It’s all about the tip of the tongue with Jennifer and Thayne Bluntson

Key Takeaways:

  1. Big 3. Nasal breathing, swallowing and oral posture for better breathing.
  2. Tongue position and its effect on training. When the tip of the tongue can affect the growth and development
  3. Train the tongue, strengthen the tongue. Retraining the tongue for proper positioning and strength.
  4. Awake versus asleep. The difference in breathing while awake versus asleep – does it change?

Short Summary

When someone thinks about breathing, the significance of the tongue usually isn’t thought about. So how much does the position of one’s tongue affect our overall breathing and respiratory system?

Orofacial myofunctional therapist Jennifer Blunson and general dentist practitioner Thayne Blunson speak to DTS Fitness Education Director of Education Ben McDonald about the importance of oral awareness, how it changes the growth and development of one’s jaw and its effects on breathing.

1) The Big Three of Breathing

Dentistry and breathing are typically not two fields of practice that one would associate with the other. The Blunsons have been incorporating the two for their patients and practice because of how breathing and jaw movement relates to orthodontics and it’s all connected. 

“It relates to the growth of the face and the jaw,” says Thayne. “It’s connected to how your posture develops and how your head sits on your shoulder, and nasal breathing is a key part of that.”

In relation to dentistry, Thayne says the breathing component is known as the Big 3.

“What we call the Big 3 are: nasal breathing, swallowing, and oral posture,” he says. “Nasal breathing is one of the key components to a human being. It’s key to the foundation of how growth and development happens. When we grow, it’s meant to be embryologically from the top down. Posture has to start from the top down. Corruption of this system growth creates a lot of problems we see in dentistry, including crooked teeth, malformed jaws, forward head posture.”

Other issues not often thought to be related included: temporomandibular joint pain, joint problems, sleep apnea, and so forth. 

“Breathing is something we look at especially when you’re a kid, we try to see the corruption or a malformation of that system and things we need to correct,” says Thayne. “If you’re an adult, it’s a different process. You can still have corrections in the processes and breathing is such a key part of it.”

2) Tongue position and its effects training

One of the biggest components the Blunsons work on at their practice is retraining the tongue posture and retraining breathing patterns. 

“We know now breathing is not something that comes naturally – it’s a naturally modified or learned behaviour over time. Diet, modern environment, stress, career, anxiety – they all change our breathing patterns through a dysfunctional state,” says Jennifer. “We know that our concentration of CO2 is really crucial to the delivery of oxygen from our bloodstream into our cells, organs, and tissues. Co2 regulates PH, it’s a nasal dilator, and it’s our primary stimulus to breathing.”

When one breathes through the mouth, they lose the benefits of nitrate oxide delivered through nasal breathing. Not only does it assist as a nasal dilator, it helps with immunity, neurotransmission, and memory. 

In terms of training, the ideal tongue posture is having the lips closed, two-thirds of the tongue against the pallette or the roof of the mouth. The tip of the tongue is placed at the base of the front of the teeth in the “sweet spot.” This is also associated with diaphragmatic breathing. 

“The utilization of the oxygen and carbon dioxide spectrum and being able to make that more effective in training,” says Jennifer, noting another issue trainers need to be aware of are tongue ties (academically known as anklyoglossia) because of its relation to the fascial systems. “There are posteriorial tongue ties that affect the function of the tongue so they make it difficult for the tongue to function at the roof of the mouth. If you don’t deal with the tongue tie, you’ll have a corruption of the whole fascial system. This will lead to growth and developmental jaw problems, which affects nasal breathing”

An easy test to administer, though not definitive, is to start with opening the mouth to its widest capacity. From here, the goal is to touch the tip of the tongue to the sweet spot, the position at the base of the front teeth. If the mouth closes more than 50 percent, it is more than likely one has tongue-tie. If it’s outside one’s scope of practice, refer out to a speech pathologist, dental professional, sleep physician, or ear, nose, and throat specialist. 

3) Train the tongue, strengthen the tongue

The tongue has a large impact on people from childhood into adulthood. The tongue is a muscular organ and it’s like a hydrostat, similar to an elephant’s trunk, which provides skeletal support and muscular movement. 

“(The tongue) is anchored into our lower jaw through a large muscle in our throat called the genioglossus, which also leads to other muscles which go into our hyoid bone in our throat. This is the rudder of our spine,” says Jennifer. “When we stick our tongue we change the position of our hyoid bone and we also change the position of our atlas, which is our C1. As we know, our C1 is crucial to our overall head posture and body posture.”

The tongue is really the basis of head posture on our body, which also includes proper lip posture and a closed mouth, she adds. 

“When we have our lips closed, we have our tongue sitting up on pallette with the tip of our tongue resting behind our front teeth, which is called the incisive papilla. What that does is it creates a balanced muscular tone in our orofacial complex,” says Jennifer. “In doing so, it creates a balance between muscles from our neck, throat and upper back.”

