My father had an impeccable sense of direction. Though he clearly used the location of the sun or stars and the time of day in his ability to find any geographical location with apparent ease, as kids we were always impressed with his seemingly mysterious and uncanny ability. Sometimes, coming home from a long road trip, he would let each of us kids (there were three of us) tell him which way to turn. Of course we always tried to get us lost and have my father lose his way. But somehow, we always ended up turning down our street and making it home just as quickly as had we gone the normal route. When we would praise him for this skill, he would lightly tap the side of his nose and say, “The nose knows.” It helped that he had quite a prominent nose. We always believed that its size was one reason why he had such ample capacity.
The nose indeed is an amazing structure. We are only aware of it when we have a cold and it is stuffed and runny. Otherwise we don’t pay too much attention to it, but we should. In fact, becoming aware of our breath allows the nose to do its work most efficiently which includes boosting our immune system and supporting cardiovascular health, among other important health benefits.
Of all of our organ systems, the only one we can consciously and literally control is our respiratory system, the first organ of which is the nose. We can’t physically control our heart or our brain or our stomach, gall bladder, pancreas, or colon. But we can consciously control our breathing, which affects all these organs. These organ systems are connected by the Vagus nerve, which wraps around all these organs, and when stimulated, pushes us into the parasympathetic or relaxed state. Vagus means “wandering” because this nerve, the longest cranial nerve in our body, literally starts at the brain, wrapping around each of the organs in the trunk. This means that by controlling our breathing, we stimulate the Vagus nerve, which stimulates the various organs to relax. We can literally move ourselves from the sympathetic nervous system, fight or flight, into a more relaxed state, addressing issues of stress and anxiety, insomnia, inflammation, just by controlling our breath.
Nose breathing, as opposed to breathing through one’s mouth, is the healthiest way to breathe. Nose breathing promotes: warm, moist, filtered air to enter our lungs; the inhalation of nitric oxide (a vasodilator and anti-viral agent); stimulation of the Vagus nerve through slower breathing, which supports relaxation, calm, lower blood pressure, ease of digestion; efficient movement of the diaphragm; sense of smell. It is estimated that at least 50% of Americans do not breathe through their nose, breathing through their mouth instead. Mouth breathing can contribute to a wide variety of symptoms and pathologies including TMJ, impaired immune response due to less nitric oxide inhaled (see paragraph below), inefficient upper chest breathing, dry mouth, higher stress and anxiety levels.
Nitric oxide is something that we all should know more about. There are enzymes in the nose as well as in the sinus cavities which produce nitric oxide. When we nose breathe we are able to produce more and inhale the greatest portion of this gas. In recent studies nitric oxide has been connected to anti-clotting benefits and the prevention of obstructions in the arteries. Because it is a vasodilator, blood flow to organs is increased and blood pressure is lowered. Nitric oxide destroys viruses and parasites, regulates the bladder and the secretion of digestive hormones and enzymes. It improves the absorption of oxygen in the lungs. There was a 2002 study that demonstrated that humming actually stimulates the production of nitric oxide. For thousands of years, yogis and spiritual seekers who have used chanting (like OMMMM, for example), along with a variety of controlled breathing techniques, were/ are literally increasing their intake of nitric oxide.
I can’t say I have an impeccable sense of direction. I rely on GPS now and no longer use my instincts, the sun, and stars as my father taught me. But I do have a greater awareness of my nose and nose breathing. I know the many health benefits that nose breathing can have. My father was right. The nose knows, especially if accompanied with a little humming.