Updated: Jul 10
This might sound like a funny thing to talk about, but there is only one place your tongue should be, when you are not talking or eating. We will explore what this is and the reasons why this is important, but first, just take a moment to notice where your tongue is sitting in your mouth right now. Is it sitting up against the roof of your mouth, is it somewhere in the middle of your mouth or is it touching the bottom of your mouth? Your answer will also be determined by whether you are breathing through your nose or mouth.
When I started learning how to improve my daily breathing habits, switching from predominantly mouth breathing to nose breathing 24/7, I had to re-learn where my tongue should sit in my mouth! So, let's have a look at where your tongue should sit, why, and how you can practice this if you need to change it.
What is the Correct Tongue Posture?
Firstly, to have correct tongue posture you have to be breathing in and out of your nose, and we should be nose breathing 24/7! When nasal breathing, your lips should be closed, teeth slightly apart and all of your tongue (from tip to back) should lightly rest against the roof of your mouth.
The tip of your tongue should sit just behind your upper teeth, but not pressing against them. Can you find a bony ridge behind your teeth? That is where the tip of your tongue should sit and then as much of the rest of your tongue as possible up against your hard and soft palate (the roof of your mouth). The most important part is to have the back part of your tongue against the soft palate at the back of the mouth. You don't need to apply any force, just allow it to sit there.
Maintaining correct tongue posture does a number of things for our body:
it is vital to the development and alignment of the jaw and teeth in children
it enables you to breathe easily through the nose
prevents mouth breathing as difficult to do with tongue in this position
it supports an upright head position, keeping your head in alignment with your torso
prevents snoring and sleep apnea
it holds the lower jaw in the correct aligned position which can relieve jaw tension and bruxism (teeth grinding)
it facilitates correct swallowing, where your tongue should do all the work
Let's look at these benefits in more detail:
Development and Alignment of the jaw and teeth
The tongue is an extremely strong muscle and when resting against the roof of the mouth it exerts pressure on the upper jaw which widens it. This is critical for young children as this widening from the tongue pressure allows space for the teeth to develop in alignment and avoids overcrowding. As an adult, you want to maintain this alignment, or improve it if you have previously been a mouth breather.
Mouth breathing in children leads to a high, narrow palate (roof of mouth) which can lead to overcrowding and crooked teeth. Dentists may extract teeth to make more room but this tends to make the mouth smaller and the tongue can often then be slightly too big for the smaller mouth space. As a mouth breather, this is exactly what happened to me. I remember having five teeth extracted on one occasion as a child and then having a brace to correct my crooked teeth.
The other growth issue in mouth breathing children is that the jaw grows downwards and not as forward as it should. This affects the size of the airways and as a natural compensatory technique, people stick their head forward slightly to open their airway and consequently develop a forward head posture. This can then lead to other postural issues later in life.
You can breathe More Easily Through Your Nose
With your tongue resting against the roof of your mouth whilst nose breathing, the air flows easily in and out. Let's compare tongue positions while nose breathing so you can experience the difference for yourself.
Sit upright with good posture (if you're not already!), close your lips, let your tongue hang in the middle of your mouth and breathe normally in and out of your nose for 3-5 breath cycles (inhales and exhales). Then place your tongue against the roof of your mouth, as far back as possible, keeping the lips closed and breathe for another 3-5 breath cycles. Which tongue position allows for better air flow?
Mouth Breathing is Difficult to do with Correct Tongue Posture
This is a fun exercise to try. This time I want you to open your mouth and breathe and notice where your tongue naturally sits. Somewhere low in your mouth? Now keep your mouth open and place your tongue against the roof of your mouth and breathe? How easy does that feel? Quite difficult, eh?! Notice also how dry the incoming air feels, as the mouth does not have the same humidifying abilities as the nose.
As the tongue rests on the floor of the mouth, there is more chance that it will fall back into the airway, thus reducing the size of the airway. This will make you push your head forward to get more air into your lungs.
Nose Breathing and Correct Tongue Posture Supports Good Overall Body Posture
As we've said, the tongue is a very strong muscle which is connected to the neck and shoulders. When in it's correct resting position, the tongue supports the neck muscles, helping to maintain an open airway to facilitate breathing and to support an upright head position, keeping your head in alignment with your torso. This can prevent a person developing rounded shoulders and/or a forward head posture.
