Like many healthcare providers, I was stunned to learn how airway issues and dysfunctional breathing habits impact our health. The American Dental Association recently released a statement asking dental providers to recognize, document and refer patients who show signs of airway obstruction and sleep disordered breathing. Breathe Colorado is my attempt and contribution to aiding in that mission and supporting the health and dental community.
I don't believe a cure or solution lies in one treatment. I believe it comes from a multitude of shifts in our lifestyle and a team of support to guide the body into optimal wellness. In my personal search for health, I was lucky to have found many modalities and skilled providers that helped me along my way. Each one creating a few degrees of change. I'm excited to share this knowledge with you, especially if it can help provide you with answers for improving your own health. I hope my transparency in sharing my personal health testimony serves as a platform to build trust and inspire you to get excited about taking the next steps in your pursuit towards wellness.
My Personal Health Testimony
The story of how I found myself working in the field of breathing and airway wellness is very personal and quite ironic. You see, I managed severe chronic pain and fatigue since I was a teenager. I sought out care from every traditional specialty and alternative practitioner in hopes of finding a resolution for my health. I spent most of my time outside of work sedentary and exhausted. My doctors diagnosed me with Autoimmune Disease, Lyme Disease, Fibromyalgia, Depression, Anxiety and more. I always had a sense there was a deeper issue keeping me from healing. After nearly 20 years of chronic pain and fatigue, I finally came to realize that I had to make the difficult choice of leaving my position as a dental hygienist. I thought that if I found a career that wasn't so hard on my body, maybe I would have more energy to enjoy my life outside of work. My solution to that came through a close friend and former dental hygiene classmate, Lesley Kupiec, an Orofacial Myofunctional Therapist working with Dr. Soroush Zaghi at the Breathe Institute. She said, "Laura, I know you've worked in pediatrics for years and love working with children, this field helps us identify early signs of airway problems, have you ever considered taking a class in OMT?" At that time I had just moved to Boulder, Colorado from Cambridge, Massachusetts. To my surprise, I was located near one of the longest standing practitioners of Orofacial Myology, Sandra Coulson. I was blown away after I took her introductory course. I realized that my health issues intensified in my teenage years directly after my orthodontist recommended we remove permanent teeth. Ultimately, they extracted 8 permanent teeth by the time I turned 17 years old. The practice of extracting permanent teeth in order to make room in the arch and straighten teeth with braces was and is unfortunately a common treatment recommendation in orthodontics. This retractive approach leaves individuals with small jaws and incredibly narrow airways. I later found out that the likely cause of my crowded teeth was a severe anterior and submucosal lingual restriction or "Tongue Tie." With narrow jaws and a small airway I struggled to breathe day and night. The struggle led my nervous system to become unbalanced and I spent most of my time in a sympathetic or "fight or flight" state. The extreme effort it took me to breathe eventually stimulated my body to take over the breathing and forcefully inhale (I would take in too much air and not let enough air out---also know as "Overbreathing," (See Jame's Nestor's Book, "Breath," to learn more). This set the stage for a chronic dysfunctional breathing habit and severe hypocapnia. *Hypocapnia is when the body's CO2 levels are abnormally low (below 35 mmHg) which cause pH changes in the body and many unexplained symptoms like fatigue and pain. (Learn more about my personal experience in my blog post "How Can Changes in My Breathing Cause a Sugar Craving?", or learn from Peter Litchfield, PhD's webinar for the Shambhala Mountain Center.)
As time went on, I began to wonder what would have happened if I did not give up on my career in dental hygiene to go in search of a new field. Would I have ever found a solution to my own poor health? Then, I started talking to my dental colleagues. I quickly realized that very few of us (under 5%) were taught these fundamental airway-focused principles in our basic education. If we wanted to learn these concepts we had to search for post graduate education. But many of us were not introduced to this topic, leaving us in the dark and not alerting us to what we didn't know. Unfortunately, even though I worked in the field of dentistry for 20 years, not a single provider was able to connect the dots of my symptoms to the way my mouth looked.
Each course I took provided me with another piece of the puzzle to get closer to my healing and health. The pieces really started coming together after my comprehensive training at the Academy of Orofacial Myofunctional Therapy and the Professional School of Behavioral Health and Sciences.
Over a five-year period, I made many improvements: I cleaned up my diet after my training at The Institute for Integrative Nutrition. By removing inflammatory foods like gluten, dairy and sugar, I noticed a significant shift in my mood and inflammation. I used educational capnography to get familiar with my breathing behavior and understand how that related to my breathing chemistry and symptoms. I learned the triggers that caused me to breathe dysfunctionally and replace them with new breathing habits that normalized my CO2 (eliminated my chronic hypocapnia). This single change nearly almost eliminated my symptoms of chronic pain and fatigue. Then, I completed an orofacial myofunctional - neuromuscular retraining program. This repatterining of the muscles of my mouth and face significantly improved my breathing, reduced my TMJ pain, eliminated my oral breathing and snoring, and completely stopped my clenching and grinding habit. About midway through that program, I received bodywork with Marc Drobnick and Craniosacral Therapy with Michelle Saxer to prepare my body for a functional release of my tongue restriction or "Tongue Tie," (also know as a frenuloplasty), with Dr. Jesse Witcoff at Colorado Tongue Tie. This greatly improved my neck and shoulder tension, reduced my headaches, and helped me achieve proper tongue posture - I can now get my whole tongue up against the roof of my mouth so I can breathe easily through my nose. And most importantly, this step allowed me to swallow properly which facilitates good lymphatic drainage and ENT health. I also trained with the HeartMath Institute to learn how renewing emotions support a coherent heart rate variability and give my nervous system flexibility to down regulate when needed. Most importantly, I established a regular yoga and meditation practice after my yoga teacher training at South Boston Yoga and my two-month residency at the Himalayan Institute. The mindfulness practices I learned helped me shift my perspective and provided a grounding ritual to help me listen to my inner wisdom.
I have observed steady gains in my overall health and wellness since implementing these tools. My next step is to begin appliance therapy to widen my jaw and open my airway with Dr. James Bieneman at Integrative Dental of Denver. So far, I'm already sleeping better, I have energy when I wake, I am pain free, I wake up without nasal congestion, I swallow less air which resulted in improved digestion and less bloating. My food sensitivities are improving, my skin is clear, my memory is sharp, and my hands and feet are no longer ice cold.
I am excited to report that I am now capable of being active! The tremendous gains I've made in my health allow me to fully enjoy the benefits of living in Colorado. Some of my favorite activities include camping, hiking, skiing, swing dancing, and making pottery.
Breathe easy. Be well.
Laura Barlow, CBBA, CSOM, INHC, CYT