By Anders Olmanson & Gunnar Hodnefield
What are airway disorders and why do we have them?
To keep things simple, modern humans are eating softer foods than our ancestors (even just since the industrial revolution) that do not require us to chew as much. Because our jaws aren’t engaging properly, our facial muscles don’t get the workout they need – if jaws aren’t chewing, facial muscles won’t work like they should. Take wisdom teeth, for example – many people need to have them removed because their teeth are too crowded - something that almost never happened even 150 years ago. Allergies, obesity, improper swallowing, breathing patterns, and restricted tongue function can make these conditions even worse. Airway issues can present in four main areas. Hard structures such as your jaw, teeth, and skull, soft tissues (primarily muscles), muscle function, as in how your muscles respond to your airway closing, and tongue posture, the positioning of your tongue and mouth. Let’s take a closer look.
The hard structures are essentially the housing of the mouth and throat. When we were young, these hard structures developed based on the pressure created by our tongue and jaw while chewing foods and resting, as well as counteracting pressure from our cheeks and lips.
By the age of 6, a child’s orofacial development is 60% complete – that number is 90% by age 12. Because of this, early intervention is critical in ensuring this development happens properly. Having good tongue posture, nasal breathing, correct swallowing technique, and muscle strength will have a greater (positive) effect the younger you are. That said, improvement can still happen when you are an adult, it just takes a little longer.
Let’s look at a common condition in children, tongue-tie (ankyloglossia). This condition inhibits the tongue’s range of motion and makes it extremely difficult, or even impossible, to keep the tongue on the roof of the mouth where it’s supposed it be. Because the tongue doesn’t press outward on the palate, the mouth may not expand the way it should – potentially leading to teeth crowding, speech difficulties, and even obstructive sleep apnea. Learn more about tongue ties here – you'd be surprised how common they can be in children.
The soft tissues are the muscles, fat, and fascia which house the space inside the hard structure of the mouth. When we gain weight, we can also gain added soft and fatty tissue in our tongue, soft palate, and throat. Inflammation of these soft tissues due to allergies or enlargement of the tonsils and adenoids can also take up room in the airway. The more tissue there is, the less room we have in our airway for breathing.
For most people, losing weight and exercising can greatly improve airway health. You can also specifically exercise the soft tissues in your mouth and throat to tone and strengthen muscle. It’s important to figure out what is causing inflammation in your mouth and throat to be able to address it.
Every time you take a breath in, your airway muscles work hard to prevent your airway from collapsing due to the negative pressure that is created. Try taking a big breath with your mouth open in front of a mirror. You will see your tongue move to counteract this pressure. Ever wonder why people snore at night but not during the day? Our mouth and throat muscles are relaxed while we sleep – meaning it is easier for the airway to collapse. Poor airway muscle function can lead to disordered breathing during sleep.
Upper airway exercises or myofunctional therapy can help improve muscle coordination, tone, and responsiveness.
The best way to help our airway muscles work properly is to put them into a position of strength. Proper tongue posture is crucial in keeping your airway healthy. Have you ever played sports or done an activity where good form or position matters? Being in a strong position makes it easier to perform the same tasks with less energy.
By consciously keeping your tongue and mouth in the proper position during the day, you’ll better train your muscles to keep your airway open at night and make it less likely your tongue will fall back creating obstruction.
What is the proper posture? Your mouth should be lightly closed with the front and back of the tongue lightly suctioned to the roof of our mouth. You should be breathing both in and out through your nose. Did you know that breathing through your mouth can also dehydrate you 42% faster?
How can you improve your airway health?
You have an idea what causes airway issues and their negative consequences, but now what? How do you improve your airway health so you can live your best life? For us, we want to improve our airway health so we can get the best sleep, have more energy during the day, and not disturb our loved ones at night.
The hard structures, soft tissues, muscle function, and oral posture are all levers you can pull to help improve your airway health. The amount you can benefit from improving each one will depend on your condition and which factors are causing your airway to be small, vibrate (snore), and/or collapse (obstructive sleep apnea). To figure out what is best for your condition, we strongly recommend working with a health care professional who is trained in airway health.
Here are some basic things you can try right now to improve your airway health:
- Exercise and lose weight
- Eat foods that are less processed and require more chewing
- Exercise your upper airway/myofunctional therapy
- Consciously breathe in and out through your nose throughout the day
- Establish proper tongue posture
- Make sure you’re swallowing correctly
- Remove or address sources of allergies and inflammation