Ancestral Sleep Breathing

Inline_Ancestral_Sleep Today’s article is a guest post by Dr. Mark Burhenne, the #1 bestselling author of The 8-Hour Sleep Paradox. As an authority on dental health, he is also on a mission to help shift the conversation about sleep from quantity to quality as the foundation for primal living. As a member of the American Academy of Dental Sleep Medicine, Dr. Burhenne blogs about the mouth-body connection on his website,

As followers of the Primal Blueprint, we talk a lot about blocking blue light, for example, to mimic the sleep of our ancestors. But there’s another big thing that we’re missing when it comes to sleep that is drastically different from our ancestors—and that’s how we breathe during sleep. Our sleep breathing faces many modern challenges that Grok never faced. In this article, we’ll cover what those are and how to overcome them for the best sleep of your life.

Modern humans are developing with smaller jaws and smaller airways than Grok did, and it’s preventing us from reaching and sustaining deep restorative sleep. It all starts with the airway. Modern humans’ airways develop differently from Grok’s airway. As you can see in these photos, Grok didn’t have crooked teeth or a small chin. He enjoyed a broad, symmetrical face, and proper jaw growth. Because of this, he didn’t need to have his wisdom teeth taken out as he had proper jaw growth. Grok’s children also ate the right foods which stimulated the jaw to grow down and out—leaving plenty of room for the airway at the back of the throat.


Your airway development as a child was different from Grok’s. Chewing on soft foods doesn’t stimulate the jaw enough to grow down and out to its full potential. In today’s world, food allergies and other epigenetic factors, cause nasal congestion which further impede proper jaw and facial development.

When the jaw and face do not grow to their full potential, the airway is compromised. A jaw that grows down and out leaves plenty of room at the back of the throat for the airway. Additionally, an underdeveloped jaw reduces space at the back of the throat, further compromising the airway.

Smaller airways mean less deep restorative sleep in which the body is able to repair itself. As Grok approached the deepest stages of sleep, and his body went limp, his jaw fell back and his tongue relaxed. The jaw and tongue didn’t block his airway, though, because of the ample room created by his fully developed jaw, wide arch, and proper swallow reflex.



This is the main reason we struggle to get good sleep. Every time you toss and turn, talk in your sleep, kick your legs, grind your teeth, or snore—these are signs your body is making an attempt to reopen the airway for more efficient breathing. These interruptions prevent you from remaining in this stage of deep restorative sleep.

Why is interrupted sleep such a big deal? Because it is a contributing factor to the chronic diseases of our modern age such as Alzheimer’s, cancers, heart disease, diabetes, ADHD, mood disorders such as depression, and cognitive learning disorders.

And, forget what you’ve been told about sleep apnea being reserved for obese, older-aged men. I am currently treating more young, thin, 20-something patients for small airways more than the older stereotypical sleep apnea patient.

Tips to Make Sure Your Kids Have Facial Growth Like Grok

  • Learn about orthotropics.
  • Know that getting braces to straighten teeth—especially headgear—can compromise the airway. Work with a dentist who understands this – most likely someone who practices orthotropics.
  • Feed your child foods rich with Vitamin K2, like natto, or consider a supplement. I recommend reading The Calcium Paradox by Dr. Kate Rheume-Blue.
  • Breastfeeding is key in facial skeletal development, which is a key influencer of the size of the airway.
  • Have your pediatric dentist check for tongue tie—especially in newborns.
  • Feed your children whole unprocessed foods that they can chew
  • Don’t use sippy cups and pacifiers as they can also impede optimal facial skeletal development.

You’ve heard Mark say it before: A good night’s sleep is the foundation for a healthy, happy, productive existence. Quality sleep keeps us lean and thinking clearly. Without it, we go through life in a fog and become susceptible to disease, and age faster. We know this intuitively because we’re not really ourselves if we haven’t had restorative sleep.

So why is eating dinner before 6pm, not drinking alcohol anywhere near bedtime, dimming the lights and shutting off screens before bedtime, or even donning your orange goggles to block out blue light to protect your circadian rhythms from being altered by our modern lifestyle not enough? Because a compromised airway negates the benefits of all of the above.

Check the box and move on? Not quite. All of these sleep hygiene suggestions get us closer to what Grok might have experienced through the night, but miss one key element—few of us today possess the same airway that Grok had—and this can make all the difference in the world when achieving perfect deep sleep.

