I recently read a book that has gotten me very excited. Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor introduced me to several concepts from a new angle, and with new depth. And now I’m focused on only breathing through my nose in what I’m calling the great nasal organ rehabilitation program (GNORP). 

I’ve read books in the past that told me how beneficial nose breathing could be, especially in the context of exercise. For example, Chi-Running by Danny Dreyer has several sections that touch on breathing and its benefits. But it never gave me the key that I needed to actually use nose breathing when I run. Breath did. 

For me, the key was understanding the science behind what happens when you breathe through your nose, and the concept of the mucus superhighway. 

I am a person who has had chronic congestion in my life. Winters tend to be a series of colds, none of which are hard enough to spark a fever, but all of which take their damn time getting out of my body. I even got diagnosed with chronic bronchitis while in high school, and I dealt with asthma, mostly exercise and allergy induced. 

Without thought, I would breathe through my mouth maybe half the time throughout my normal day and 100% of the time that I spent exercising, whether that be CrossFit or running or even hiking and backpacking. It became inevitable that at the end of a day of backpacking, my nose would get stuffy and make it impossible to breathe just when I wanted to go to sleep. 

Now, last backpacking season, my husband had started really focusing on nose breathing while he hiked. I tried it a bit, but didn’t feel like I could really do it. It didn’t feel natural, and, of course, my nose was not super cooperative because of the chronic congestion. But when we stopped for the day, and it was time for the evening stuffies to come, something strange happened. 

He was no longer getting the stuffies, but I still was. 

It wasn’t until I read Breath that I began to understand why. 

Breathing through the nose activates what I’m going to refer to as the nasal organ, the sum of all the parts where air passes through when you breathe in through your nose. The sinus cavities, and all the mucus that should be flowing through. The mucus superhighway that, ideally, will be taking in every germ and bacterium that you inhale (through the nose!), and shunting it down to the stomach for a nice acid bath. 

The other thing that I noticed this past winter was that my husband got sick far less than I did, and with far less severity. This made no sense to me, as in the past we’d usually get sick about equally. He’s got a few years on me, too, so I should have the better immune system. But I didn’t. 

I got sick pretty much every time I went out in public and exposed myself to people. Why, I thought to myself, do I get sick from every germ I encounter? And I believe the answer is that I had inadvertently created a nice swamp for germs to incubate instead of maintaining my mucus superhighway. The closed roads led to backups of mucus, which meant every germ that got into my nose had a place to grow. 

A little over a week into my new nose-breathing focus, or, as I like to call it, the rehabilitation of the mucus superhighway, I’m having some sinus pain. Normally, I’d call this being sick, and be quite mopey about the whole thing. Now, I’m quite accepting of the pain. It’s construction, and rebuilding. It would be weird (and probably bad) if I couldn’t feel the changes happening in my nasal organ. 

And as the mucus superhighway starts up, it also makes sense that I would have intense sensations, since a lot of my sinuses have been buried in mucus. This isn’t just a fancy of mine. I once had a doctor look into my ears and gleefully exclaim about how much mucus she could see. Congestion has been my companion for a long time. 

It led my husband to wager that I’d need sinus surgery myself, not long after he had his more than a decade ago. They chopped up one of his ethmoid sinuses, and that allowed him to breathe better, to an extent. It certainly stopped the near-constant sinus headaches that he had been living with. But he still snored after that. 

However, since I started talking about nose breathing and trying to do so exclusively, my husband has been more focused on it as well, and there was a night recently when I didn’t need to wear ear plugs, because he wasn’t snoring. AT ALL. I could hear him breathing if I listened hard, but there was no snoring. I slept wonderfully. 

And so, I’m currently dealing with what feels like a terrible sinus headache, but because it’s for a good cause I’m trying not to get upset about the pain. I’ve been using painkillers, including aspirin and acetaminophen, as well as saline sinus rinses, but I think this is just going to be a stage in the process of the great nasal organ rehabilitation program that I’ve committed myself to. 

And while that stage may yet recur, that particular incident only lasted about 24 hours. It wasn’t a fun 24 hours. Towards the end of the day I started to think that maybe I had actually acquired a cold and was sick – except I could still breathe through my nose. I did take some night cold medicine to help me fall asleep past the pain. In the morning, the sinuses were calm again. 

Let the GNORP continue!

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