A lesson in mouth taping…

As featured in The Times Feb 7, 2022

Grateful to Hannah Betts for the profile.

Mouth-taping lessons: We’re dependent on our mouths when we should use our noses to inhale and exhale, say experts. Will taping my lips at night help me, asks Hannah Betts

Hannah Betts: “My initial foray is quite ‘hysterical heiress hostage’

”I am lying in bed next to my boyfriend, my mouth gagged by a length of Durapore hypoallergenic surgical tape. Terence frequently complains that I talk during sex. Well, no more; nor smiling or snogging either for that matter. “It’s so peaceful,” he says with a sigh.

“You’re not shouting at me to lock up, or let the dog out. You’re not shouting full stop. Could you write me notes like in The Piano?” I convey my reluctance through the international language of mime, resorting to violence where once I would have fallen back on swearing.

Alas, this is not some edgy form of S&M but the latest health craze:* mouth-taping as a means of forcing me to engage in nasal breathing — the one true method, according to the international hit Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by the American journalist James Nestor (£9.99, Penguin).

Published somewhat presciently as the world confronted respiratory crisis, the award-winning book has sold more than a million copies, spent weeks on bestseller lists around the globe and is being translated into 35 languages, Mongolian included. In it Nestor does a deep (breathing) dive into humankind’s most basic biological function, revealing the million-year-long history of how we lost the ability to breathe properly, and how we’re incurring a catalogue of ailments because of it.

Snoring and sleep apnoea, asthma and panic disorders, increased risk of diabetes and strokes have all been linked to chronic breathing dysfunction.Hannah Betts: “I still hold my breath when stressed

”I have never exactly relished this act that comes so naturally to others. I was a (premature) baby who suffered a fair amount of birth trauma, and my parents would sit watching over me, kicking the cot when I stopped breathing. I still hold my breath when stressed. I suffered pneumonia a couple of times in my early thirties, shallow breathing in its wake.

Where others associate the exhortation to breathe with relaxation, I identify it with anxiety, once nearly punching a hippy who demanded I pant on one leg in the Himalayas, where I was already feeling oxygen-starved.Nestor, 51, who talks to me from his home in San Francisco, can relate. In all other regards a fit and healthy surfing type, he came to breathing having endured four bouts of pneumonia in four years.

He was surprised to find so little written about the subject: “If your breathing is dysfunctional, you can never, ever be healthy.” And so he became its guru? “I’m a mere filter for the scientists,” he says, laughing, “an objective observer.

If you want a respiratory messiah, go to [the icy-water swimmer] Wim Hof. I’m not offering myself up as breathing Jesus. I just became fascinated by how this seemingly mundane act that happens 25,000 times a day could affect every single function of the body.

”The scientists he provides a platform for argue that the nose is the first line of immune defence, designed with intricate structures that heat air, filter it, and help to remove dust, mould and bacteria and fight viruses. Nasal respiration also boosts nitric oxide, which is known to be similarly anti-pathogenic and influences not only immunity but weight, circulation, mood and sexual function. Inhaling through one’s conk yields higher oxygenation levels for the brain and better blood flow throughout the body, and proves essential for restorative sleep.

Mouth breathing is a considerably less efficient back-up option. It can change the pH in the oral cavities, making said mouth a breeding ground for bacteria, tooth decay, bad breath and a sore throat. It can also result in a decrease of vasodilation, or blood flow, which makes it harder for our cells to gain oxygen.

It is linked with sleep disorders, mental fog, anxiety, depression and hypertension, and can even affect the growth of our faces, making us more apt to develop an elongated, drooping, “dopey” face. Well might “mouth breather” be a euphemism for society’s most challenged.

They are. Or, rather, we are — Nestor estimates that about 20-50 per cent of the population habitually favours this technique, rising to more than 60 per cent at night.

Was there a moment when we started breathing badly? Skeletal investigations suggest that it can happen within a single generation. Over the centuries in which we transformed into an industrial society we chewed less, our faces and mouths shrank, our teeth became more crowded and thus crooked, and we devolved into the worst breathers the planet has witnessed.

Which takes us to Nestor becoming “Mouth-Tape Guy”, referring to the low-tech solution in which he assures me he has no financial interest. As he travelled the globe interviewing “pulmonauts” (doctors, dentists, biochemists, physiologists and anthropologists), Nestor noticed that many of them boasted a roll on their desks. “I’d say: ‘Wait, you don’t advocate that taping thing?’

