
RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to see their circadian rhythm on the Energy screen.
Mouth breathing comes with a whole host of potential health issues, from the small (like bad breath, dry mouth, and sore throat) to the much more serious (like sleep apnea, high blood pressure, and impaired brain function).
But breathing through your nose at night isn’t always easy. Try treating congestion, sleeping on your side or with your head elevated, and doing breathing exercises to help.
The RISE app can help boost your health, energy, and sleep even further by guiding you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits each day, tracking how much sleep debt you have, and predicting your circadian rhythm to help you sync up to it.
Mouth breathing at night can be caused by nasal congestion, nasal obstructions, sleep apnea, stress, dry air, medications, or being in the habit of mouth breathing.
You may not be able to breathe through your nose when you sleep due to nasal congestion, nasal obstructions, sleep apnea, stress, dry air, medications, or being in the habit of mouth breathing.
It’s OK to breathe through your mouth while you're sleeping when this is the only way you can breathe, such as when you’re ill, for example. But mouth breathing can lead to health problems like infections, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, impaired brain function, and brain fog.
Yes, you can train yourself to stop mouth breathing at night if this is simply a bad habit for you. Try breathing exercises that decongest your nose and encourage nasal breathing, sleeping on your side or with your head elevated, mouth taping, or devices like chin straps that keep your mouth closed while you sleep.
You can keep your mouth closed while sleeping by mouth taping or by using devices like a chin strap. You should only use these if you can breathe through your nose and you’re a mouth breather out of habit.
Exercises to stop mouth breathing include clearing nasal congestion by pinching your nose and nodding your head up and down and side to side, then continuing to hold your breath until you feel a strong urge to breathe. When you breathe, do so through your nose. Do this six times with a 30-to-60-second break in between. Reminding yourself to breathe nasally throughout the day will also help make this your go-to breathing method.
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RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential