Why Chewing is Key to Better Breathing and Health

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Few of us parents realize how important jaw development is for children’s breathing and overall health—and the key role chewing plays. It wasn’t always a problem, but human jaws have gotten smaller as our bodies have evolved and the food we eat became softer. The change has caused a number of health issues, particularly with breathing. There is good news too: there are steps we can take to help.

Why are human jaws getting smaller? Several factors have contributed to shrinking jaws. The first of these may be human evolution. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, as human ancestors were evolving to modern Homo sapiens, their heads became rounder and their faces became smaller, explains this article in BioScience. As they began pursuit hunting, they breathed through their mouths while they ran long distances. It is believed that over time, repeated mouth breathing led to human faces—including jaws—becoming smaller in order to help stabilize the head. This gradual decrease in jaw and head size has in turn reduced airway development in humans.

Jaw size and the problems associated with it have traditionally been seen as hereditary and therefore untreatable, but new studies point to the shrinking jaw as a lifestyle rather than a genetic problem. More recently, researchers concluded that dramatic changes in human behavior and environment following the agricultural and industrial revolutions are behind the shrinking jaw pandemic. We’re chewing less because our diets have softened. Processed food, once considered a novelty, is now readily available and affordable. As a species, we’re now more sedentary than our human ancestors, and even the way we sleep—on comfortable mattresses and pillows, rather than on the ground—contributes to “bad oral posture,” which promotes mouth breathing.

The issue of smaller jaws and more mouth breathing has led to a rise in the need for orthodontic treatment and the removal of wisdom teeth, as well as increased incidents of obstructive sleep apnea. Sleep apnea carries its own set of related health issues, including excessive daytime sleepiness, headaches, memory problems, weight gain, impotency in men, and increased stress due to sleep deprivation. Increased stress can, in adults, lead to a higher risk of cancer, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, and Alzheimer’s disease. Children with excessive stress are at a greater risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Nasal breathing is critical to overall well-being of children and adults alike. Whether we breathe through the mouth or nose plays a crucial role in TMJ dysfunction, sleep apnea, and oral health. Our bodies are designed for us to generally keep our lips together and teeth apart, breathing through our noses. The importance of air going through the nose is multifold. When air goes through the nose, the nose filters out harmful bacteria and particles that we don’t want in our lungs; it humidifies the air so that when it reaches the lungs, it’s at the proper temperature, which better allows the exchange of oxygen; and it produces nitric oxide in the nose. Nitric oxide is critical for heart health and blood vessels.

This is where properly developed jaws make a difference. A dentist may offer oral appliance therapy or laser treatments for sleep issues including snoring; and orthodontic treatment including traditional braces or other devices for crooked teeth and misaligned jaws. These treatments are frequently quite effective for older children, teenagers, and adults. But nothing beats prevention. If you have a baby or a young child, the best way to avoid the need for these kinds of interventions is to do all you can to promote optimal development of children’s jaws, which will increase their airway development for maximum breathing potential. As James Nestor argues in his bestselling “Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art,” nothing beats old-fashioned chewing.

There are things parents can do to help their baby or young child toward healthy development and better breathing. As a baby transitions to eating solid food and her teeth begin to appear, it’s important to encourage chewing by giving less mushy food. To monitor development and prevent future problems, scheduling a child’s first dental appointment before age 1 is not too early. For children as young as age 2, dentists can recommend exercises to promote proper breathing and swallowing patterns to support jaw growth.

Toddlers benefit from natural, healthy snacks that require chewing, such as cut fresh fruits and vegetables. When children are old enough to chew gum without swallowing it, they should be encouraged to chew sugar-free gum. Apart from the well-known periodontal benefits of gum and its calming effect, it helps exercise the jaw and promote its development leading to proper breathing.

Snoring or mouth breathing in children may be a sign of a sleep breathing disorder, and it requires medical attention. Because the volume and size of the airway is bigger in adults, they can snore and still manage to get air through. Children should never snore.

By taking these easy, everyday actions, parents can help their children develop strong, healthy jaws and optimal breathing. Regular dental and pediatric care not only ensures a healthy, beautiful smile but also gives children the best chance at reaching full growth potential and excellent overall health.

About Author

LaDonna Dennis

LaDonna Dennis is the founder and creator of Mom Blog Society. She wears many hats. She is a Homemaker*Blogger*Crafter*Reader*Pinner*Friend*Animal Lover* Former writer of Frost Illustrated and, Cancer...SURVIVOR! LaDonna is happily married to the love of her life, the mother of 3 grown children and "Grams" to 3 grandchildren. She adores animals and has four furbabies: Makia ( a German Shepherd, whose mission in life is to be her attached to her hip) and Hachie, (an OCD Alaskan Malamute, and Akia (An Alaskan Malamute) who is just sweet as can be. And Sassy, a four-month-old German Shepherd who has quickly stolen her heart and become the most precious fur baby of all times. Aside from the humans in her life, LaDonna's fur babies are her world.

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