breathing for mental wellness

The surprising link between airway obstruction, sleep, and mental illness — and what you can do about it

There’s a vital yet often underappreciated connection between the way you breathe, the quality of your sleep, and your mental health. If you suffer from bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, or depression, it is very likely that you also experience disordered breathing and sleep problems.

Breath, sleep, and mental health are more intertwined than most people think.

Removing the stigma around mental illness

Why is there still so much judgment around mental illness? No one seems to judge you for physical health issues such as catching a cold or getting diagnosed with cancer, yet if you live with bipolar disorder, depression, or schizophrenia there’s an unspoken layer of silence that seems to hover around these and other mental health conditions.

Thankfully, there is a growing movement to bring mental illness into the light where it can be discussed without blame or shame. This is vital because it is often stigma and embarrassment that keep people from getting the help they need. The more we remove the stigma around mental illness, the more people will feel comfortable getting treatment and support.

How common is mental illness?

About one out of every four adults has a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Many of the following mental health issues appear to be on the rise, especially among millennials:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • bipolar disorder
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)

Medication for mental illness

When it comes to anxiety treatment, and mental illness in general, conventional Western medicine is more likely to prescribe medication to manage symptoms rather than seeking out and addressing the root causes. Pharmaceutical interventions have helped many people with mental illness, but not everyone sees the same results. There’s also the risk of a lifetime of pharmaceutical dependence and the unwanted side effects that often come with it. This is why breath and sleep are so important to consider if you are looking to resolve your mental health issues.

Quality of breath = quality of life

The roles of breath and sleep in mental health are too often ignored in mainstream mental health treatment. Thankfully, this is starting to change.

James Nestor's groundbreaking book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art explores how we can harness knowledge from ancient breathing techniques to radically improve our physical and mental health. Science is proving what ancient cultures have told us for millennia — the quality of your breath directly affects the quality of your life.

Could poor breathing patterns be a cause of mental illness?

Most people know that disordered breathing can be a symptom of mental health issues such as anxiety or schizophrenia. If you’ve ever experienced a panic attack, you know that it often entails quick and shallow breathing and is often accompanied by a feeling of “not being able to catch your breath.”

It is clear that too much shallow, quick breathing affects your psychological state. Few people realize that poor breathing patterns can actually contribute to mental health issues like anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia over time.

Chronic stress

Clearly, stress affects emotion, mood, and physical health. Chronic stress has been linked to anxiety and depression, as well as irritability and difficulty concentrating. Researchers are investigating how long-term stress can change the biochemical and physical structures of the brain. Breath is at the center of all of this.



Modern-day work

We live in a modern world of technological distractions and processed foods. Anthropologists have amassed evidence that, despite their shorter lifespans, our ancestors didn’t experience the rates of chronic disease and work-related stress that we do today. Modern humans in industrialized nations spend much more time stressed and working than our ancient ancestors. This has a profound effect on our mental well-being.

The rise of email apnea

As more and more people spend their days at desks in front of screens, a troubling new issue known as email apnea is gaining attention. Unlike sleep apnea, which is when your breathing is temporarily obstructed during sleep, email apnea is what happens you spend your day in a perpetual state of distraction. As you flit from email to email and task to task, you unconsciously hold your breath. Just like sleep apnea, email apnea is detrimental to your mental and physical health. Whether it happens in the day or at night, apnea is linked to serious problems such as heart disease and memory loss.

“Fight or flight” vs. “rest and digest”

A healthy human lives primarily in the parasympathetic state known as “rest and digest,” and occasionally moves into the sympathetic state known as “fight or flight” when faced with a serious threat or danger.

Parasympathetic “rest & digest”

Sympathetic “fight or flight”

Slower, more regular breathing. Shorter, quicker, shallower breathing.
Relaxation and calm. Alert awareness, arousal and stress.


If you spend too much of your time in a state of stress (as most modern humans do), it means that your sympathetic “fight or flight” state becomes your daily norm. This limits your ability to go back into the restorative parasympathetic state necessary for essential functions such as digestion and healing. Too much “fight or flight” decreases the quality of your sleep and can lead to serious mental health issues.

