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