Few people are aware that we have in the body many examples of rhythmic changes referred to as cycles. Even fewer are aware that there is a relationship between breathing through the nose and brain activity, referred to as the nasal cycle. The cycle was discovered by Richard Kayser in 1895. He noted that there was a predictable pattern of swelling and shrinkage in the mucosal lining of the nose, although he had no idea of its purpose.
The nasal cycle is usually unnoticed as alternating partial congestion and decongestion of the nasal cavities. It is a physiological congestion of erectile tissue covering the turbinates, the bony projections within the nostril. The erectile tissue is similar to that in the genitalia. The turbinates in one nostril fill up with blood while the opposite turbinates decongest by shunting blood away. This cycle is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and has a mean duration of 2 1/2 hours. It is further documented that when a person is lying on one side, the nostril on the same side will become congested. Normally this is also unnoticed. However, my clinical experience is that this effect becomes recognized consciously by patients whose ANS is in a more excitable state.
For example, the left nostril becomes noticeably congested when the person is lying on the left side, but clears as he/she turns to the right side. The right nostril then becomes congested. I had noted this as an important symptom of dysautonomia (abnormal exaggeration of ANS activity) and always asked the patient routinely whether this had been consciously recognized when going to bed. It became an important clue to recognizing that the symptoms reported by the patient were caused by ANS dysfunction. I was frequently able to prove that the patient was deficient in vitamin B1 by means of a blood test and the symptom disappeared with administration of pharmacologic doses of the vitamin. I also became aware that even minor energy deficiency in brain affects the ANS, signaling symptoms that are usually ignored or attributed to other causes by physicians. I also learned that the smartest people were more at risk. This, at first sight, appears to be ridiculous until you realize that the brain consumes an enormous amount of energy. If a person is endowed with a brilliant brain, the energy requirement will be proportional. Although the purpose of the nasal cycle is unknown, it is important to recognize that it has a mechanism mediated through the ANS.
Nasal Congestion and the Autonomic Nervous System
The voluntary nervous system is that which we all recognize as being the mediator of conscious action. The ANS regulates all the automatic functions of the body and operates below the conscious level. It is this system that is involved with the nasal cycle. From an anatomical point of view, we know that the voluntary nervous system and the ANS are connected at various locations in the body. Thus, an event that is normally below conscious level may become noticed consciously through the “conversation” between the two nervous systems.
The ANS consists of two different parts. One is referred to as the sympathetic component and its best known action is the fight-or-flight reflex. I like to refer to it as the “action organization system”, because it prepares us to face literally any form of stress that demands a mental or physical response. The response acts below the conscious level and may not enter consciousness at all until the action is completed, when the sympathetic activity is withdrawn.
The other part of the ANS, known as the parasympathetic, now takes over and governs the body. I like to call this the “rest and be thankful system” because it permits the brain to regulate all the automatic functions of body organs when we are in a place of safety. Note that “chronic stress” such as worry over meeting a deadline in business, prolonged mental/physical activity or pain will keep the sympathetic nervous system action going with varying degrees of effect. Thus, nasal congestion in a stressed person may be called “an allergy”, or “coming down with a cold”. To recognize it as a symptom of dysautonomia would demand a drastic change in concept. In our book “Thiamine Deficiency Disease, Dysautonomia and High Calorie Malnutrition“, a child is described who had chronic asthma and responded to pharmacologic doses of thiamine. Again, at first sight and in the light of our present disease model, this would be unbelievable unless there is a realization that the bronchial tubes are also under the command of the ANS. Moderate lack of cellular energy in the lower part of the brain from any cause activates the ANS because of its recognition of danger.
The Honeymoon Nose
Because of the erectile tissue in the nose, as described above, there is a phenomenon known as the “Honeymoon nose”. The nasal lining becomes congested after prolonged sexual stimulation, the hallmark of emotional stress. Even without any form of required action, there is a normal flux in the ANS between the sympathetic and parasympathetic actions reflected in the nasal cycle. Although we have no idea about this, in a state of normal health we breathe through one dominant nostril that switches to the other nostril every 2 to 2 1/2 hours, regulated by this flux in the ANS. The nasal congestion associated with a cold may well be an exaggeration of ANS activity as a response by the brain to the virus as a form of stress.
Brain Involvement in Nasal Cycles
The electroencephalogram (EEG) is used to indicate electrical activity in the brain. It was found that alternating dominance of cerebral hemispheric activity in humans could be demonstrated through this instrument. Not only that, relative changes in electrical activity had a direct correlation with changes in the relative nostril dominance, the nasal cycle. Later, these authors showed that forced nostril breathing in one nostril produces a relative increase in the electrical waves of the EEG in the contralateral (opposite) hemisphere, a technique long used by Yogis as brain stimulation. There is also evidence of central regulation of intraocular (eyes) pressure. It was demonstrated that forced unilateral nostril breathing led to a significant decrease of intraocular pressure in 46 patients with both open and closed angle glaucoma (two types).
Relatively greater cognitive ability in one hemisphere (e.g. right brain) corresponds to unilateral forced nostril breathing in the contralateral nostril (e.g. left nostril) A similar effect was found in studying 51 right-handed undergraduate psychology students and the authors suggested that the yogic breathing technique may have a useful application in treating psychophysiological disorders and disorders with autonomic abnormalities.
We are indeed wondrously made. We live our lives with a complete ignorance of what makes us tick. We are unaware that there are literally millions of signals between the brain and the body that enable us to survive as fragile organisms in a complex hostile environment. The nasal cycle is an excellent illustration of this and the knowledge of its activity should give us a new perspective about the reality of health and disease. It surely makes us realize that the brain is really the personality and the body is merely a chassis that carries the brain around. It enables us to understand that a cripple living his life in a wheelchair can experience the joy of living, depending on his acceptance of his situation.
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