What do you think of when you hear the term, "Airway Health"?
If you're like us, it may be something you haven't thought about for most of your life, but chances are, if it is not affecting you personally, airway health is affecting someone close to you.
While most often associated with sleep issues such as snoring or obstructive sleep apnea, poor airway health can be the culprit behind conditions such as chronic fatigue, excess weight gain, headaches, behavioral issues in children, just to name a few. You may be surprised to learn that many common medical conditions can be caused by airway disorders. More surprisingly, there are shockingly few practitioners who consider the airway when treating these conditions.
Let’s dig into what causes airway disorders, how they can affect us, and why they’ve been so overlooked by modern medicine.
What are airway disorders and why do we have them?
We’ve written in detail about how our evolving diet has led to airway disorders, but to simplify things, 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 we aren’t engaging our facial muscles as much as we used to, our mouths do not develop properly. 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.
An underdeveloped airway can cause issues in four areas. Hard structures such as your jaw, teeth, and skull, soft tissues (primarily muscles), muscle reaction, as in how your muscles respond to your airway closing), and oral 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.
Most of this development occurs before the age of 10-12 but continues into our 20s. Having proper 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 and fat which fill 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 response can lead to disordered breathing during sleep.
Upper airway exercises or myofunctional therapy can help improve muscle coordination, tone, and responsiveness. Here are some exercises that you can try at home.
The best way to help our airway muscles work properly is to put them into a position of strength. Proper oral 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 stance 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 through your nose.
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
Think of the hard structures, soft tissues, muscle reaction, and oral posture all as levers you can pull. The amount you can benefit from improving each one will depend on your particular 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 particular 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
- Breathe through your nose throughout the day keep your tongue on the roof of your mouth
- Make sure you’re swallowing correctly
- Remove or address sources of allergies and inflammation