Nasal experiments

First an obvious warning: Despite the domain name, I am not a doctor. None of this post is medical advice. Talk to your GP. etc. etc.

Now, some backstory: This is part of the project I’ve dubbed “The War on Sleep”, which is me finally getting bored of the fact that I’ve spent most of my life waking up feeling terrible every morning.

The latest cause I’m investigating is that this might be a “simple” matter of mouth breathing at night, caused by the fact that it turns out I more or less can’t breathe properly through my nose. Mouth breathing is definitely supposed to affect quality of sleep, so it seemed like a reasonable hypothesis.

But do I actually have trouble breathing through my nose? I mean sure it’s harder to breathe through my nose than my mouth, but that’s normal, right? I compared with my brother and father (both of whom also have sleep issues) and they seemed to have about the same experience, but that could be anywhere between this being normal and us having some genetic nose design flaw (we all have very similar noses).

Turns out, it’s closer to the latter. In order to determine what’s normal I put together a small experiment and asked the internet to participate in it. It’s not very scientific due to sampling bias, small sample size, erratic data collection, etc. but as a starting point to just get a sense of what things look like it worked pretty well.

The experiment is this: Breathe out fully, then breathe in fully as hard as you can. Time how long it takes you to breathe in, breathing in as hard and fast as you can. Repeat this in four different ways: First breathing in with just your mouth, then with just your nose, then with just your left nostril, then with just your right nostril.

The idea is that this time to complete a breathe in is a pretty good proxy for how difficult it is to breathe in in a particular way: You’re using the same lungs to draw air through each time, so the only difference is how much air you can get through that passage way.

For me a full breathe in with my nose takes about 5-10 times as long as a full breathe in with my mouth, and my right nostril takes a bit under twice as long as my left. That doesn’t sound good, certainly, and when comparing with other people on the experiment it does turn out to be atypically bad.

I don’t have a proper statistical analysis of the experiment results (sorry), but here’s what eyeballing the data shows:

  • Some people have the same breathe in times for mouth and nose
  • More normal seems to be taking about twice as long with nose
  • It’s actually pretty unusual to have a significant difference between left and right side – only two other people who took the experiment had more than a 20%ish difference between them (one had 1.5x in one nostril, the other 3x). I don’t know who you are, but you might want to talk to a doctor about that if you don’t currently have a cold or know what’s up with that.

A couple observations of experiment design:

  • I should have checked what time of day it was for participants (or at least how long ago they’d woken up). It turns out that the nasal cycle is a thing. I’ve noticed this myself now that I know to look for it – when I first wake up I can barely breathe through my right nostril (I genuinely can’t get enough air – it feels like I’m suffocating) but later in the day it’s just slow.
  • really should have asked people if they had any known complications that would explain their results. It would have been much more useful data.

Still, the experiment largely served my purpose and I think the results are interesting. Also, the basic structure of it works pretty well, so I’ll be reusing it.

Armed with this data I went to my GP and explained what was up. Off the back of that, I’ve been issued with a steroid nasal spray. It supposedly will take about two weeks to take effect.

And the great thing is that because I have a pretty good objective experiment demonstrating the problem, I can track that effect! I’m going to be running this experiment several times a day for the next month or so to see if the spray is making any difference.

This feels like a big deal to me. I don’t know if this is what’s causing my sleep problem, but it certainly seems like a problem, and having an objective assessment I can just run and see whether it’s helping is going to be great. Doing a subjective “do I feel better today than yesterday?” is almost impossible, but being able to track the improvement (or lack of it) by the numbers is going to be a big help.

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