Most of us don’t give much thought to how we breathe or where our tongue is. But these two things are more vital than you might realise.
I recently welcomed functional dentist and holistic health enthusiast, Dr Steven Lin, onto the Face Yoga Expert podcast. Dr Lin is an expert in all things jaw and teeth related. But he goes much further than the average dentist, looking at how our diet and daily habits affect our breathing and the development of our jaws.
He had some fascinating information to share about how we can improve our overall health through training ourselves into keeping good tongue posture and breathing through our noses.
If you prefer to listen along, you can catch up with the full episode here. But for the visual learners among you, I wanted to share some of the key insights from the podcast episode in this blog post.
Why Is Tongue Posture Important?
Around 80% of children now end up needing orthodontic braces because their adult teeth come through too large for their jaws. But it wasn’t always this way.
Archaeological evidence shows that our ancestors had wide, strong jaws and open airways. They also had good teeth alignment and little tooth decay.
Many factors affect the development of our jaw. But the underlying root cause appears to be diet. When we look back on the archaeological record, the change in jaw structure inevitably shows up in populations as they move away from an ancestral diet to a more modern diet.
We also stop growing younger than our ancestors did, which can lead to functional issues. We end up using our tongues and facial muscles incorrectly, and breathing through our mouths, especially when we sleep.
How we breathe is significant because it affects how our jaw is supported. When we breathe through our noses, our tongues are positioned up against the roof of our mouth. This supports our upper jaw in the correct position and ensures an efficient exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide.
But when we breathe through our mouths, our tongues rest in our lower jaw, and our upper jaw is unsupported. This can lead to it gradually collapsing inwards.
Breathing through our mouths is a particular issue when we sleep. While we might consciously remind ourselves to breathe through our noses during the day, many of us become mouth breathers at night.
If our tongue posture is incorrect when we sleep, our tongues can end up falling back into the oropharynx, which is the entrance to the airway in our throats. As a result, we won’t be getting as much air.
You’ll often notice a snoring sound if this is happening to you (or your partner). But it doesn’t only cause an annoying noise. It also results in poor quality sleep, which Dr Lin explains is strongly linked with many serious diseases, including heart disease, high blood pressure, dementia, and Alzheimer’s.
The solution is to retrain ourselves to breathe through our noses instead of our mouths. However, this is harder to do when we are asleep.
Good tongue posture can help. Because it isn’t possible to breathe through your mouth when your tongue is in the correct position at the top of your mouth, strengthening your tongue muscles to hold it in the right place encourages you to breathe through your nose, even when asleep.
There are other benefits to breathing through your nose too. You’ll naturally take slower, deeper breaths through your nose than you would through your mouth. A slower rate of breathing has been shown to activate our parasympathetic nervous system, including the vagus nerve, which assists our digestion.
What Is the Correct Tongue Position?
Most of us don’t hold our tongues in the correct position, so learning to keep it there requires some retraining of the muscles.
Running your finger over the roof of your mouth, you should feel a small, rough patch immediately behind your front teeth. This is where the tip of your tongue should rest.
Moving your finger further back, you’ll find your soft palate. Press gently here, making a note of where you feel the sensation. Then, concentrate on plastering your tongue to the roof of your mouth so that the back of it is pressed against your soft palate.
Improving Your Tongue Posture
There’s a key window when we are children where our jaws are developing, and we can make a huge difference to how the teeth come through. So, if you have children, starting them on good habits early will help reduce issues later in life.
But even adults will see some improvement when they prioritise good tongue posture. Here are some tips you can use to retrain your tongue to sit in the correct place.
1. Nasal Breathing
Getting in the habit of breathing through our noses when we are awake is one of the easiest places to start. Throughout the day, concentrate on taking deep, quiet breaths through your nose.
As well as helping you get used to breathing this way, it calms your brain and activates your parasympathetic nervous system, making you feel less stressed.
Deep nasal breathing is a technique I use in all my face yoga sequences. It is also a core aspect of traditional yoga. If these are already a part of your wellness practice, it should be simple to incorporate into your daily routine.
This technique helps to strengthen our tongue muscles, making it easier to keep it in the correct position when we are asleep.
It is simple to do, and even very young children can learn by copying you. Dr Lin already does this with his 18-month-old.
Place the tip of your tongue on that spot behind your front teeth and the back on your soft palate. Use your fingers to help you find the right places. Getting the back of the tongue in the correct position is the challenge, but it gets easier with practice.
Suck your tongue firmly up against the roof of your mouth and then pull it down. You should hear an audible click. If it sounds wet, it is a sign that you aren’t getting it suctioned firmly against the top of your mouth.
You can also try doing this while looking in a mirror to make sure your tongue is symmetrical during the movement.
Start doing this twice a day, perhaps in the morning and evening. It will feel tiring at first. But it gets easier as you work the muscles. It can also be good for stress, so is a useful technique to help you relax during a tense day.
Once you are comfortable with the clicking technique, you can start concentrating on holding your tongue in the correct position whenever you aren’t eating or talking.
This includes when you swallow. The tip of your tongue finds the spot behind your teeth and then moves like a wave against the roof of your mouth to hit the soft palate at the back.
You should hear an audible sound whenever you swallow, resetting and sealing the oropharynx.
When you get this right, you will feel a lift in the bones of your skull. It activates the deep cranial nerves, including the glossopharyngeal and vagus nerves, which kickstart your digestive system.
Learning to keep your tongue in the right place and breath through your nose takes time. While you are retraining your body, a simple way to ensure your breath through your nose at night is to tape your mouth shut.
This won’t be appropriate for everyone. If you can tolerate it, a single strip of tape vertically over your lips will keep them closed as you sleep, forcing you to breathe through your nose. The 3m micropore tape sold at pharmacies and chemists works well. I haven’t yet tried this but Dr Lin recommends I do so I will give it a try!
You should find you wake up much more refreshed. However, if you can’t tolerate the tape, it may be that other issues need to be addressed first, such as a blocked nose, tongue issues, or a narrow jaw.
I mentioned earlier that diet seems to be the underlying cause of changes in our jaw structures. Dr Lin emphasised that food is essential in giving our bones the materials they need to develop properly.
Fat-soluble vitamins D, A, and K help to support bone health and ensure we develop healthy teeth. These are found in animal foods such as fatty cuts of meat, eggs, and dairy from grass-fed cows.
Many of us have been taught to avoid these foods, but they were part of our ancestral diets for thousands of years. Dr Lin believes that the move away from a diet rich in animal foods underlies changes to our jaw structures.
I’m sure that you’ll never think of your tongue and breathing in quite the same way, now you’ve read Dr Lin’s advice. Hopefully, these tips will give you a starting point to improve your tongue posture.
And I’m also thrilled to announce that I’ve added a new teacher training course to my existing offer. Now you can train to become an accredited Facial Gua Sha Teacher, as well as a Face Yoga Teacher. To find out more and join a course, please visit my teacher training page.