And they’d go: ‘Uh-huh.’ It was like the breathing scientists’ dirty secret.”Are there dangers? “Well, if you’re drunk, it’s a bad idea.” I tell him this rules out the whole of Britain. “Young kids will be better off with Myotape, a plaster with a hole in it that brings the lips together rather than covering them. And don’t use strong adhesive: we’re not talking a bondage situation, unless that’s your thing. Practise for half an hour in the day answering emails or doing dishes.”

It may take six nights to stop pulling it off in your sleep, or six weeks for the nose to open up. “But you wouldn’t give exercise or healthy eating just one night to work.

”Too impatient for a slow build, I purchase some tape on Amazon for £6.95 and brace myself for nasal night number one. Nestor’s book explains that everyone develops their own taping technique, the author’s being a Charlie Chaplin — read Hitler — moustache shifted down an inch. My initial foray is more “hysterical heiress hostage”, until my brother points out on FaceTime that the reason I’m a tad panicked is that I’ve also blocked one nostril.

Once I’ve stopped suffocating myself, taping’s a cinch, and I wake a blissful ten hours later, piece still in situ. I feel, if not great — I have never felt great — then not actively awful; functional, kind of open, quite possibly even human. “Is this paleo breathing?” I ask Mouth-Tape Jesus. “I just call it breathing,” he replies. “The other stuff is terrible breathing.” I sit down to write this and reach for my roll.

I had assumed, before going to Stuart Sandeman’s “breathwork” session in east London a couple of years ago, that it would be pretty easy. I mean: how hard can it be, lying on your back for an hour, some trancey music on in the background, chatting to the handsome and personable Stuart while, well, while breathing? It looked perilously close to flaking out on the sofa on a Sunday afternoon.

A bit of a doss.Not at all. It’s called breathwork for a reason — while mastering Sandeman’s techniques should help you to relax in the long run, in the short term it requires some effort. You’d have thought it would be hard to be getting something so natural, so fundamental, so wrong. And yet, according to Sandeman and the growing number of advocates for relearning respiration, many of us breathe really badly, not inhaling as actively as we should or could, then panting out exhalations rather than expelling them in a relaxed fashion.

The key reset needed is to breathe using your diaphragm, the band of muscle below your chest and above your abdomen. Consciously pulling down the diaphragm to inhale draws more oxygen further into the lungs, utilising and strengthening your belly muscles as you do it. This optimal method is not really a method at all, it is how we naturally breathe as babies and toddlers. But, thanks to bad posture, sedentary jobs and restrictive clothing, we gradually abandon relaxed, slow diaphragmatic breathing as adults in favour of shorter, shallower gasps. Sandeman and his fellow breathwork practitioners are about getting us to shed these bad habits and retrain our bodies to oxygenate properly.

To begin with, it’s quite hard going.The benefits are considerable, though. Many frazzled executives in the City, a short walk from Sandeman’s flat, swear by breathwork as a means of controlling cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. Insomniacs know that very slow, relaxed breathing is often the gateway to a decent sleep. Athletes, elite and otherwise, know that breathing correctly is the basis for performance.

When athletes talk about being in the zone, which is essentially that Zen-like feeling of both hyper-relaxation and hyper-alertness simultaneously, a bit like when you know you’re driving a car just perfectly for the conditions, you can bet they’ve achieved that happy state by breathing correctly and fully.

As I say, it wasn’t easy. I’d be lying if I said I’d stuck conscientiously to Sandeman’s advice. I’d still probably rather do 100 crunches than spend the equivalent time engaged in superficially more leisurely breathwork, just because the crunches feel more active, even though the latter would also work my abs while having greater overall benefits.

Talking of Zen, at times in my session I could glimpse the possibility of using breathwork as a form of meditation. It can bring about a sense of calm and insight some of us struggle to achieve through more conventional means such as yoga. Except, of course, lying still and breathing deeply and slowly should be as conventional as it gets. It’s worth taking a moment to take a breath and give it a try.


*Not so much a new health craze, it’s been around since 1955.

Discover Today How Sniff. Sigh. Yawn. Can Help You and Your Team.

Why Does Daddy Breathe Funny?

This A-to-Z book includes a glossary of new words for children and short notes about better breathing for parents. Slow down, relax and read this book with your children to find out how you can all breathe better and improve your health.