Mouth Workout Reduces Snoring, Sleep Apnea

By Shellie L. Rosen, Ph.D.,Dipl. O.M. (NCCAOM)®, DOM, L.Ac.

Sleep disruption as we age is often related to sleep-disordered breathing, or SDB. The National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research postulates that upwards of 18 million Americans have been diagnosed with “minimal” SDB and 4 million with “severe” SDB. However, 92 percent of cases in women and 80 percent in men are likely undiagnosed. Many individuals are unaware they are mouth breathers (versus nasal breathers), leading to poor airway health and sleep quality.

Folks who have never had a sleep study performed assume their waking states are the result of other factors because they have no memory of troubled breathing or snoring when they wake. Yet several structural and physiological patterns can cause SDB. The most common is obesity. While weight loss lightens the load on an obstructive airway, remarkable gains in airway space are also possible with myofunctional therapeutics.

Myofunctional therapeutics (MFT) comprises a series of exercises for the face, mouth, and tongue to tone the upper airway for closed-mouth nasal breathing. Orofacial myofunctional disorders include obstructed sinuses, oropharynx disorders, and tongue misplacement. In 2021, the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health published a review of the existing research, finding MFT has safe and positive outcomes in reducing sleep apnea and snoring. Myofunctional techniques date back to 1918, when tongue strength and position became factors for mouth and jaw health (in addition to improving the look of the face). MFT exercises build muscle in the mouth and oropharynx for better tone as the mouth closes, creating scaffolding in the airway for nasal breathing.

Some orthodontists are acquainted with MFT due to the tongue’s impact on teeth. When the tongue does not rest against the upper palate with the tip behind the front teeth, the palate and teeth can become malformed. Children with sleep disturbance are often nasal breathers, which causes enlarged tonsils and adenoids. Orthodontists can help align structures, correct tongue placement, and improve their airways. This type of therapy can prevent various health problems associated with sleep loss. However, it is never too late to tone up your airway.

MFT is something you can work on at home for free. Sleep-disordered breathing is often associated with headaches, neck pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease (heartburn), and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain. MFT can be beneficial whether you require surgery, supplemental breathing machines, or other therapies. MFT strengthens the airways for all who practice it, whether one has a condition or not. In 1991, the journal Sleep randomly sampled people over 65 years old and found that more than 62 percent had respiratory disturbance during sleep.

Any exercise that strengthens the muscles of the upper airway to encourage nasal breathing can be of benefit. Some musicians play instruments with their mouths, and singers work orofacial muscles. I’ve attached a list of MFT exercises for the rest of us. Noticeable results may take time, but stick with it; sleep is essential for good health. Abundant sleep blessings.

Ten-Four Mouth Exercises

Hold each move for 10 seconds, and repeat 10 times, four sessions per day.

Hard “N”

Place the tongue tip against the hard palate on the roof of the mouth, just behind the top teeth, and push upwards (as if making the “N” sound).

Tongue to Nose

Try to touch your nose with your tongue.

Tongue to Chin 

Try to touch your chin with your tongue.

Move Tongue Left, then Right

Extend your tongue as far left as possible for 10 seconds, then right for 10 seconds.

Tongue Roll

Roll the sides of your tongue up like a cannoli, making an “O” with your lips, and stick it out as far as possible while keeping it folded.

Smack Your Tongue

Slide your tongue from behind the front teeth and upper palate to make a suction, and then click by forcibly pulling your tongue down and smacking the tongue.

Tongue Push

Push against the tip of your straight (not bent) tongue with equal pressure using a finger or spoon.

Spoon Lip Hold

Hold a metal spoon parallel between your lips (not teeth). Do not place the handle between your teeth. Add weight to the spoon as this becomes easier.

Button Lip Pull

Tie a piece of string to a button (4 inches). Put the button behind pursed lips in front of your teeth and hold the string in while you pull on the string. Try it with the button flat between the lips as this becomes easier.

Vowel Sounds

Say “A, E, I, O, U” aloud with exaggeration.

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