How An ENT Office Watches the Olympics - Part 1
I’m a swimmer. I grew up swimming competitively. My social life as a young person was defined by the time I spent in the pool, and my friends are still my “swim friends”. Therefore, the Olympics for me are typically defined by week one, swim events. That’s what I geek out to!
But of course there is also gymnastics in week one. (It’s the sport that interrupts the swim events!) And I don’t think I can truly call myself American without waving the flag for USA Gymnastics. This year brought a new term, and for me some new thoughts about gymnastics...the Twisties. Thank you Simone Biles. With Nasal Breathing always on my mind, I delved into what was going on for her. First we heard she had a physical injury, then we heard “not quite physical”, then we heard she was taking care of her mental health. Turns out all of those statements were correct as the Twisties are a melange of hard to put your finger on maladies. Emotional health seems to have a strong role in the Twisties but so does the proprioceptive part of the nervous system, and the vestibular system, which is part of the inner ear.
We know that a key benefit of nasal breathing is its impact on our nervous system. The pathway air follows when breathed in through the nose is a deeper and longer pathway than when it is breathed in through the mouth. When we mouth breath, we fill the upper part of our chest and often use accessory muscles in our neck and chest to get the respiratory job done. Nasal breathing is mastered by the diaphragm, a muscle deep in our body that separates our chest, or thoracic cavity, from our belly, or abdominal cavity. Two important things happen when we breathe from our diaphragm. First, our posture improves. Air flows more easily when our nose is directly above our lungs so we naturally stand up straight when we breathe nasally.
Second, our vagus nerve which helps govern whether we are in a sympathetic - fight or flight, or a parasympathetic - rest and digest, state, penetrates the center of the diaphragm. When the diaphragm is activated the vagus nerve is essentially massaged. If the diaphragmatic movement is rhythmic and relaxed, the vagus nerve brings the body into a more relaxed parasympathetic state. Therefore, calm and steady nasal breathing is a technique that, for millennia as demonstrated by yoga, has been used to calm the mind and emotions.
While it is being explored, there is not yet a discovered, direct connection between the vestibular system and nasal breathing. But, if you have flown on an airplane and held your nose to balance the pressure in your ears, it is easy to understand the role of the nose and the tympanic membrane on your inner ear health. And it’s likely a direct connection will be discovered.
So, Simone. In no way will I minimise the Twisties. But I have to wonder, could it have started in her nose? Did she get congested on the flight to Tokyo or perhaps her ears didn’t clear? Did the mounting emotional pressure from the coming Games compromise her breathing and trigger a sympathetic state? Did any of this cause mouth breathing which could have disrupted her posture and interrupted her finely tuned proprioceptive feedback? We won’t ever know, and we do know there were plenty of other factors that affected Ms. Biles. But the importance of the nose and nasal breathing needs to maintain Olympic level attention. We all need to demand and claim our right to gold medal breathing.
If you feel like you struggle at all to breathe through your nose, if you catch yourself mouth agape more than occasionally, if you struggle to sleep, know that you snore, or wake up with the Sahara desert in your mouth, chances are you need some support with your nasal breathing. Call us at Exhale Sinus and Facial Pain Center - 773-234-5880, or exhalesinus.com. We can help.