The impact of chronic stress

Chronic stress has been linked to anxiety, eating disorders, diabetes, and heart problems. Too much time in the sympathetic state can also negatively affect your immune system, putting you at risk of increased infection. This means that if your daily life is full of stress, you are at a higher risk of disease. You’re more likely to get sick more often, and when you do get sick it can take you longer to recover.

How to de-stress your life

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to increase your time in “rest and digest” mode. You can start by becoming conscious of your breath. In moments of stress, it is especially beneficial to focus on a long exhale. Healthier, slower breathing patterns can bring you back to the parasympathetic state. Incorporating exercise, taking time for self-care, and giving yourself healthy opportunities to unwind with hobbies like gardening, music, or yoga also reduce stress.

In addition to helping reduce stress, slow, conscious breathing before eating has been shown to improve digestion. Chewing and breathing slowly and mindfully allows you to better process nutrients such as minerals and vitamins, supporting your immune system and your overall health.



Sleep and mental health: a two-way street

In the past, sleep disorders such as insomnia were viewed as a symptom or a consequence of mental illness. Today, the connection between sleep and mental health is considered to be bidirectional. In other words, sleep affects mental health and mental health affects sleep. The relationship between the two is more complex than previously thought.

Sleep influences mood, memory, learning, and emotional resilience. Although there is still much to be learned about what happens during sleep, we all know that a good night's rest gives us more energy, well-being, and mental alertness. Conversely, not getting enough sleep, having poor quality sleep, or waking up frequently will often lead to low energy, a negative mood, and difficulty concentrating, staying awake, or learning. Over time, getting too much or too little sleep can be a risk factor for mental illness and even suicidal ideas or behaviors.

Poor sleep can contribute to mental health issues. Mental health issues make it harder to sleep. Sleep disorders like insomnia can be a cause, a symptom, and a consequence of mental health disorders. 

What is healthy breathing?

Your mental and physical well-being depends upon healthy breathing through an open airway. Your airway consists of a complex network of tubes that bring fresh air into your lungs and expel waste air.

The importance of nasal breathing

The safest and most efficient way to accomplish this vital task is called nasal breathing. This is when you inhale and exhale almost exclusively through your nose with your lips closed and your tongue pressed against the palate (the roof of your mouth).

Quantity and quality of breath

The quantity and quality of air you are able to take in has a lot to do with the physical state of your airway. In a healthy airway, the muscles of the tongue, throat and nose are toned and “in shape.” If all is well, they keep the airway open and functional 24 hours a day. This allows the breath to flow in and out unobstructed through the nose. The cells and organs of the body are able to function or grow. In sleep, the muscles of the airway relax and the airway remains open so that the body can rest and recover during sleep.


Factors that lead to airway obstruction

There are many things that can obstruct your airway, blocking the amount of air getting into your body. An obstructed airway can be caused by many issues such as a physical blockage or inflammation. Here are some of the most common:

  • The modern industrial diet, which is the norm in much of the world, consists of mushy processed foods. These soft foods require minimal chewing. This leads to weak oro-facial muscles and underdeveloped jaws. With a mouth or jaw that is too small for the face, crowded teeth, alignment problems, and poor posture often follow. All of these issues can contribute to airway obstruction.

  • Excess weight in the form of fat or even muscle, especially around the neck, can impair the airway and hamper breathing. That is why people who have issues with obesity and being overweight are at higher risk of chronic airway and sleep issues such as sleep apnea and obstructive sleep apnea.

  • Untreated oral restrictions such as tongue tie, lip tie, and buccal tie can obstruct your airway by reducing the tongue’s mobility and tone, making it more likely to fall back into the mouth during sleep.

  • Nasal obstructions such as a deviated septum or collapsed nasal passages also cause breathing problems by reducing the amount of air that can enter the nose.

  • Inflammation caused by asthma, allergies and other respiratory conditions.

These are only a few of many factors that contribute to airway obstructions. The bottom line is that there are many, often overlapping factors that contribute to airway obstruction and disordered breathing patterns.

What is disordered breathing?