Why Grok Only Needed Six Hours & We Barely Get By on Eight

When it comes to having an airway just like Grok’s, the cards are stacked against us: allergies, food sensitivities, chronic nasal congestion, and asthma all cause us to breathe through our mouths instead of our noses. This mouth breathing changes how our faces develop—instead of the wide, symmetrical faces of our ancestors, we develop longer faces, receding chins and weaker profiles. Easy-to-chew packaged foods don’t encourage the jaw to develop properly, so there isn’t enough room for the teeth, so they come in crowded. Prolonged bottle-feeding and sippy cup usage doesn’t allow for a proper tongue and swallow reflex.

When children have to breathe through their mouths instead of noses, the tongue is no longer in the right position to keep teeth straight and act as nature’s braces. Your exposure to all of these modern factors changed how the lower third of your face developed during childhood. But the real concern isn’t crooked teeth—it’s that the crooked teeth indicate you have a small airway. If the lower face does not develop properly, you won’t be able to breathe at night and sleep without interruption.

As we approach deep stage sleep, the muscles that normally keep our airways propped open are turned off and go limp. The tongue, also a muscle, goes from toned and firm to a spread-out, floppy lump at the back of the throat, falling back into and blocking the airway. In MRIs of people sleeping, the tongue in its flaccid state looks like a squash ball sitting on top of the airway. Moreover, the deeper stages of sleep cause the airway to narrow and become too flaccid to support effortless breathing. In extreme cases, the airway becomes so narrow that breathing stops completely. This is the condition referred to as obstructive sleep apnea.

Every time breathing slows or is interrupted, the brain has to figure out a way to get you breathing again, at any cost. The brain stops what it’s doing in deep sleep to tense up your muscles so they support the airway again. You don’t have to wake up when this happens, but your brain does have to bounce out of deep sleep into a lighter stage of sleep for the airway to be saved. In healthy people, the airway remains open even when the muscles become paralyzed. But for most of us, this isn’t possible. Our airways have gotten smaller so we’re left with bodies that aren’t equipped to keep breathing while in deep stage sleep. It’s not your breathing that suffers with these interruptions; it’s your sleep. Each time the brain has to deal with a breathing interruption, it can’t pick up where it left off— it has to start over. This means your body isn’t able to fully complete stages of deep and restorative sleep.

How to Find Out if your Airway is Like Grok

So how do we acquire the airway of our ancestors? Even as modern humans, we’re not doomed to a modern airway. Here are things you can do to obtain Grok’s efficient airway.

Consider your sleep breathing. When you optimize your sleep quality (sleep hygiene), all the sleep hygiene tweaks mean nothing unless you consider breathing to be the foundation. Have that frame of mind.

Assess your breathing. Record the noises you make with an app on your smartphone. Snoring means your airway is collapsing. But don’t let “no snoring” lead to a false sense of security as it may mean your airway collapses to such a degree that you can’t make a snoring noise. Get a sleep study polysomnography (PSG). Your primary care provider usually prescribes this test but there may be resistance due to insurance. Better yet, there are very accurate alternatives to the conventional sleep studies, such as Knit Health. They give you a 21 day sleep assessment that is as good as the PSG in your own home for $99 deep-stage Verify your sleep ability, and do it often. Your quality of life depends on it.

Refer to a specialist. See your primary care provider to get a referral to a specialist who can help you.

Ensure proper development with Vitamin K2, orthotropics, and breastfeeding.

Most importantly, don’t assume you don’t have a sleep issue. Even in light sleep stages, we are not the best at assessing our own sleep.

Deep restorative sleep is innate if you are Grok, but it is not guaranteed if you are living in modern times.

—Mark Burhenne DDS


  • Gandhi Yetish, Hillard Kaplan, Michael Gurven, Brian Wood, Herman Pontzer, Paul R. Manger, Charles Wilson, Ronald McGregor, and Jerome M. Siegel, “Natural Sleep and Its Seasonal Variations in Three Pre-industrial Societies,” Current Biology, (2015) doi: https:// 10.1016/ j.cub. 2015.09.046
  • Davidson, Terrance, “The Great Leap Forward: The Anatomic Basis for the Acquisition of Speech and Obstructive Sleep Apnea”
  • Dr Steven Park podcast 39

Thanks to Mark Burhenne, DDS, for the informative post today. You can follow him at and check out his other guest post on MDA. 

What questions do you have regarding sleep breathing or ancestral versus modern dental health? Share your thoughts below, and have a great day, everyone.

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63 thoughts on “Ancestral Sleep Breathing”

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  1. Sooo, if you didn’t grow up with Groklike facial features there’s nothing you can do about it? There’s not a single tip / solution if you’re an adult in this article. Or did my poor sleep quality make me miss it??