Nasal breathing also naturally triggers the diaphragm, our primary breathing muscle. However, this can only move freely if we have good posture which allows the lower ribs to expand and contract with the movement of the diaphragm. We will look at this in more detail in another blog.
Correct Tongue Posture Can Prevent Snoring and Sleep Apnea
Snoring is basically noisy breathing during sleep. This happens when a person breathes too much air in a narrow space (the upper airways) and causes turbulence (vibrations) in the mouth, nose and throat. Snoring can be due to narrow upper airways and/or hard and fast breathing.
If you or your sleeping partner snore through an open mouth, this noise is the soft palate (at the back of the roof of the mouth) vibrating.
This can quickly be remedied by closing the mouth and nose breathing (with correct tongue posture) during sleep. If you tend to breathe through your mouth during the day, you will mouth breathe during sleep. Therefore, you may need some assistance keeping your mouth closed at night to encourage nose breathing. This can easily been done by applying a specially designed mouth tape around the lips at night. The tape is elasticated, so it encourages the lips to stay closed when sleeping, but it does not cover your lips, so you can still open your mouth to talk, drink or if necessary breathe! Follow this link to find out more about MYOTAPE.
Some people snore through their nose with their mouth closed. This generally means they are breathing too hard and fast, inhaling too much air which causes turbulence in the upper airways (a small space) resulting in the snoring noise. This can also be improved by learning to breathe lighter when awake and then this will translate to your sleep once it is imprinted.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea
Obstructive Sleep Apnea is more serious and is where the upper airways collapse and/or where the tongue can fall back and block the airway during sleep, causing breathing to stop (apnea) or airflow to be reduced (hypopnea). Correct tongue posture helps keep airway dilator muscles working and reduces the chances of it causing an obstruction during sleep. The brain is extremely vigilant, even when we're asleep and identifies a drop in our oxygen levels when breathing temporarily stops/reduces and it wakes us up so we start breathing again. If you have mild sleep apnea, you may wake up five to fifteen times a night, with moderate sleep apnea you may wake fifiteen to thirty times and more than thirty times with severe sleep apnea.
If you do not have the correct tongue posture when breathing during the day, you will definitely not have it when asleep. Again, if we train ourselves to breathe through the nose and adopt the correct tongue posture when awake, we will eventually do this when asleep.
Correct Jaw Position Relieves Jaw Tension and Teeth Grinding
When we have the tongue resting against the roof of the mouth, the lower jaw is more likely to be aligned and this creates the right balance of muscle tension. Mouth breathing or poor tongue posture can lead to Tempro Mandibular Joint (TMJ) pain or issues and/or teeth grinding during the day and night. External stressors can also cause these conditions, but poor breathing mechanics can create or exacerbate it.
Correct Swallowing Using The Tongue
If you have correct tongue posture when you are not talking or eating, you are more likely to use it correctly to swallow your food. The cheeks and head should not move when you swallow food, only your tongue. Next time you have a drink or eat something, notice what happens.
How Do I Train My Tongue to Sit in the Correct Position?
Have you heard of Mewing? This technique was developed by British orthodontists Dr John Mew and his son Dr Mike Mew. Mewing is a set of exercises to strengthen your tongue muscles, improve your forward jaw growth, and correct forward head posture. You can download the "Mewing" app which guides you through these exercises, and there are many videos on YouTube explaining the mewing technique. I have had to practice this correct tongue posture as part of my journey learning to breathe better, and like learning to swim better, it takes regular practice to adopt more efficient habits.
However, correct tongue posture can only be achieved if you habitually nose breathe during wakefulness and sleep. I can help you re-train your breathing to ensure you breathe through your nose with correct tongue posture at rest, during physical exercise and when asleep. If you have children who breathe through their mouths at all, I strongly suggest you encourage nasal breathing or seek help with this so their craniofacial and airway development is not negatively impacted.
Breathing properly is multidimensional, so to properly assess or improve our health and wellbeing or sports performance, we have to consider the biochemistry, biomechanics and psychophysiological aspects of breathing. We have only discussed one aspect of the biomechanics of breathing here, so I'll be writing more about these other aspects of breathing, but ensuring nasal breathing with correct tongue posture is a great start!