Ive told you about oxygen therapy for years. Ive showed you how it can work wonders in a lot of different ailments. But now a new report says breathing 100% oxygen is not good for you. What! How could that be? After all, these oxygen therapies provide miraculous cures for thousands of people. The report must be inaccurate, right?
Wrong! The study is completely accurate and I agree with the researchers completely. Since most of you know me as Dr. Oxygen, I am sure this raises a lot of questions about multi-step therapy and hyperbaric oxygen.
Ill answer all your questions in just a moment. But lets look at the study so we can see what these researchers found – and how it applies to you. While the study appears to go after our beloved oxygen therapies, it actually blows apart decades of medical dogma. For decades, modern medicine pushed oxygen therapy for many emergent conditions.
For instance, imagine you have chest pain and the ambulance quickly whisks you off to the emergency room. From the moment they pick you up, they give you pure oxygen to breathe. The paramedics are acting under the assumption that it will protect you from further harm.
But this study suggests there are many times when its very dangerous to treat patients with straight oxygen.
The researchers performed this study on kids. But I can assure you oxygen will have the exact effect on you. When the researchers gave 14 children (average age 11) 100% oxygen to breathe, there were bad alterations in blood flow to the brain within seconds. They determined blood flow using a functional MRI test (fMRI). It evaluates blood flow. Breathing 100% oxygen caused significantly less blood to reach critical areas of the brain. These areas control hormones, autonomic function, blood pressure, and heart rate. Cutting blood flow to tissues is not healthy for cells. Damage can occur. It seems to be a paradox — breathe more oxygen and get less to your tissues. But its all about carbon dioxide (CO2) and pH. Ill explain.
After you breathe in oxygen, your body burns it and makes water and CO2 for exhalation. Theres a very delicate balance in your body of carbon dioxide and pH. CO2 levels acutely determine your blood pH. CO2 in your waters is an acid! Your body regulates its level of CO2 and pH far more closely than it does oxygen. Think about this. When you start exercise, you do not need to breathe more immediately. Its only after climbing the flight of stairs that you breathe harder. That is because your body created more CO2 (and increased acidity) during the exercise, and your body needs to get rid of it. So you huff and puff.
If you breathe 100% oxygen, residual carbon dioxide in the lungs is quickly washed out. That hastens CO2 removal from your blood as well. Lower CO2 and your arteries will quickly constrict. Less CO2 also leads to more alkaline pH. While we strive to maintain alkalinity through diet, excessively blowing off CO2 leads to an acute excess alkaline state. Alkalinity further constricts your blood vessels. Acidity, on the other hand, increases circulation. Why? More blood is needed to cart off the excess acids (created by exercise). If your pH is high (alkaline), your body is fooled into thinking that it needs less blood there. Your nervous system adjusts by decreasing blood flow there!
So, breathing 100% oxygen leads to similar circulatory imbalances as in a panic attack. It fools your autonomic nervous system (ANS) into thinking that it has plenty of oxygen and alkalinity. The ANS will counterbalance by constricting your arteries. The tissues (including your brain) now have less blood flow and can get damaged. Theres the answer to the paradox.
And the remedy? The study found that simply adding 5% CO2 to the oxygen mitigated almost all the bad effects. Why? It provided the needed CO2 that otherwise got washed out.
This brings us back to our favorite oxygen therapies: multi-step therapy (exercise with oxygen — EWOT) and hyperbaric oxygen (HBO).
With EWOT, you are breathing oxygen at 10-15 liters per minute. But remember, with EWOT you are also exercising. That burns oxygen, creating lots more CO2 and acidity. If you calculate the amount of air a typical person will breathe with EWOT, you see why. I can move over two liters of air up to 15 times per minute when working out. That is 30 liters per minute minimum. That far exceeds the amount of 100% O2 (10-15 liters per minute) I am inhaling. So I am also getting some room air, and the oxygen wash-out of CO2 is lessened. Finally, Ive observed the amazing benefits of EWOT over many years. If anything, brainpower is enhanced, as is overall energy and even sexual prowess. So we know it helps the brain – it does not hurt it.
What about HBO? It works entirely differently. Here, you are breathing 100% oxygen, but under pressure. With pressure, oxygen is driven into the waters of your body. Even if blood vessels constrict, there will still be plenty of oxygen. So theres no cause for alarm. However, the study suggests to me that you could enhance the benefits of HBO by using a 95% oxygen/5% CO2 mixture. But that would increase the cost of the gas significantly.
Considering the wonderful benefits we have seen from HBO, including repairing brain damage, I am favorably impressed by the clinical experience over the theoretical risk. You might recall that I wrote about the low pressure HBO chambers in a past issue. Data on cerebral palsy suggests that using room air to pressurize even the low pressure chambers will have the same benefit as using pure oxygen. So it may simply be the pressure and not the higher concentration of oxygen that gives you the bulk of benefits of HBO.
Modern medicine has used and is still using an unproven and potentially dangerous treatment for many emergent situations. Giving oxygen to a stroke or heart attack victim might actually increase brain or heart damage! Yet that is why many people go to the hospital with a stroke – to get oxygen! If you need oxygen in the hospital, the nasal prong method should be quite safe. It will provide a bit of extra oxygen but the final concentration of oxygen after dilution with breathing in room air is nowhere near 100%. Avoid a mask delivery at higher than 4 liters/min.
And if you are doing EWOT, keep it up. I have not had even one complaint of unwanted effects in 10 years!
Ref: PLoS Med., 2007 May; 4(5): e173; Published online 2007 May 22.