What Is “Email Apnea” and How It Is Slowly Killing Us
A couple months ago, I went to the dentist for a regular check-up. As he started examining my mouth, the 5'4 lean, with perfectly combed black hair, built-like-a-toy-soldier dentist asked me:
-Do you smoke?
I was both worried and offended by the question. I find tobacco repulsive. The mere sight of a cigarette almost makes me want to throw up, and I have obviously never tried one. I made it clear that I didn’t, and as politely as I could, asked why he was asking me that.
Ignoring me, his questioning went on:
-Do you breathe through your mouth regularly?
Now, I was getting uncomfortable. That’s none of your business. Why does that matter? First of all, I don’t know, because I don’t pay attention to my breathing, I just do it. Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work? And aren’t we supposed to use our mouths to breathe, just like our noses? Maybe, sometimes, I do. Maybe not. When I’m tired and need air urgently, I guess?
I was shocked, scared, and apparently blind to my own self-destructive habits:
-Ummm, I don’t know?
His response was as blunt as it was life-changing:
-You probably do without realizing it, most likely in your sleep. Your mouth is healthy but you need to stop doing that because, if you keep going, it will end up changing your teeth’s disposition and weakening your gums.
And now, before you keep reading, please pause and pay attention to your breathing.
When was the last time you breathed consciously, with a sense of control over the most essential action we humans perform about 25,000 times a day, just to survive?
That is what I asked myself as I left the dentist’s office with a mix of surprise that I hadn’t known about the terrible effects of mouthbreathing, and worry about how bad my mouth could get if I continued down the same path.
Concerned about my health, and sparked by my journalistic spirit, I started doing research on breathing and stumbled upon James Nestor’s Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art, a book that highlights the importance of breathing as well as just how bad we have become at utilizing this theoretically simple mechanism. The intention behind the book’s title is exactly to remind us that we have completely lost control over the art of breathing. Nestor even calls humans “the worst breathers in the Animal Kingdom”.
“As a species, humans have lost the ability to breathe correctly, with grave consequences.” — James Nestor
If you think you are still breathing right and that these are exaggerations, numbers are not on your side. Nestor points out that “90 percent of us — very likely me, you, and almost everyone you know — is breathing incorrectly (…) This failure is either causing or aggravating a laundry list of chronic diseases.”
Among the reasons for this loss of human ability to breathe efficiently and healthily are progressively larger brains and smaller jaws than our ancestors’ due to an increase in food processing and softening; sedentary lifestyles; and the endless distractions around us that prevent us from focusing on breathing.
This is where“email apnea” comes in. It is a particularly worrisome process that occurs when we are distracted (which unfortunately is most of the time) and thus incapable of automatically regulating our breath to be efficient. Email apnea, associated with mindlessly browsing through screens and clicking buttons almost randomly, involves scattered attention not just in general, but also relating to breathing, often making us default to shallow mouthbreathing and in shorter “bursts” than we should.
As explained by Nestor:
“Up to 80 percent of office workers (according to one estimate) suffer from something called continuous partial attention. We’ll scan our email, write something down, check Twitter, and do it all over again, never really focusing on any specific task.
In this state of perpetual distraction, breathing becomes shallow and erratic. Sometimes we won’t breathe at all for half a minute or longer. The problem is serious enough that the National Institutes of Health has enlisted several researchers, including Dr. David Anderson and Dr. Margaret Chesney, to study its effects over the past decades. Chesney told me that the habit, also known as ‘email apnea,’ can contribute to the same maladies as sleep apnea.”
And what exactly are those maladies?
The Mayo Clinic lists daytime fatigue, high blood pressure or heart problems, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, complications with medications and surgery, liver problems, and sleep-deprived partners as potential complications of sleep apnea.
Yes, breathing the wrong way is no joke.
Mouthbreathing: our worst enemy
In case you are wondering how bad mouthbreathing can possibly be, Healthline outlines just some of the disastrous consequences that this practice can lead to in the long run:
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Periodontal disease
- Throat and ear infections
To walk the walk, Nestor himself participated in an experiment in which, for 10 days, they purposely clogged his nostrils with plugs so he could only breathe through the mouth, measuring all sorts of variables during these 10 days to assess the effects of mouthbreathing on his health. . The consequences were unimaginable, and while I won’t spoil the whole book because I highly recommend you read it entirely, I’ll just give you a sneak peek: Nestor recounts that the first night of the experiment “my snoring increased by 1,300 percent, to 75 minutes through the night.”
According to mouth health specialist Dr. Mark Burhenne, interviewed by Nestor for the book, “mouthbreathing is the number one cause of cavities, even more damaging than sugar consumption, bad diet, or poor hygiene.”
Fortunately, even if you have been breathing wrongly and/or through your mouth for your whole life, there is still time to fix it and enjoy all the benefits that come with productive, restorative breathing.
How to reset your breathing for better health
Nestor’s book draws from diverse sources and experiments to expand on the tremendous powers that breathing has in the human body and mind. While some of the examples explained in the book can be a bit extreme and require almost a professional dedication to breathing, there are three golden rules of breathing that are relatively easy to follow, and that will likely improve your well-being in a significant way.
Avoid mouthbreathing at all costs
In case that wasn’t clear before. Mouthbreathing is most frequent either when the nose is congested, when we are not paying attention to our breathing (does email apnea sound familiar?), and while sleeping. To avoid mouthbreathing during sleep, Nestor suggests covering the mouth with tape, more specifically with 3M Nexcare Durapore “durable cloth” tape, which he is particularly fond of. As overwhelming and oppressive you might think the feeling of having your mouth covered with tape is, it is all about getting used to it, just like any other change in life.
But also keep in mind mouth-taping might not be for everyone. If you are thinking about trying it, make sure you ask qualified medical personnel to assess your particular case before making any decisions or significant changes.
That’s the optimal time to aim for both when inhaling and exhaling. That is, a complete breath cycle should last close to 11 seconds. This usually sounds like a ridiculously long amount of time, which is indicative of how shallow and erratic our breathing has become. Our fast-paced lifestyle, the distractions around us, and other stress-inducing factors lead us to breathe way many more times than we should, and in shorter timeframes too.
Pay more attention to your breathing
The key takeaway is that we should be more mindful and take better care of our breathing, no matter how automatic this process might be. Realistically, it is impossible to pay attention to every single breath, but making a change could start with just taking breaks every 45–60 minutes from sitting down, standing up, and performing 10 optimal, 5.5 second-long inhales and exhales, or deliberately closing our mouths every time this thought crosses our mind.
Our mind-body connection is excellent at getting used to new habits, so promoting healthy breathing is just a matter of introducing small changes that will progressively and automatically kick in the more we practice them. As Nestor puts it, “mouthbreathing begets more mouthbreathing, and nosebreathing begets more nosebreathing”.
Breathing, when practiced and performed the right way, can have remarkable healing and improvement effects. It is a matter of reconnecting with our sensations, with our “wild side” that still knows how to breathe; of appreciating the sheer pleasure of breathing; and in general, to just calm and slow down to nurture our bodies with the right amount of air.