The “sweet spot” can be located where the tip of the tongue would land when someone says the letter “N.” This position is considered quite sensitive and is connected to the sympathetic nervous system. When the tongue hits the sweet spot, it triggers the parasympathetic nervous system and people are more relaxed. 

“This is why it’s hard for kids who suck their thumbs to eliminate that habit because the pressure of the thumb hits that spot and it initiates the parasympathetic nervous system so it’s hard for the child to give up that habit,” says Jennifer. “In average, we swallow about 500 to 1,000 times a day and when we do that proper swallowing we’re able to move that food, gather it with saliva, put it on the top of our tongue, our tongue presses it to the front of the mouth and it goes back to our pharynx and we swallow that. If our tongue is not in an ideal position, we’re not swallowing correctly and overtime what it does is it creates degradation of our jaw joint.”

People who haven’t swallowed correctly for years now have migraines, temporal membriol joint disorder, they require orthodontics, potentially have issues with sleep or sleep apnea. For example, Jennifer notes people who sleep on their backs will find their genioglossus muscle, where the tongue inserts into the throat, not working properly. That’s the only muscle becoming activated when one sleeps on their back. 

The tongue and its function, compared to the rest of the body, would be considered one of the strongest muscles pound for pound in the body. The Blunsons hope to harness and retrain the tongue will help proper growth of the jaw, and in turn, assist with proper breathing. 

“When you do that, you will get what we call a horizontal or forward growth of the jaw which allows for proper oral volume, space for the tongue, the head sits over the shoulder to fix the posture a little bit, the airway develops as a large broad airway which is, of course, great for pulling in a lot more air on a functional basis,” explains Jennifer. “I tell people when we’re talking about orthodontics you van use mechanics like wires and braces to straighten the teeth but if we catch it early enough, your tongue can be your biggest ally because it will grow your jaw and teeth for you. If it’s corrupt though, it could be your worst enemy.”

4) Breathing while awake versus asleep

In regard to the differences in breathing while one is awake versus sleeping, the Blunsons explain they believe there are two states: the awake me and the sleeping me. 

“With the awake me, what you want to do is learn about over-breathing and nasal breathing, to expand what it is. Then you want to learn the basics of it and how you can improve that from nitrate oxide intake, increasing CO2. Learn the basics first,” says Thayne. “Beyond the basics for people in the fitness industry, there’s a competitive edge you can take to it, like looking at Patrick McKeown. Learn that as human beings we’re not meant to breathe through our mouths, we’re meant to breathe through our nose.”

For the sleeping individual, the same patterns apply and one should still be able to breathe through their nose. 

“You don’t want to be a snorer, you don’t want your mouth to hang open but to do that, you need to learn this in your conscious state. So you need to learn the basics and retrain your daytime breathing,” says Thayne. “Without doing that, you’re going to struggle to change your nighttime habits. There are things like masks and the CPAc to assist with sleep apnea, but without the proper training of the muscular system that goes with that, you’re not going to have as much success.”

Jennifer adds if one is sleeping on their back and they haven’t retrained their tongue, the tongue will drop back into the airway because the genioglossus hasn’t been trained. Tongue strength and tongue position is crucial when one is sleeping. 

Sleep apnea in children can start right from when they’re born, Thayne notes.

“In a perfect world, we breastfeed our children and it’s a natural process – not only the benefits of breast milk and all that, but it’s about developing the proper oral structures, tongue position, and swallowing,” says Thayne. “From there, unfortunately, we live in (2020) and there’s a lot of things that we get exposed to. A lot of kids will come in and watch the screen and their mouths will be open because they can’t breathe from their nose. If we see it early, we start talking to their parents right away and we send them to the appropriate referrals and health practitioner.”

An issue the Blunsons have studied and noted include children diagnosed too early with Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is more closely related to improper sleep and breathing. 

“When kids are tired they don’t go for coffee like adults. It manifests itself more in terms of hyperactivity and lack of focus,” says Jennifer. “So unless you have biochemical ADHD which can be determined by going to a naturopath, ADHD is actually misdiagnosed because it’s actually a sleeping disorder.”

The biggest goal for the Blunsons is to have clients go back to the basics and work on sleeping with their mouths closed. 

“If you can sleep without opening your lips and you can eliminate sleeping disorder – rest, recovery, proper oxynization of the lungs, relaxation and mental clarity and rejuvenation – all of this is disrupted from not having proper sleep,” says Thayne. “There are other reasons why people can’t sleep properly but sleep breathing is a big category. There are many techniques you can do to improve it, including lip taping.”

Ultimately, if one can retrain their tongue to find its top position in the mouth and retrain their breathing, muscular balance and symmetry will return to the body.