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The $2 Sleep-Aid Laboratory Test

We repair machines that don’t quite work. And whatever else it may be — a source of frustration, amusement, and various fluids — the human body is a machine that doesn’t quite work. It does certain things extraordinarily well. It cools itself via sweat and can maintain a trot longer than almost any other animal. It supports a disproportionate brain that burns through 20 joules of caloric energy per second. It wears t-shirts. But the breathing function is janky.

It’s a problem with the intake. While the mouth is the proportionately larger orifice for inhalation, it’s the nose that’s more efficient. Here’s how it works: Upon inhalation, the nasal cavity warms and humidifies the air and brings it closer to the body’s core temperature. This makes it easier for the lungs to conduct the necessary exchange of gasses from oxygen to carbon dioxide. Nasal hairs filter out dust, pollen, and other allergens to prevent them from reaching the lungs. And, most importantly, nasal breathing releases nitric oxide, a vasodilator, which widens blood vessels to aid circulation of oxygen throughout the body. (Mouth breathing is a worthwhile alternative only when congestion hinders this process.) Overall, this astoundingly efficient process is why conscious and concerned breathers train themselves to inhale through their noses during the day, but nighttime presents more of a challenge. 

Roughly 65% of people breathe through their mouths at night, according to Dr. Ann Kearney, a Stanford University Speech Language Pathologist. This increases their risk of snoring or experiencing labored breathing during sleep and can also increase the amount of bacteria entering the mouth. Dry mouth, cavities, and especially bad morning breath can result. 

Enter the trend known as mouth taping. Over the last few years, an increasing number of humans have been using small pieces of $2 surgical tape to seal their lips shut at night, which forces nasal breathing. A significant subset of these people are then getting up in the morning, taking the tape off, and refusing to shut up about how great they slept. 

Mouth taping is getting popular, but it’s also getting pushback. There’s minimal clinical research supporting claims that it substantially improves sleep or is a cure for breathing disorders like sleep apnea, but there’s also a surfeit of positive testimonials. And unlike many other potentially dangerous wellness trends – digestive teas, sleepy chicken, chlorophyll drinking water — it poses negligible risk for most people. The question for many of its advocates is simple: Why not? 

“Mouth taping is a seemingly idiotic thing where you tape your mouth when you are sleeping, specifically to prevent you from mouth breathing,” explains science journalist James Nestor, author of the 2020 book Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art. “I thought it was completely absurd until I talked to experts in the field from ENTs to respiratory therapists to dentists and it turns out that people have been prescribing this to patients for decades — they just keep a really low profile because they don’t want to be outed.”

Nestor, a taper himself, didn’t mind being associated publically with the practice. He suggests that the lack of scientific consensus on the subject is easily explained by incentives. Tape is a cheap medical intervention. There’s no big win for researchers, at least not financially.

But there are researchers. 

Dr. Kearney is an enthusiastic mouth tape user who adopted the practice after studying Buteyko Breathing, a nasal breathing technique she was using to treat patients who’d gone through total laryngectomies, or complete voice box removals.

 Kearney is, by her own admission, a mouth breather and a snorer. She has excessive tissue in her nose and pursued taping as an alternative to surgical intervention. Her mouth ceased to be dry. She slept through the night. Her snoring subsided. 

The human machine chugged along a bit more quietly.

Dr. Kearney went cold turkey right away, taping her mouth closed day and night for the sake of the experiment. Despite seeing radical changes in her life after just two months, it’s not something she recommends. 

“In hindsight, I would not recommend my severe approach — and I have a different protocol now with patients I work with.”

“Currently, we lack clinical trials to demonstrate the effectiveness of mouth tape. Consequently, this simple, low-cost method with potentially a significant impact to a high percentage of the population has not been utilized,” says Kearney. “A few trials have examined whether mouth taping can help alleviate snoring in people with pre-existing sleep conditions, but we know little about whether the tape can benefit the general public, and this is the crux of my motivation and research.” Kearney is currently conducting the first major study on the effects of nasal breathing on snoring as well as a study on mouth taping specifically as a method for promoting nasal breathing.

But not everyone thinks mouth taping is going to stick around. 

Dr. Chris Winter, a neurologist, sleep specialist and host of Sleep Unplugged describes the practice as an “absurd and a perfect example of social media healthcare… if it’s new and weird, it must be good.” 

Dr. Winter is wary of short-term interventions like mouth taping that may work in the interim, or may be putting off more intensive treatment of chronic problems like sleep apnea. 

“Outside of warming or filtering the air, I’m not sure there is any benefit. For some, it may reduce snoring, but its usefulness in treating sleep apnea is more dubious. I think the potential for aspiration and masking of a serious medical problem are both potential problems,” said Dr. Winter. “Most people breathe through their noses at night anyway. Much ado about nothing. Up next, ass taping for IBS.”

Dr. Megan Acho, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Sleep Medicine at the University of Michigan, also emphasized that mouth taping is “not a validated treatment for sleep apnea and will not cure sleep apnea.” She also acknowledges the long-term ramifications of untreated sleep-disordered breathing, which include an increased risk for “heart disease, arrhythmias, stroke, diabetes, and obesity.” 

But most folks buying a roll of medical tape on Amazon likely aren’t at profound risk. They just snore. And for some of those people, trying the practice may do more good than harm. 

“I bought this surgical tape, it’s like $2 a roll, so it’s not very expensive, and I gave it a try,” says Austin-based Product Manager Jared Thomas, who adopted the practice after reading Nestor’s book and a lifetime of light snoring. “I was really worried about it being uncomfortable and not sleeping, and I actually didn’t mind it at all and from the first day it was awesome.” 

He’s not turning back.

“It was just no problem for me. I taped my mouth shut and it has been nothing but positives for me, except for my sticky mouth. I would recommend it to others.”

 Thomas echoes Nestor, who essentially recommends one-person medical trials, citing the profound unlikelihood that mouth taping could have complications.

“Take a nap wearing sleep tape for 15 minutes. How do you feel? Is your nose stuffed up? Do you feel claustrophobic? Then don’t wear it at night, right?” says Nestor. “It’s common sense. If you’re having problems, don’t wear it.”

He sighs as he talks. It feels obvious to him. He inhales sharply.