    1. I guess the only thing we can do is get a sleep study & if we are diagnosed with sleep apnoea… then get a CPAP machine.

      1. If you are diagnosed with sleep apnea there are many options. Based on severity, an oral appliance, CPAP/APAP, and surgery are the most common solutions. Many times it is a combination of these therapies. Learning the Buteyko Breathing method is also an important tool in improving sleep. The above is just a basic outline of the approaches to deal with sleep apnea. However, there are so many more finer issues, such as mouth breathing, positional sleeping etc… that have to be addressed. Consulting a sleep expert is paramount in finding the right solution.

        1. What’s with all the sutgety….. If I hear surgery one more time my small undeveloped head will explode….. Of course surgery its how they make money Surgery is for the weak brain dead losers anyone that falls for that scam is on his own….. Surgery is a modern day disaster my grandparents never had surgery or their parents before them… They lived into their 90’s except for my grandmother……… If you have sleeping issues get a divorce its way cheaper and not life threatening

    2. Right. Since we can’t change our ancestry, we are stuck with what we are. Even so, there are numerous ways to improve the quality of one’s sleep. A little trial and error is often worth the effort.

      1. There are lots of resources out there to help promote a better nights sleep. Many of my friends experience sleep deprivation and each one of them have different remedies. Try a free and see what might work for you.

      2. You are exactly right. There is no one clear path to achieving optimal sleep if you have sleep apnea. Much of it, unfortunately, is trial and error. However, I use a home test for myself, family members and patients to mitigate some of the trial and error knit

      1. Was Grok a side sleeper? This is an interesting concept as side sleeping does help those with mild airway obstructions. In sleep medicine and dentist we refer to this as positional therapy.

    3. Combination of palate expanders (they do work on adults), tongue tie release if applicable, and myofunctional therapy. Myo therapy by itself would even help.

      1. Ashley these are all great points that you bring up! We will be seeing more palate expansion in adults in the future as a possible way to reverse poor facial development.

    4. The only thing that might work is the “reverse bear trap” as featured in the movie “Saw”

    5. Excellent question Palva! The first step is to verify your sleep ability…you cannot move forward based on your assumptions of how well you sleep. To verify your sleep ability you can ask your primary care physician for an attended sleep study (polysomnography). This process can be a costly and complicated. However, there is a cheaper alternative test: knit
      With some hard data on how well you are truly sleeping you will have a better idea of appropriate solutions.
      Additional information on treatment options can be found in my book

  2. This would have been more helpful if there were suggestions on how to improve your breathing. It looks like the suggestion here is to get tested or see a specialist (or think about how you are breathing when you are asleep).

    But appreciate the post nonetheless.

  3. I have sleep apnea despite having 8% body fat. The doctor told me it is due to a small airway. However I also find that dairy products in the evening as well as stress can worsen my sleep apnea.

    1. Peter, this is a good point. The stereotype that we all think of with sleep apnea is that one has to be grossly overweight in order to have sleep apnea. Your comment illustrates that from an ancestral standpoint, we are developing differently than our ancestors and can have a small airway that leads to sleep problems despite being thin and in good shape. Your second comment is also important as there are epigenetic factors that play a role in sleep apnea such as diet and environmental toxins that can have a negative effect of the airway immediately.

  4. Very interesting. And yet some still develop perfect jaw and teeth in spite of being exposed to the same diet; even within the same family. What gives? Anyways, the above article reminded me of George Catiln paintings and his observation of the American Indians []/. And from personal experience, sleeping with the head slightly propped with the jaw facing down, improves breathing.

  5. There are a lot of assumptions mixed in with a few facts here. For one thing, the skull pictured is likely that of a Neanderthal, or someone with a good deal of Neanderthal DNA. While most of us supposedly do have a miniscule percentage of Neanderthal DNA via ancestral interbreeding (from what I’ve read), the lineage disappeared many thousands of years ago, and most of the characteristic features disappeared with it. Also, I’d be willing to bet that this ideal, cavity-free specimen wasn’t exactly the norm. There were probably just as many weak chins, overbites, and narrow air passages in Grok’s day as there are now.

    1. Neanderthal typically posessed a short jaw and a receding chin. If anything, higher percentage Neanderthal ancestry would lead to more jawline malformation in modern humans.

    2. Neanderthal are among us… My wife has more Neanderthal variants than 76% of 23andme clients. No jokes please.

  6. My CPAP changed my life. I know it’s not a simple dietary or lifestyle intervention, but you can’t ignore these issues. One risk under emphasized in this article is Heart Disease. Try this simple test, hold your breath long enough to be truly in crisis. Feel the adrenaline drive your breathing reflex and force you to gasp for air. People with sleep apnea are being dosed like this multiple times a MINUTE all night long. The impact your systemic stress levels and cardiovascular health cannot be overstated.

