It took me awhile to figure it out, but while watching the FIFA World Cup final yesterday, I couldn’t help but notice something like the sound of waves rushing up the shore punctuating the commentary of sportscaster John Helm. Falling then rising at some points to become so loud as to compete with the vuvuzelas, I suddenly realized that what I was listening to was the labored inhalations of Mr. Helm himself. And while I enjoyed his descriptive and engaging commentary, the initial image of water rippling across a pebbled beach degenerated into the realization that rather than bubbling waves I was listening to the sound of wind passing over bubbly mucus.
So that despite the flashes of brilliance in the Spanish offence, I was constantly reminded of the state of Mr. Helm’s nostrils, and couldn’t help but thinking that his struggled breathing served as a metaphor for the rather congested play of the game. I became obsessed with thinking of reasons why Mr. Helm had such a difficult time getting in a nice clean inhalation. Was it the change in climate? All the late nights commentating at the games? Maybe too many cigars and glasses of port with FIFA president Sepp Blatter? My mind ran wild thinking of possibilities, even as Villa darted forward with a chance to score or Robben charged bull-like through the Spanish defence – the speculation persisting even during the mild stability of the more “agricultural” plays described by Mr. Helm. Admittedly, my peripatetic thoughts are the obsessive proclivities of a health care practitioner and nothing more. The pertinent realization is that regardless of whatever name we give his problem, of not being able to breathe through the nose, it is an exceptionally common phenomena. So it is of course with no offense imputed to Mr. Helm when I say that we have become a society of mouth-breathers.
But how did we get here? Is it just ignorance as the connotation implies? In my estimation, far too many people have issues with their noses for it to be either coincidence or normal. The nose functions to filter and warm the air inhaled into the lungs, but increasingly the nose has taken on the role of becoming a vestigial organ, like the appendix. I see it in my patients, who after many years of nasal problems, despite conventional treatment, eventually end up not being able to smell or breathe properly through their nose. Picking my daughter up at school I see it begin in small children, noses all bubbled up with mucus, unable to breathe properly. For many it continues as a chronic issue into adulthood, becoming normalized by television advertising for over-the-counter remedies, until it eventually worsens into a pathology. Then it gets a diagnosis and name, and is treated in a progressive fashion, first using decongestant drugs, which dry out the membranes, followed by antibiotics that disrupt the nasal ecology, and then finally steroids, which suppress the immune response. From mouth-breather to full blown immune dysfunction, all brought to you by mouth-breather thinking. Mr. Helm, I hope you are reading this.
I had a chronically stuffy nose as a kid, with big slimy, sticky, stringy boogers that would plug my nose, despite the fact that my lungs were otherwise healthy and strong. Add to this the fact that I also suffered from hayfever, and on almost any sunny day from late spring to mid-summer while the grass was still pollinating, I would sneeze anywhere from 20-30 times in a row, my eyes becoming violently itchy, bursting and swelling like two weeping balloons. During an attack I looked like an Inuit wearing a pair of red-colored snow goggles. Even just the freshly cut turf of the soccer pitch would cause the exposed skin on my legs and torso to burst forth in itchy hives. I was a hyper-reactive kid to be sure, but what I had in common with so many people including Mr. Helm is that I also was a mouth-breather.
Having chronic hayfever as part of my earliest set of memories has given me a lot to observe and consider first hand in my 18 years studying and practicing herbal medicine. The persistent mucus thing is easier to ignore, but the hayfever not so much. Perhaps if I was only a mouth-breather I would have remained ignorant, dull to the cause of my chronic dalliance with mucus. It is no doubt a tribute to my own egotism that part of me feels that my hayfever is a kind of higher calling, to experience the full expression of my mouth-breathing issue. It has given me the opportunity to experience a number of pharmacological options, from the antihistamines that either zonked me out or made me feel weird, to the weekly painful injections of immunotherapy I received over several years as a little kid. The only thing I haven’t tried are the inhalant corticosteroids. But that is only because I no longer suffer from hayfever.
To be sure, if I stuff my head into a bale of freshly cut grass I might sneeze once or twice. And I guess if I rubbed the grass clippings all over my body I might get a little rashy. But whereas before I would need to cover my nose and eyes whenever passing by somebody cutting their lawn, when I cut my own grass now I don’t even sneeze. And, for the most part, I breathe through my nose nowadays. What usually blows it for me (no pun intended) are the same group of influences I see causing these problems for my patients. Diet is a huge factor, and given the consideration that our 1.8 million year old DNA may not be able to adapt to the relatively recent changes in our diet, including those wrought in the last 8000-10,000 years of human agriculture (i.e., 0.00009% of our evolution), and certainly in the last 200 years, it is a matter of willful ignorance not to at least consider that diet can cause such illness. At the outset of this industrial experiment food went from being locally produced by virtually everyone, using minimal technology in processing, to becoming so highly processed that it often caused new diseases. The pasteurization of milk for example was a response to the failure of ramping up the traditional milking enterprise to an industrial level, and the rise of infectious diseases such as bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. Another example is beri beri, a neuropathic disease that killed and deformed millions in Asia all because brown rice goes rancid, and doesn’t scale as well as white rice in the industrial food chain. Countless similar examples still exist to prove that our food is essentially being debased, as a marketing concept, an industrial replica removed as far from natural as is a home-cooked breakfast of venison sausage, free-range eggs and stir-fried greens from a Denny’s Grand Slam breakfast.
