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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
The hard structures, soft tissues, muscle reaction, and oral posture are all levers you can pull to help. 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.