    You’re laboring for breath, your heart rate is up when it’s dosed with adrenaline, and it stays up to increase oxygen supply to the brain for 8 solid hours. That’s unsustainable and it kills people as sure as the SAD diet does every day.

    Get a sleep study, sleep with a CPAP mask if you have to. But dont ignore this critical area of your health.

    1. Hi Mike. Enjoyed your comment. In my book I write about how the heart is affected by sleep apnea and how this continual fight or flight response at night can lead to heart disease and mood disorders like depression and depletion of the adrenal glands leading to adrenal gland insufficiency.

  7. Interesting, if also a little depressing. But it’s not clear (and my anatomy understanding is a little weak) – do these problems only pertain to mouth breathers?

    1. No. You can be a nose breather and still experience distress from a compressed airway. In this case, you hyperventilate subconsciously to compensate for the small airway, which causes problems.

    2. This is a good point that you bring up. Both mouth and nose breathers can suffer from sleep disordered breathing. Although in mild cases, one could argue that mouth breathing compounds interrupted sleep.

  8. Nothing said here about sleep posture.

    The discussion seems to be based around sleeping on your back, yet the photo shows someone sleeping on their stomach.

    Should we have a high pillow, or low? I find that a high pillow mitigates apnea.

    1. Hmmm posture… could our posture during the day (eg cramped over a desk or smart device) also contribute to inadequate sleep posture? Could yoga etc help to remedy this (in a resting state in class my teacher always says to ensure our foreheads be above our chin & our chin tipped down & in slightly… perhaps to keep the airways open? Do foods (like dairy) before bed constrict the airways unnecessarily? Can stress induced teeth grinding have an impact on our airways? Lots of questions… perhaps we need a follow up Mark! (some positive changes that we can implement would be great, since I’m not aware of a way to go back in time & inform my mum not to let me have a sippy cup or pacifier ?)

    2. In Indian culture, it is believed sleeping on a certain side is more healthy, due to the configuration of internal organs – I can never remember which side though…

      1. Sleeping on my side absolutely exacerbated my shoulder issues from poor posture. My chiropractor says sleeping on your back with your hands at your side, palms up, is the healthiest position to sleep in, which I have switched to. Makes a world of difference on my at one time shoulder pain.

      2. This is correct. Side sleeping in general can help with mild airway constriction and help one sleep better at night. This is called positional therapy. In addition, modern medicine has confirmed what ayurvedic medicine has known for thousands of years….sleeping on your left side has advantages as it facilitates lymphatic drainage from your brain, creates lower pressure load on the heart, facilitates better elimination, supports healthy spleen functions, and encourages healthy digestion. However, it is unclear how these benefits affect sleep other than making your body less stressed during sleep.

    3. Your sleeping position is, as you infer, important. And the height of your pillow is an important sleep tweak. For example if you are a side sleeper you will need a taller pillow than if you are a back sleeper. In whatever position you sleep in, the pillow needs to guarantee that your cervical region is in a neutral position. Just as one of the first steps in CPR, positioning the neck, positioning the neck for sleep is crucial.

    1. We really don’t know for sure how our ancestors slept. There are studies that indicate early hunter-gatherers slept on average 6.4 hours per night. The external environment is heavy influencer of this. I do think we are sleeping longer and less well due to our modern environment. But that is another blogpost to support that notion.

  9. Great article! So glad to see this get the attention it deserves (to see the two jaws juxtaposed made me tear up a little, the difference is so profound and it makes me feel like we were robbed of something that is our birthright). Other terrific resources are Patrick McKeown’s work with the Buteyko breathing method. You can find him online, on TED, Amazon, youtube, etc. The ramifications of improper breathing are multifold. Patrick asserts that overeating and overbreathing go hand in hand. I’m currently exploring his work and I just started seeing a myofacial therapist. Kathy Winslow in the Bay Area, for folks up here. I’m doing the ortho work, too, but I think a person like Kathy helps with the adaptation to the jaw’s new alignment/movement and she really gets the breathing component and the importance of tongue placement.

    1. I see Kathy too, via skype. She is awesome. I had zero expectations and basically just went bc the dentist made me, and I’m astounded at how much my tongue/jaw muscles have “learned” in just a few weeks.

  10. Not much that can be done about jaw formation in adults, but I see options for some of the other things mentioned. Exercises used by speech therapists to strengthen the tongue and other muscles in the face might help somewhat. Sinus rinses to reduce congestion might help too.

