co-written by Rick Olazabal, BSc, BN
Respiration physiology is rather complex (it can be at the level of the lungs or at the level of the cell), and if you’re suffering from insomnia you may have just found your cure!
Joke aside, respiration is a fascinating process with remarkable implications. We know that we need oxygen to live, and that every cell in the body requires oxygen (O2) and gets rid of carbon dioxide (CO2), but no other organ gets so much priority over oxygen like the brain does—not even the heart!
This is because our brain’s role is to provide “coherent control” over all the actions and functions of the body, which requires high amounts of energy and this in turn requires oxygen. When oxygen is lacking, this control suffers. The following article breaks it down brain oxygenation into basic components and offers some insight on some of the risk factors of hypoxia (low oxygen in the blood), the symptoms, and how to improve oxygenation.
How important is brain oxygenation?
There’s only one way to answer this question: very important. If you don’t believe me try holding your breath for a few minutes—please don’t do that! It comes as no surprise to most of us that the brain is the master organ that ultimately controls each and every function in the body and in order to do that it needs large amounts of oxygen.
Now why do exactly do we need oxygen? This is due to the intimate relationship between the evolution of life on earth and the levels of oxygen in the atmosphere. Air breathing organisms require oxygen in order to produce energy—the energy they require to sustain life. Just like a fire require oxygen to stay “alive” (hence why you ventilate the kindling!), or like an engine requires oxygen for combustion, the energy-producing organelles (tiny organs) of the cell require oxygen to keep us alive. Every single cell in your body requires for its metabolic functions, and while the brain is not thermogenic—that is, heat producing—it does consume a disproportionately large amount of oxygen (up to 25% of all the oxygen that makes its way into your blood).
Even if we breathe normally our brain may not be getting enough oxygen.
The brain is equipped with respiratory centres that tightly regulate breathing by gathering information from sensors in other parts of the body. These sensors can detect changes in chemicals, pH, irritation, stretch, etc. Under normal circumstances (a healthy, non-smoker person at sea-level), the breathing rate is easy and encompasses 12-20 breaths per minute. If you were to take this same person up a mountain, the demand for oxygen increases and “normal” breathing may not be enough—thus those receptors kick in and the brain forces you to compensate. When the brain cannot compensate for these changes in oxygen levels it goes under protection mode; the result is usually fainting.
It is important to note that oxygen is not the only gas the brain controls, but it is the only gas it can utilize in order to individual brain cells to survive. Another important gas in breathing regulation is CO2. It is the relationship between O2 and CO2—and how they fluctuate—that really control breathing. However, CO2 is a byproduct (i.e. waste) of metabolism and it needs to be excreted. During exercise, for example, your breathing can be normal (occasionally you may be out of breath depending on whether you’re a beginner, or if you’re being rather intense), but as the metabolic demands for oxygen increase all over the body, there’s relatively less oxygen coming to the brain. This may have a protective effect, as it would force you to slow down and start recovering.
People with inflammatory conditions like asthma or emphysema can breathe “normally” and still not receive proper oxygenation. This is due to poor CO2-O2 exchange due to inflammation and/or damage to the cells of the lungs. It is important for these people to seek medical attention and receive bronchodilators that can help reduce symptoms and obtain more oxygen.
What are the risk factors of lack of oxygen?
Hypoxia is detrimental to your health. There’s a very small window of opportunity before irreversible damage occurs resulting in death. This is particularly true in people who just suffered a stroke, or a heart attack. Knowing the signs and acting FAST is imperative. This is also true of carbon monoxide “CO” poisoning. Make sure you have CO alarms and avoid being close to the exhaust of your car—avoid being to close to the highways or even running near the road.
Other severe risk factors would include things like severe alcohol intoxication, drowning, asphyxiation, head injury—which can be very serious if not critical— choking, very low blood pressure, surgery (due to reactivity to anaesthesia), asthma, sleep apnea, and so on, but also smoking, some occupations like mining, being at high altitudes (if you weren’t born like that), holding your breath under water for too long, not breathing during your workout!
What are the symptoms?
Early symptoms of CO poisoning can include lightheadedness, headache, nausea, vomiting. Stay alert for changes in speech, facial movement and ability (reduced) to move the body, difficulty with memory and decision making. Severe signs include seizures, coma, brain death.
How to oxygenate our brain?
Personally, I don’t think that you should start running towards an oxygen bar. Too much oxygen can be equally detrimental to your lungs by causing serious inflammation and injury. It would be prudent to engage in ease breathing exercises of nice and smooth full breaths, not too fast, for a few seconds—yoga and meditation may be excellent for this.
Going for walk and jogging can help stimulate blood flow throughout your body, including the brain. The more the blood flowing, the more you facilitate gas exchange. Take a walk in nature; avoid the city and go get some fresh air once in a while—not only does this help you breathe easier, but it helps with stress!
I would suggest going in for a regular check up just to make sure that your hemoglobin, ferritin, B12 and thyroid hormones are in their normal levels. Hemoglobin is the molecule that carries oxygen. Lower levels of ferritin and hemoglobin lead to anemia and thus hypoxia. Similarly, low levels of B12 can interfere with red blood cell production (the cells that load up hemoglobin and thus transport O2 and CO2).
Thyroid hormones should be tested also because of overlapping symptoms. Once all of these components are into place, you may ask a licensed naturopathic doctor if taking products like Ginkgo biloba is good for you. Ginkgo has been known to improve brain function by increasing blood flow, and thus oxygen, to the brain.