Did your mother or grandmother pester you over your posture? “Chin up, mouth closed, shoulders back.” While these may have seemed annoying and trivial at the time, it turns out there is more than etiquette at stake! Oral posture affects your bite, breathing, sleep and body posture. That’s why you should care about it.
What is correct oral posture?
Sandra Kahn, DDS, MSD, and Paul R. Ehrlich, PhD are authors of the new book Jaws: The story of a hidden epidemic. They describe correct oral posture as mouth closed, teeth lightly touching, and tongue pressed to the roof of your mouth. (1). “Chin up” or chin level and neck back usually coincides with proper oral posture, which helps promote good body posture as well. This is especially important in preventing or fixing forward head posture, which has become nearly ubiquitous in a world of mobile devices, and now pandemic isolation.
Proper oral posture also encourages nose breathing, which is healthier for your mouth and better for your body. It complements exercises to strengthen neck muscles for improved head and neck posture, too.
Mouth breathing versus nose breathing
You may be mouth breathing and don’t even know it! While sometimes unavoidable (during strenuous exercise, when talking or singing, or when you’re sick), it is better to avoid mouth breathing as much as possible. As Steven Lin, DDS, explains in his podcast on Health Simple, our noses act as filters, warming the air we breathe in and producing nitric oxide, which helps with the distribution of oxygen to the body (2). This is important for maintaining lung health (1). When you breathe through your mouth, you bring unfiltered, dehumidified air directly to the lungs. This can strain your lungs, stress your body, and put you at greater risk for infections (1).
Mouth breathing & sleep apnea
Obstructive sleep apnea is overnight oxygen deprivation caused by a blocked nasal airway. And when your airway is blocked, mouth breathing is the workaround. That’s snoring, folks. But, when you breathe through your mouth, your jaw drops, impeding your nose airway further. Kahn and Ehrlich explain that mouth breathing is strongly associated with snoring and sleep apnea. These sleep disorders are linked to many serious diseases including cardiovascular disease (1). If you have sleep problems, fixing your oral posture might help. Additionally, there are many other (natural) ways to improve your sleep.
Are you mouth breathing?
Kahn and Ehrlich offer some basic questions you can ask yourself to see whether you may be mouth breathing too much (1).
- During rest, do you often find your teeth not in light contact
- Is your tongue pushing your mouth apart?
- Do have trouble sleeping through the night?
- Has anyone ever told you that you snore while you sleep?
- Do you chew quickly and talk with your mouth full?
- Is your nose frequently clogged or stuffed up, especially overnight?
- In the morning, do you wake up with a dry mouth?
If you answered yes to any of these questions you may be unintentionally mouth breathing. Don’t worry, there are plenty of things you can do to retrain yourself back to nose breathing.
So what can you do?
If you are a mouth breather, don’t freak out! There are plenty of things you can do to help retrain your oral posture.
- Awareness: The first step is awareness. Congratulations! By reading this article you are now aware and can be mindful of when you are breathing through your nose or mouth.
- Accountability: Hold yourself accountable. Call yourself out. It can be hard to be aware of your own breathing. However, it’s easier to spot mouth breathing in someone else. Find a partner, or many, children, a spouse, friend, or co-worker, to pay attention. Let each other know if you catch the other person mouth breathing! While this may seem silly, it can be really effective.
- Practice makes habit: The more you train and hold the proper oral posture, the easier it gets. This is because our muscles are designed to grow and get stronger when used. Your muscle memory will help with this. The more you practice and train the more proper oral posture becomes as easy as breathing (pun intended).
What if you mouth breathe while you sleep?
This can be a harder fix, but not impossible either! Snoring is one of the side effects of mouth breathing at night. Sleep apnea is also a more serious by-product of mouth breathing.
A warning: sleep apnea is when breathing stops during sleep and can be a serious condition. If you suspect you have sleep apnea, see your doctor for evaluation.
Sometimes we mouth breathe at night because we are sick. Only if your nose is clear, and you can handle it, you might try sleeping with tape on your mouth to encourage nose breathing. Sounds uncomfortable, but if you use skin tape, it may not be too bad.
Certain sleeping positions encourage mouth breathing. If you often sleep on your back, try sleeping on your side or stomach and see if that helps. Your pillow may also be a problem: too soft and your neck and jaw may fall back and open; too hard or high and it may trigger neck pain and make it harder to sleep deeply.
The more you practice good oral posture during the day, the easier it will be for you to nose breathe while you’re asleep. Before you fall asleep each night, check your oral posture: nose clear, mouth closed, tongue on roof of mouth, neck not retracted.
While this information may be a surprise, these are simple things you can work on to help improve your oral health and well-being. Breathing well is crucial to your health in the long run! So please, don’t forget about your mouth!
Written by Bonnie Feldman, DDS, MBA, Rebecca Malizia, Ellen M. Martin
More about oral health
Interested in your oral well-being? Check out our new ebook on the oral microbiome here.
Curious about Jaws? Click here to get your copy!
Want to listen to the podcast yourself? Click here to listen.
Stay tuned for a new post on anti-snoring exercises.
- Kahn, Sandra, Ehrlich, R., Paul. Jaws: The story of a hidden epidemic. Stanford University Press. 2018. https://www.amazon.com/Jaws-Hidden-Epidemic-Sandra-Kahn/dp/1503604136
- Reidhead, Kyle. “How Your Diet Changes Your Smile and Oral Microbiome – Dr. Steven Lin.” Health Simple Podcast. 2018. https://anchor.fm/healthsimpleradio/episodes/24—How-Your-Diet-Changes-Your-Smile-and-Oral-Microbiome—Dr–Steven-Lin-e2rv5a