There are many types of breathing problems. They are so tightly interwoven with our body’s systems that it can be hard to draw the line between a symptom and a cause.

A vicious cycle

For example, asthma is a condition in which the airway becomes swollen, narrow and tight. Asthma often arises from allergies, causing chest constriction, coughing, and labored breathing. This difficult breathing can increase mouth breathing, which further irritates and exposes the airway to allergens and contaminants. It all intertwines in a vicious cycle that often worsens over the years if it is not addressed.

The link between mental health and sleep

People who live with mental problems are likely to also have insomnia, restless sleep, interrupted sleep and other sleep disorders. Until fairly recently, these sleep issues were seen as a symptom of psychiatric disorders.

Today, more and more health professionals and researchers are paying attention to airway and sleep and their contribution to psychiatric disorders. Sleep disorders can be a result of mental illness. At the same time, disordered sleep may increase the risk for developing mental illness.

What are the effects of disordered breathing on mental health?

Breathing problems have been linked to a laundry list of physical ailments from dental cavities to hypertension, but they are just as detrimental to sleep and mental health. Disordered breathing in and of itself is tied to your emotional state and mental health because:

  • Sleep disorders are both a symptom of and a risk factor for mental illness.
  • The way you breathe affects the way you sleep.
  • The way you sleep affects your mental health.

What does airway obstruction have to do with sleep and mental health?

Healthy sleep patterns and restful sleep contribute to emotional and mental well-being and resilience because:

  • Airway issues like obstructive sleep apnea prevent you from getting a good night’s rest.
  • Chronic sleep deprivation contributes to poor emotional well-being, fatigue, and irritability.
  • Sleep disorders can increase your risk of developing depression.

Common sleep issues include:

  • insomnia is when you have difficulty falling or staying asleep
  • restless sleep and movement syndromes means you experience unpleasant sensations that lead to night fidgeting
  • narcolepsy is when you fall asleep suddenly and experience sleepiness during the day




How does disordered breathing affect sleep?

In order to get a good night’s rest, you need to be able to breathe consistently, adequately and continuously.

  • Sleep-disordered breathing is when a patient’s sleep pattern is interrupted night after night due to abnormal respiratory patterns.
  • Apnea is when an airway is completely obstructed for several seconds, leading to a stoppage of breathing for 10 seconds or more.
  • Hypopnea, which is less severe than apnea, is when a partial obstruction of the airway makes breath more shallow and reduces the flow of oxygen to the lungs.

Snoring can be serious

As common as it is, snoring is a sign of an airway obstruction. Although it is most common in adults, even babies and children with airway obstructions snore. For infants, this is often due to conditions present at birth, such as tongue tie or another oral restriction. Far from being cute, chronic snoring in babies and children (beyond congestion from a common cold) is a serious red flag that requires attention from a trusted healthcare professional.


The future of breathing

Scientific evidence continues to support and explore the uncanny connections between breath, sleep and mental health. At the same time, everyday people are discovering ancient breathing practices, modern-day “hacks,” and lung-expanding exercises improve their mental health. Breath and restorative breathing practices are a critical missing piece in the treatment and prevention of sleep disorders and mental health issues.

No longer reserved for yoguis and mystics, breath is moving towards the mainstream. Airway health is poised to take its rightful place in medicine. This will only continue as more people like you advocate for an integrative approach to breath, sleep and mental wellness.





Finding help & treatment for airway disorders

The team at health:latch can help diagnose and determine the best treatment plan for overcoming airway health issues.

Most people with a sleep disorder such as sleep apnea are put on a CPAP machine or medicated with pharmaceuticals to manage symptoms. However, this type of approach fails to address the root cause. If you are looking to get to the bottom of your airway issue, the first step is to surround yourself with trusted healthcare professionals who understand airway health, breathing and sleep disorders.

To set yourself up for success, you want a team that communicates with each other across disciplines for a holistic health approach. A custom, multi-disciplinary approach to address accompanying issues like oral restrictions, speech & language issues, and airway health & sleep will help your family have the best possible outcome.

Learn more about the health:latch clinic and how we can help with your family's specific needs here.


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