  11. I’d read all the stuff on breastfeeding and biomechanics and the growth of the palate, and breastfed my baby straight from the breast – no bottles – for almost 2 years. She then went straight to solid foods (almost entirely Primal), no purees or anything like that. She’s got the most crooked teeth I’ve ever seen on an infant. The front teeth actually overlap.

    1. There is some debate about nutrition vs biomechanics. I think it’s both, for reasons similar to your experience. The Calcium Paradox book has an interesting passage about the role of K2 and how the jaw shape is pretty much done being “programmed” in the first trimester. Maybe good biomechanics can’t always overcome this if there is a nutrient shortage?

  12. “Feed your kids natto.”

    Hahahahaha! I think I’ll stick to pastured dairy. Even if I could find natto locally, feeding it to my kids would be a futile effort.

    1. I’m surprised what kids will eat if the parents and peers keep their own tastes to themselves. My daughter loved Salmon eggs until her peers let her know how disgusting it was that she would even considering eating such foods.

  13. I usually have better deep sleep if I do a taxing hard workout earlier that day.

  14. How depressing. All this work I’m doing. Hell, I’m wearing blue-blockers as I read that the reason I wake every 2 hrs is due to the fact I’m gasping for oxygen? This has been one tough-love kinda day, folks.

  15. I actually learned something in this article. Chewing soft foods as an infant prevents proper jaw development and affects sleep? Who knew?? I’ve known about Marks Daily Apple for years but had no idea it was as informative as it actually is. Keep up the good work Mark!

    1. I may be stating the obvious but you are looking at a promo for a book..

      1. Call me cynical but I was kinda getting the same impression…

        Also, IMHO sleep needs fluctuate- I’m thinking a menstruating woman during bleeding time would require more sleep than during a different time of her cycle.. I like the idea of seasons and cycles, I’m thinking our ancestors probably slept less in the summer time due to there being more daylight, more abundance of food and their intuitive need to seek out more calories during this time (fruit is only ripe in the summer, right?!) to store as fat for when food is less abundant (ie Winter), and hence, more sleep (reducing calorie expenditure, conserving fat stores etc) during winter?

        Perhaps instead of a blanket generalisation of 8hours sleep (I get this is a guide for those of us who have lost touch with our intuitive self) we should be talking more along the lines of 7hours sleep in summer/9 hours sleep in winter… or highlighting the fact that everybody’s body has different needs daily really, and we need to find our way back to listening (AND responding!) to that.

        1. I hear you! Interestingly enough, people living at remote corners of the frozen world (Alaska or Siberia for instance), don’t crawl into a ball and go to sleep when winter arrives and the sun doesn’t show it’s face for 6 months, but carry on with their lives ( Pitch black around the time) as if nothing changed. Personally, I wake up much earlier during winter but my sleep is deeper and heavier, which I find odd

    2. You could use the “reverse bear trap”, as featured in the movie “Saw”.

  16. I once read the most prescribed medicine in the US is proctor pump inhibitors. Reflux and GERD is a major sleep disturbance in my book. So I guess many people are sleeping badly for that reason alone.

    1. GERD is a comorbidity of sleep apnea, so not only is it brought on by sleep apnea, but it does irritate the esophagus and mouth making deep sleep more difficult to attain.

  17. Interesting read, but your suggestions (consider your breathing, assess your breathing, etc.) don’t seem to provide any solutions.

  18. Are you sure about the talking in your sleep thing? My wife tells me I have full on long monologues – often in Russian – in my sleep. She doesn’t speak Russian and has never recorded me, so what I say is a mystery. But I sleep really well. I doubt that all that’s happening is my body trying to breathe better.

  19. You’d be amazed how eating and living primally supports ancestral sleep breathing for deeper, more restorative sleep. If you haven’t already tried the keto diet, or you’re not following the primal blueprint (< 150g of carbs per day w/ truly nourishing foods like liver, bone marrow, egg yolks, real butter, tallow, etc), try it!

    Personally, when I do a 5-day fast or go into deep keto, my pallet and nasal tissue shrinks to nutt'in and this bear of a breather becomes an ancient ancestral sleep breather. It's a difference that can be felt the next morning… ya gotta try it!

    Love the tape over the lips idea!

  20. Mouth taping is a simple and effective solution to mouth breathing in sleep. Was recommended by functional dentist in an on-line interview ( I can’t remember his name). I have been doing it ever since. Micropore tape – stick it to your arm first to remove some of the glue. Very effective at stopping me snoring, much to the relief of my partner!!