Oxygen, we heart you!

We all know the urban legend that bad luck or death comes in threes. But have you heard the axiom that death comes by threes? Three weeks without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air. While this satisfies my theatrical brain, and the rule of three in drama and story telling, it might not actually be precisely accurate.

True, the body can survive, on average, 3 weeks without food (Ghandi lasted exactly 21 days on his famous hunger strike). But, we can survive a little longer than 3 days without water. Perhaps even up to a week.

As for how long we can survive without oxygen, to be honest, there isn’t an exact number, but there is a pretty basic timeline of what happens to your body and brain without oxygen:

  • At one-minute, brain cells begin dying.
  • At three minutes, lasting brain damage becomes likely.
  • At 10 minutes, even if the brain remains alive, severe brain damage is almost inevitable.
  • At 15 minutes, survival becomes nearly impossible.

Given that the brain governs our entire body, it goes without saying that keeping it oxygenated is integral to our overall health and wellness. There is a ton of research devoted to oxygen’s role in exercise and post-exercise, everything from VO2max, to anaerobic threshold, to EPOC. High performance athletes benefit a great deal from understanding and enhancing their body’s ability to deliver oxygen throughout their body. But what about the rest of us? Athlete or not, we would all be wise to better understand oxygen’s role in wound healing and recovery.

The body’s ability to thrive, or heal from illness or trauma, is greatly influenced by factors such as nutritional state, immune function, blood flow and volume, hormonal mediators, sleep, etc… but some research suggests that oxygen may, in fact, be a critical rate limiting factor in early stages of repair.

Injury poses two conflicting complications, as the tissue has an increased need for oxygen and metabolic energy, but injury disrupts the normal capillary network, which is responsible for oxygen delivery to the tissue. So, it stands to reason that if you are further depriving your body of oxygen, your body may never meet the demands required for adequate repair and recovery. Let’s look, with very simplified explanations, at some of oxygen’s main roles in wound healing:

  • Energy Metabolism: oxygen is the key catalyst to energy production.
  • Protein and Collagen Synthesis: collagen creates an essential matrix of tissue in wound healing. Oxygen synthesizes the two necessary amino acids that help form that collagen.
  • Neovascularization: the body’s ability to make new capillaries for oxygen delivery is, as luck would have it, also dependent on oxygen availability and the aforementioned collagen production.
  • Polymorphonuclear Cell Function: PMN cells locate, identify, phagocytize (the ingestion of bacteria), kill, and digest invading microorganisms.

There are several metabolic and chemical variables we can manipulate to improve ones oxygen intake, transport, and delivery through the system. There are exercises we can do to improve our respiratory activity, our lung capacity, and even the oxygen transport. In fact, any exercise that challenges your body’s need for oxygen can, over time, improve your body’s uptake and delivery of oxygen. And there are even various oxygen supplementation products on the market. But one free and incredibly easy thing to do is to BREATHE better. I’ve written about this in a previous blog (Just Breathe), and we’ve posted a video  on Alternate Nostril Breathing (https://youtu.be/-P6cnNZpdGU), which is a very easy breathing exercise that will help increase the amount of oxygen you are taking in and improve your exhalation, helping you to release carbon dioxide.

In so much as we can improve our oxygen levels, we can also severely hinder it. While there are some conditions that might prevent a person from maximizing their oxygen potential, the single most damaging choice you can make for your overall health is… you guessed it: smoking. Chronic inhalation of tobacco smoke causes irritation, inflammation, and scarring of the lungs tissue. With compromised lung tissue, you can’t get maximal oxygen intake or carbon dioxide output. Further, smoking increases blood levels of carbon monoxide. Yup! The stuff from car exhaust is also found in cigarette smoke. Carbon monoxide has the ability to attach itself to hemoglobin where oxygen otherwise would attach. This further decreases the oxygen delivered to the muscles (and the rest of the body, including the brain). The body tries to compensate for the lack of oxygen by creating more red blood cells. This sounds like a good idea, but more is not always better. In this case, the extra red blood cells can thicken the blood and actually further slow down circulation. It’s a veritable vicious cycle!

Bottom line, if you improve your body’s oxygen levels, you’ll improve its healing potential!