Our bodies are dependent on many nutrients to survive and thrive. We know that vitamins, minerals, protein, fat, carbohydrates, and even water are all critical nutrients that we cannot live without. Yet there is another nutrient that our bodies need before, and more regularly, than all of these - oxygen!
Oxygen is not often thought of as a nutrient. But the Merriam Webster Dictionary describes a nutrient as “a substance or ingredient that promotes growth, provides energy, and maintains life” and oxygen certainly fits this definition. Perhaps the reason oxygen is not commonly considered a nutrient is that we believe that we are all getting enough in automatically regulated amounts so that we don’t need to give it much consideration. While in theory this would be true, that theory assumes that we are all breathing properly.
Breathing should be simple and effortless, but sadly for many of us it is not - even if we don't know it. This can be seen by looking in your average orthodontist office, filled with teens and pre-teens that are undergoing treatment. Orthodontic issues have become so common that it is rare to meet someone that has not ever gone through treatment and childhood braces are considered normal nowadays. It is well-known that braces, Invisalign, and other orthodontic appliances can help us create a proper bite, establishing structural balance in the body and improving aesthetics. Indeed, these are important benefits, but there is an even more valuable benefit from orthodontics – if done correctly – which is to improve our ability to breathe.
We often think orthodontics is just about teeth, but it is about so much more! A common intake form question for orthodontic consultations is whether the individual is a “mouth breather.” This is because, while we are able to breathe through our mouth, we are meant to breathe primarily through our nose. During proper facial and airway development, the tongue is positioned at the roof of the mouth where it supports the base of the nasal cavity. The lips are sealed and the suction between the lips and the tongue form the dental arches with teeth in proper occlusion. This structure allows for normal nasal breathing. When an individual does not have proper tongue posture to support the nasal cavity, mouth breathing results and the tongue and seal of the lips do not create the gentle suction to hold the teeth in their place. Outwardly this manifests as dental crowding, malocclusion, and/or crooked noses, but it is also a sign of what is going on inside in our airway. Thus, jaw and facial development are in fact a sign of how well (or not) our airway is optimized. Since surveys show that 50 – 70% of American children require orthodontics before adulthood, many of us today begin life with suboptimal airways. We all do not, in fact, intake and absorb oxygen equally. The number of Americans in braces doubled from 1982 to 2008, showing that unfortunately this situation is getting worse.
Patrick McKeown, author of The Oxygen Advantage, explains that specifically how these breathing issues result in low oxygen levels in our cells is a little more complicated than we might think. While it may seem that people with airway issues are under breathing, we may in fact be over breathing. If we aren’t breathing through our nose properly – which should be done throughout the day, during exercise, and while sleeping – our body compensates with mouth breathing and bigger breaths, taking in more air than we really need. The ultimate result of over breathing, however, is ironically less oxygen delivered to cells. McKeown describes that it is the level of CO2 in the blood that ultimately determines how efficiently oxygen will be transferred to cells. Since over breathing lowers our CO2 sensitivity, we end up exhaling too much CO2 and thereby actually decrease the ability of oxygen to effectively enter our cells, even if we are breathing it in.
So why is oxygen so important? We can go weeks without food, days without water, but only a few minutes without breathing. Oxygen is critical. Almost every cell of the body uses aerobic cellular respiration as its most efficient form of energy production for regular bodily functions as well as for light to moderate exercise. Oxygen and glucose are the essential ingredients for this process, which produces ATP, or energy for the body. While anaerobic respiration (without oxygen) is used for short spurts during intense exercise, aerobic respiration is the body’s primary source of energy.
So, what happens when we aren’t getting enough oxygen into our cells? While a complete loss of oxygen would be easily noticeable, that is clearly not what is happening most of the time (though sleep apnea, which can be fatal, is a serious concern associated with severe orthodontic/airway issues). Chronically low levels of oxygen in our tissues may be more difficult to identify, especially if this is how we have lived most of our lives, but it still has a detrimental effect. Here are just a few ways that insufficient oxygen levels can affect our body:
Digestion – Every cell of every digestive organ - the stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, liver, large and small intestines – requires oxygen to function properly. Without sufficient oxygen to fuel these organs, our ability absorb other nutrients during digestion is compromised. Furthermore, low levels of oxygen can create a sympathetic or fight or flight state. A parasympathetic state, however, is critical for proper digestion. Digestion begins in the brain, where the sight and smell of food triggers salivary amylase to begin the breakdown of food in the mouth alongside the mechanical breakdown with chewing. If we are not in a parasympathetic state while eating, this initial breakdown of food is incomplete, and all digestive processes further south are impaired.
Blood Sugar Regulation & Endocrine System Balance – Chronically low levels of oxygen create stress on the body and can lead to a chronic sympathetic state, triggering cortisol to be sent out from the adrenal glands to release stored glucose into the bloodstream. Long-term elevated cortisol levels from a chronic sympathetic state lead to blood sugar spikes and drops, which overtime can lead to insulin resistance and hormone imbalance.
Detoxification – Sleep is one of the most important times for our body to rest, repair, and detoxify. Unfortunately, during sleep is also when airway issues are often exacerbated. Sleep disordered breathing prevents restful sleep and thus hinders the body’s ability to detoxify.
When breathing is impaired, so many regular functions suffer. But it is not just about getting the proper amount of oxygen into our cells. As with all other nutrients, it is not just enough to consume the nutrient, but the way in which we consume it and the amount in which we consume it are also important for maximum utilization in the body. Just like grains, legumes, and nuts are best absorbed by the body when soaked, sprouted, or fermented, oxygen absorption in the body is maximized through deep but light, nasal breathing. In addition to helping manage oxygen transfer into cells, nasal breathing also allows us to reap additional benefits for our health:
Immune System Function: The hairs of the nose help to filter and warm the air, serving as the first line of defense as a barrier to pathogens from the environment.
Cardiovascular Health: Nasal breathing increases nitric oxide production by approximately 200%. Nitric oxide plays an integral role in stabilizing blood pressure as it is involved in the opening and closing of blood vessels, allowing for proper blood flow. McKeown states that this gas, “helps to prevent high blood pressure, lower cholesterol, keep the arteries young and flexible, and prevent the clogging of arteries with plaque and clots.”
So why are we not all breathing correctly through our noses? Why do so many of us develop orthodontic issues in the first place, especially at such young ages? Well, all the other nutrients we commonly think of play a role here. Our airway is defined by our skeleton and the soft tissue that connects and support it. Our bodies must have sufficient nutrients for proper bone and soft tissue formation for these structures to be developed and maintained. Without the nutrients to support bones and soft tissues, the tongue muscle is weak, the nasal septum may deviate, teeth become crowded, and the airway is thus constricted. The research of Dr. Weston A. Price and the lived experiences of cultures around the world that thrived for generations without these orthodontic issues demonstrate that this is a modern phenomenon that results from our modern diet. So it is a chicken and egg scenario: we need vitamins, minerals, fats, protein, carbohydrates, and water to develop strong airways so that we can breathe well; but with oxygen’s critical role in supporting digestive function, we also need strong airways to allow us to absorb other nutrients properly. Nutrition and oxygen intake are intertwined and integral components of health. If we address our airway issues through orthodontics alone without addressing nutrition, we are missing the root cause and likely to develop other consequences down the road. And if we just focus on nutrition without optimizing our airway, our health may still suffer and our ability to absorb and utilize nutrients will continue to be impaired. Airway orthodontics and nutritional therapy go hand in hand to support long-term, whole body wellness!