Shut your mouth…and save your life

This is the title to a little known book written in 1870  by George Catlin, sometime lawyer, naturalist and artist.

Catlin studied the lifestyle habits of North American, Central and South American Indians whilst living among them. He drew many portraits of them over an 8 year period. He found that they were a healthy, good looking race who lived to a longer age than so called civilized people. Also the “savages” did not develop many of the mental and physical ailments which bedevilled civilized society such as lunacy, idiocy, bronchitis, asthma, indigestion, respiratory weakness and crooked, misaligned teeth.

His observation of about 2 million native peoples and his study of the “Bills of Mortality”, that is, the deaths in the civilzed world – many of them before the age of 5 years (50%) and many before the age of 25 years (25%) led him to conclude that mouth breathing was an abomination and a most disgusting habit to be avoided. He observed the Indian mother lowering her infant from her breast and pressing its lips together as it fell asleep in its cradle. By way of contrast Catlin observed mothers from the civilized world who covered their sleeping infants’ faces in overheated rooms – “their little mouths open and gasping for breath”.

As a young child and right through manhood Catlin was a continual mouth breather. He had pain and inflammation of the lungs (including bleeding) and during his out door activities whilst studying the Indians he suffered as a consequence. Once he became convinced of the need to change his habit he resolved to keep his teeth and lips firmly closed during the day. He was determined right up until the last moment of consciousness to keep his mouth closed while entering into sleep. He recovered to the extent of finding himself stronger and freer from aches and pains than when he was a boy and right through to middle age.

He writes:

Have you not many times waked in the middle of the night, in great distress, with your mouths wide open, and so cold and dry that it took you a long time to moisten and shut them again? and did it occur to you at those moments that this was all the result of a careless habit, by which you were drawing an unnatural draught of cold air in every breath, directly on the lungs, instead of drawing it through the nostrils, which Nature has made for that especial purpose, giving it warmth and measuring its quantity, suitable to the demands of repose?

Catlin also wrote about experiencing nightmares during sleep while mouth breathing.

I can confirm having often experienced nightmares and waking with a severely dry and cold mouth. Often a headache accompanied my abrupt awakening – which was no doubt caused by an apnoea or by the trauma of a nightmare. Perhaps the nightmare was caused by the apnoea? The lack of oxygen experienced during an apnoea can cause the body to adopt a “fight or flight” response.

Catlin’s book is remarkable. Although he has no medical qualifications his conclusions are based on his own empirical data – his observations and his own personal experiences. At that time the effects of hyperventilation upon our physiology, in particular its inability to oxygenate our tissues and organs, was unknown.  This phenomenon, known as the Bohr effect, was not discoverd until 30 years later in 1904 by the Danish Physiologist Christian Bohr.

With some disdain Catlin comments upon the constant informing by Physicians of the fatal results of poisonous substances being inhaled into the lungs in  circumstances where the blue collar trades of stone-cutters, metal grinders and carpenters worked. However, he queries, why do the Physicians not say that there are two modes of inhalation, by the nose and by the mouth? Why are they not advised that “there is safety to life in one way and great danger in the other?”

Almost 150 years later Catlin’s message is more relevant than ever. Hyperventilation is not only assisted by mouth breathing it is assisted by over stimulation through technology and highly processed and sugary food. One may wonder why there are so many modern ailments – Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obesity, Fibromyalgia, Sleep apnoea, Leaky Gut Disorder, Rheumatoid Arthritis, andType B Diabetes, Celiac Disease and other food intolerances – which were either not so prevalent or not so well known several decades ago.

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