You might think your nostrils work together, sharing the responsibility of inhaling and exhaling air. The truth is that you typically only breathe through one nostril at a time. This phenomenon is known as the nasal cycle, and it’s a natural process that occurs in most people.
The autonomic nervous system regulates the nasal cycle, which controls many involuntary bodily functions, such as your heart rate and digestion. It’s characterized by alternating partial congestion and decongestion of the nasal passages, with one nostril becoming more open while the other becomes more congested. This cycle typically lasts between 1.5 to 4 hours and then switches sides.
There are several reasons for the nasal cycle. One is that it helps maintain overall nasal health by ensuring that one nostril remains moist and humid while the other dries out. This allows the cilia, tiny hair-like structures in your nasal passages, to effectively trap particles and prevent them from entering your respiratory system. Additionally, the nasal cycle allows each nostril to experience different airflow patterns, which can enhance your sense of smell.
Another possible reason for the nasal cycle is that it may play a role in regulating brain function. Some studies have suggested that breathing predominantly through the right nostril is associated with increased activity in the brain’s left hemisphere while breathing through the left nostril is linked to increased activity in the right hemisphere. This alternating pattern could help balance brain activity and cognitive function.
In conclusion, the nasal cycle is a fascinating and little-known aspect of human physiology. While you might have assumed that both nostrils share the workload when it comes to breathing, the reality is that you typically only breathe through one nostril at a time. This intriguing phenomenon plays a crucial role in maintaining nasal health, enhancing your sense of smell, and possibly even regulating brain function.
Haight, J. S., & Cole, P. (1983). The site and function of the nasal cycle. The Laryngoscope, 93(1), 49-53. doi: 10.1288/00005537-198301000-00010
Shannahoff-Khalsa, D. S., & Kennedy, B. (1993). The effects of unilateral forced nostril breathing on the heart. International Journal of Neuroscience, 73(1-2), 47-60. doi: 10.3109/00207459308987245