Mouth-breathers I am here to tell you that diet is your key to getting better. In the classical system of healing known as Ayurveda, mucus forms whenever the digestion is weak. If you visualize digestion as a fire, the mucus that plugs you up is like a blanket of smoke that arises whenever we try to burn something on the fire that just doesn’t burn. Like wet leaves, or by the same token, any kind of sticky, gooey, greasy or heavy food. Case in point – the little kids I see running around that can’t breathe… take a look in their snack bags. From the apple that I used to get in my lunch, that my kids still get in their lunch, most kid’s school time snacks I see are food concepts launched into the stratosphere of pure technology: cheesy-fruit yogurts that actually none of the whole ingredients they claim to contain, even while marketed be a convenient way to get the absolutely all-important calcium needed for growing and yet precariously endangered bones. It is a food product that caters to the child’s ignorance and the parents dual concern for their own time and concern for their children. But this marketing cleverness has created a precariously endangered situation indeed – there is no time in human history when a civilization produced as many unhealthy children as we do nowadays. And it’s all diet.
What is one key recommendation I make for my mouth-breathing patients? I tell them to stop eating flour products, especially if they have hayfever. Grass and most grains like wheat and rye are in the same plant family called the Poaceae, and if you are allergic to one grass protein like pollen there is a good chance that you are probably reactive to other grass proteins, like gluten. Of course it doesn’t help that most of the grass we eat nowadays ignores traditional methods of processing that have been developed over millennia, or the fact that most of it is in the form of a highly refined dust constituted with water to form an industrial strength glue we call bread and pasta. A harsh realization to be sure, but what impact do you think eating glue will have on your mucus membranes? Do you think it might make them at least a little bit sticky? What if you stopped for a bit? Give it a shot – drop all flour from your diet, including the fake “flour-free” bread that STILL contains gluten. Give it 3-4 weeks, and watch as old rashes begin to fade, and suddenly you begin to breathe again. I guarantee it will be a revelation, but there’s no 1-800 number, and no product to buy. The USDA scientists that built the food pyramid will persuade you not too, but I say you’ve got nothing to lose except mucus.
A few years back I was on a television show called Remedy Me!, a series of case studies of people with various illnesses and their experience with alternative medicine. I got a fellow that had a history of really bad snoring for over 10 years. He was a mouth-breather to be sure, and like John Helm, a big fan of the beautiful game. His problem was so bad that at night he would keep his wife awake, and she was at her wits end, resorting to sleeping in a separate room, which greatly impacted the quality of their marriage. I had him clean up his diet: kick out the flour, dairy and sugar, and for a time the beer he was regularly enjoying with his buddies after the weekend soccer game. I gave him some herbs: spicy phlegm-dispelling herbs like Ginger and Bayberry, along with bitter astringents like Goldenseal, and Mullein leaf as an expectorant. I also had him use a technique I developed called the “3Ns“, which basically consists of three practices borrowed from yoga and Ayurveda. Step one is nasya, and involves the use of an oil (e.g. sesame oil), instilling 1-2 drops into the each nostril, and snorting it in. This is sometimes but not always followed by the use of a neti pot, a vessel that has a spout which you insert into your nose as you bend over the sink, flushing out the nasal passages with a salt water solution. Following this is a yogic technique called nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing. Motivated by the threat of separation from his wife, this fellow duly followed my advice, and within one week had stopped snoring. Of course I say give it 3-4 weeks, to really see a difference. But as little as one week of discipline, and you may find that you can breathe again.
Unlike the Zidane/Materazzi debacle of FIFA 2006, I really enjoyed this World Cup and I do think that this year the best team won, even if Spain didn’t score as many goals as I would have wanted. In my opinion the better game was played between Uruguay and Germany for third place, in preference to the tense heavy play of the final. And although it took awhile to get used to, I learned to appreciate the vuvuzela and see it becoming part of a much broader footballing tradition, but by the same token, desperately hope that labored inhalations of the play-by-play do not. So Mr. Helm, in approbation of your otherwise wonderful commentary, and anticipation of future contributions, my services are herewith rendered. Drop me a line and we’ll see what we can do: for the good of your nose, and the good of the game. May both become even more beautiful.