I woke up at 2 a.m. on Sunday morning with a start. I’d forgotten to tape my mouth shut. I stumbled out of bed and dug around in my backpack for the Duane Reade bag that contained the medical tape I’d bought the day before. In my half-asleep stupor, I ripped off a piece that was far too long. I put it on my face and felt like the Joker. Worried the adhesive in the tape might cause me to break out, I tore it off (painful) and pulled off a smaller replacement (too small). Very Goldilocks. When I finally got it right, I placed it over my mouth carefully, snuggled back into bed and closed my eyes.
This whole thing — my mouth taping — started with a text message a few weeks ago. It came from my brother: “Have you heard of mouth taping?”
“What the hell is mouth taping?”
“Google it. Mom told me about it. I think she caught onto a health fad before we did.”
A quick search brought up this top hit: “How to Mouth Tape For Better Sleep,” from a site called Ask a Dentist. It explained that taping my mouth shut at night might change my life. What? “If you’re breathing through your mouth while you sleep at night, it’s a big deal,” the piece read. “In this post, I’ll cover why mouth taping is an amazing sleep hack and how to get started with mouth taping if it’s your first time.”
The author was Dr. Mark Burhenne, a dentist who’s been practicing for over 30 years with a very pointed mission: “To empower people to understand how your mouth is a window into the health of the rest of your body.” He explains that our mouths are for eating and our noses are for breathing — but somewhere along the way, people stopped caring about that distinction. “Mouth breathing elevates blood pressure and heart rate, worsens asthma, allergies, and deprives the heart, brain and other organs of optimal oxygenation.”
Optimal oxygenation! Are you breathing through you mouth right now? (*Shuts mouth.*)
Dr. Burhenne believes nasal breathing is an overlooked secret to better health. “Nasal breathing is important because of nitric oxide, which your body produces in the sinuses. When you nose breathe, you get the benefits of nitric oxide, which are extraordinary. The body produces 25% of its nitric oxide from nose breathing.” He cites better sleep, cavity prevention, improved memory, physical pain recovery, weight loss, anxiety and depression reduction, stronger immunity and better concentration among the benefits of more nitric oxide in the body. In other words, breathing through your nose might improve nearly ever aspect of your health.
A couple weeks ago, my brother showed up to a party with a roll of medical tape in his pocket. “I’m trying it tonight,” he said in a hushed voice, as if he were planning to drop a tab of acid instead of tape his mouth shut and go to sleep alone. He said he couldn’t resist trying; the potential upsides were too good. The next morning, he texted me a selfie that still haunts me: his lips wrinkled beneath a piece of tape.
After doing some of my own research and discovering that Dr. Burhenne, the man behind Ask a Dentist, was from Sunnyvale, California, a neighboring city to my hometown, I put some pieces together and realized he was…how do I put this…MY MOTHER’S DENTIST.
This made me skeptical, to say the least. Had my mom stumbled upon the beginnings of a niche trend or just taken a wack-a-doodle idea from her dentist at face value? My skepticism deepened when I reached out to (more than) several sleep doctors and dentists and none would talk to me about mouth taping or the nose-breathing claim. All had either never heard of the former or didn’t know enough about the latter to feel comfortable to comment.
Then finally, this morning, one answered. A dentist, who asked to remain anonymous. “General reaction? Puzzled,” they wrote me, when I asked what they thought of mouth taping. But they didn’t totally bash it: “As an oral health professional, I’m not quite sure of the systemic effects of mouth vs. nose breathing, but I can comment on the oral health effects. Mouth breathing has been associated with several negative oral health effects including dry mouth. Saliva decreases during the night, which is exacerbated by mouth breathing, causing dry mouth. The dryer your mouth is, the more cavity-prone your teeth are.” (This study on Medical News Today, “Breathing through mouth during sleep may increase tooth decay risk,” also nods at the cavity prevention claim.)
The dentist went on to say theoretically, then, mouth taping would make sense, but warns: “Before taping your mouth shut while you sleep, patients should consult their sleep physician or Ear-Nose-Throat physician to make sure their body can handle the potential for decreased oxygen throughout the night.”
As for those systemic effects, Dr. Burhenne’s claim that nasal breathing is excellent for your overall health seems quite popular among alternative health enthusiasts. Hundreds of articles touting the benefits of nasal breathing over mouth breathing are a Google away. Take this one, this one, this one, this one or this one.
A little more digging revealed that mouth taping was invented by “Russian patients” in the 1960s (this is not explained) and was a solution borne out of something called the Buteyko method, “a form of complementary or alternative physical therapy that proposes the use of breathing exercises primarily as a treatment for asthma and other respiratory conditions.” The method was created by a Ukrainian doctor in the 1950s and is “not widely supported in the medical community due to a lack of evidence,” but an emphasis on nasal breathing was part of it, as it “protects the airways by humidifying, warming and cleaning the air entering the lungs.”
All that is to say: The mainstream support for Dr. Burhenne’s sweeping claims about nose breathing is lacking, unfortunately. Still, I was willing to give it a try.
When I checked in on my brother, he told me he kept it up for five nights, stopping once he confirmed that a) he was “a total nose-breather and didn’t need it,” and b) the sticky residue the tape left on his cheeks was a “deal breaker.”
My mom, who’s been doing it for a month, has had a different experience. “I’ve become a quieter sleeper,” she says, of reduced snoring — one of the most easily provable benefits of mouth taping. “I’ll be looking for a different tape that doesn’t leave sticky stuff around my mouth though — a real no-go,” she wrote me. (Lol.) She hasn’t noticed a change in her sleep quality or general quality of life, but intends to stick with it. She said it’s made her more mindful of her breath in general. “I’ve noticed how, even with all my Pilates focus on breath, I frequently only breathe through my mouth.” (She’s a Pilates instructor.)
I agree. Since reading the article, I’ve been more cognizant of how I breathe. It’s through my mouth more than I would’ve guessed (especially my deep breaths), maybe because I’m one of those people who’s consistently 20% congested (call me). Suffice it to say, the thought of taping my mouth shut at night made me a little panicky. I put it off for weeks. The use of medical tape is by design as it’s easy to rip off in your sleep, but a part of me still thought I might suffocate. Cut to 2 a.m. on Sunday: mouth taped, eyes closed.
I was surprised to discover it didn’t feel so bad. I fell asleep fairly easily while breathing deeply through my nose. The couple times I woke up, everything felt normal, breathing-wise. The only difference was my mouth was taped. Around 7 a.m. though, I had to cough. Since coughing with your mouth closed is schoolyard-proven to make your eyeballs pop out, I removed the tape. I tried mouth taping one more time and got through the whole night, but when I removed it in the morning, I relegated the tape to my junk drawer and never looked back.
It’s not that I think it’s hogwash, necessarily, it’s just that I think I’m already a nose-breather at night, like my brother, and the increased breath awareness has been enough for me. Taping my mouth at night just makes me feel…how do I put this…like I’ve lost my marbles. Would you try mouth taping? Have you heard of it?
Most importantly: Are you a mouth breather? (I’ve been waiting so long to ask that.)
Photo by Edith Young.