By Mary Carpenter
Taping your mouth shut for sleeping came up in Mary Carpenter’s 2021 post on James Nestor’s book, Breath the New Science of a Lost Art. But since a November 2022 New York Times article “Can a Piece of Tape Help You Sleep?” continues to inspire readers’ comments–522 as of last week–and becoming a practitioner and true believer herself—she has written an update:
“A MORE efficient, effective way of breathing” is how Stanford University “voice and swallowing specialist” Ann Kearney described nasal breathing to the New York Times—compared to breathing through the mouth. “Sleeping with your mouth agape may cause you to wake up with a dry mouth, which can contribute to cavities, bad breath, a hoarse voice and dry, cracked lips.” And in small studies, nasal breathing has helped alleviate snoring in people with mild obstructive sleep apnea.
Nasal breathing “humidifies and filters the air, and activates the lower lungs, letting you take deeper, fuller breaths. It can also help your body relax as you ease into sleep,” says Kearney. USC pulmonary and sleep medicine specialist Raj Dasgupta explained that breathing through the nose causes the sinuses to naturally produce a gas called nitric oxide, which flows…to the lungs and into the blood. It can widen blood vessels to improve blood flow and lower blood pressure, and can create an overall calming effect.
“Despite its recent popularity, mouth taping has not been extensively studied,” cautions the Times article, which includes suggestions to use a light, skin-friendly tape like surgical tape along with warnings that people with sleep difficulties should see a sleep specialist. Kearney and others caution that anyone struggling to breathe through the nose—if you can hear yourself when you attempt to nasal breathe—should not try mouth taping.
But nighttime mouth taping has “taken social media by storm” with enthusiasts reporting more energy as well as “a sharper jawline; improved skin, mood and digestion; reduced brain fog, cavities, gum disease and bad breath; and a strengthened immune system.” While some commenters raved about mouth taping, others warned of serious medical risks.
“I read somewhere that when women are ready for sleep their brain is still maybe 80% active so they can happily chat away with pillow talk for a long time whereas when men are ready for sleep their brain is maybe 15% active and unable to enjoy such pillow talk,” writes one commenter. “If I’m ready for sleep and milady engages me in pillow talk, it will actually wake me up again, leaving me unable to wind back down to sleep-readiness for maybe 90 minutes. So I hate that—and taped lips are a beautiful out ‘sorry can’t speak’— zzzzzz—works for me!”
(“Multiple studies have shown that women fall asleep faster than men,” states the Sleep Foundation site. And according to the Wall Street Journal, women take an average 9.3 minutes to fall asleep, while men take 23.2.)
“Using a cheap supermarket bandaid horizontally to tape my lips closed” is this commenter’s recommendation. Writes another, “All I had was some type of duct tape, it’s not as bad as reported. . .it feels like a helpful thing. . .and I don’t wake myself up snoring.”
“I love the results—I’ve not had a blocked nose for a long time,” writes a daytime mouth taper. “I also exercise while nasal breathing (a face mask will hide the tape!) . . .mimics high altitude training, which increases the body’s ability to use the O2 it has.”
“Article got it wrong,” writes a complainer. “You don’t ‘tape your mouth shut.’ Rather you place a bit of tape vertically across the lips to ‘remind’ you not to open your mouth. If you did need to open your mouth you certainly could do so . . .we don’t need the usual ‘experts’ to weigh in on this easy and mild practice.”
“Seems to me this is an extremely risky practice,” writes a worried commenter. “If you develop a condition overnight that blocks your nasal passages. . .do you really want to be unconscious for eight hours with one of your primary breathing passages sealed shut?”
“My low-level anxiety, precursor to claustrophobia, kicks in,” adds another, despite being a “long-time” user of a CPAP machine. “Also what if young children see their parent with mouth taped shut…might think it would be fun to tape younger siblings mouth shut.”
The popularity of Nestor’s Breath to date has boosted sales of its recommended products—from the most inexpensive sleep strips to very pricey, personally fitted mouth retainers. In his self-improvement journey as a “pulmonaut,” Nestor links nasal breathing to possibilities for improvement in almost all bodily functions. And naturopath and healer Andrew Weil, quoted in the epilogue of Breath, writes, “If I had to limit my advice on healthier living to just one tip, it would be simply to learn how to breathe better.”
Dry mouth was my original reason for mouth taping—after reading Nestor’s book—which at its worst caused my tongue to swell to the point that it impeded talking and eating. While taping my mouth shut seemed weird at first, I became a convert once my trusted physical therapist admitted doing it every night. As one commenter suggested, more as a reminder than a tight covering, I use a small strip of surgical tape that connects the philtrum (the midline groove in the upper lip) to lower lip. It’s thin enough (1/8 of an inch) that I can cough or even pop in a cough drop when needed.
Since starting to tape, I’ve never had a repeat of the severe dry mouth. To date, the biggest drawback occurred one day when I failed to remove all the sticky stuff—acrylate adhesive—in the morning, which proceeded to collect dirt throughout the day—with not one of the many people I encountered letting me know there was a big black blob hovering on my upper lip.
—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on need-to-know topics in health and medicine.