Cast your mind back to being age 12 or 13 in Science class. Do you remember the teacher telling you about the importance of Oxygen, that little molecule that is absolutely, totally, unquestionably necessary for ALL forms of life to exist?
Well, it’s TRUE. It is impossible to live without Oxygen. Oxygen is undoubtedly a key ingredient for cellular respiration - one of the most basic mechanisms for energy release and life sustenance. Sound familiar? This is pretty basic secondary school stuff, right?
However, what your teacher might not have told you is that despite it being impossible to live without Oxygen, it is also quite difficult to live WITH Oxygen, due to something identified by Dr Helmut Sies as ‘oxidative stress’. Herein lies the Oxygen Paradox.
What is ‘Oxidative stress’ and how does it contribute to the Oxygen Paradox?
Put simply, ‘oxidative stress’ is a state brought about by an imbalance between prooxidants and antioxidants, whereby the body is unable to produce enough of the antioxidants in order to neutralise the damaging effects of the prooxidants.
But what are prooxidants?
We’ve all heard of antioxidants and their beneficial effects for things such as ageing, chronic disease, diabetes, cancer, etc.. We are constantly being reminded that fruits and vegetables are good for us because of their abundance of these chemicals, but we are perhaps less aware of their less helpful counterparts, prooxidants. Prooxidants have an opposite effect to that of antioxidants. In other words, they actually encourage things like ageing and chronic disease.
Therefore, having an imbalance of pro to antioxidants in the body, in favour of the former, is damaging to our health, hence the label ‘oxidative stress’ for this state of imbalance.
Oxidation and the rusty car
To illustrate what is happening in the body when it is under oxidative stress we can use the example of a rusty car.
‘When a car rusts, Oxygen latches onto and oxidizes the iron, changing it into a material much weaker, dustier and flakier than the original frame of the shiny vehicle we drove out of the dealer’s showroom. The same thing happens to human bodies, and a large body of scientific research indicates that it is a long-term losing battle’.
Oxidation has a similar (although albeit less extreme) effect on the human body as to that which it has on a car when it is rusting. Our cells degenerate and our defences against ageing and chronic diseases are reduced. Oxidation has also been linked to neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimers and Dementia, which are becoming more and more of a problem as our population lives for longer and longer.
The link between oxidative stress and over-breathing
By now we have worked out that a state of oxidative stress is brought about by the process of oxidation, but what causes oxidation to occur?
Really the answer is very simple: too much Oxygen. Too much Oxygen brought about by too much breathing.
Yes. That’s right. It is possible to ‘over breathe’ and flood our bodies with too much Oxygen. I know this seems to go against everything you’ve been told before about Oxygen and how crucial it is for survival, but hang in there, hear me out!
Problems of over-breathing
When we breathe too much, too quickly or too often, oxidation occurs. Oxygen molecules bind to our red blood cells. This ‘oxidation’ of our red blood cells brings about an array of problems that are damaging to human health, including:
- Chronic diseases such as Diabetes and Cancer
- Neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimers and Dementia
- Tension, chronic pain and inflammation
We are now beginning to see just where Helmut Sies’ ‘Oxygen Paradox’ comes from. Despite being necessary for life via the process of respiration, too much Oxygen makes sustaining life difficult.
What are the reasons for over-breathing?
Over-breathing is extremely common. In fact, most of us are doing it most of the time. There are a number of reasons for over-breathing. The most common reasons for over-breathing are:
- Stress and anxiety
- Breathing through your mouth instead of your nose
Let’s talk about these reasons one by one and discuss their implications.
Stress and anxiety
In the 21st Century, stress and anxiety are unavoidable parts of life. A recent report by the Business Insider, quoting a study by the World Health Organisation, said that current Millennials are experiencing more mental health problems such as stress and anxiety than any other generation.
When stress and anxiety hit, our bodies are flooded with stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause our heart rate to rapidly rise by as much as an extra 38 beats per minute. Alongside increased heart rate, we also start to over-breathe. Have you ever been so consumed by fear, worry or grief that your heart felt like it was about to burst out of your ribcage, or cried so much that you could barely breathe? These are extreme examples of how stress and anxiety can lead to a massively increased heart rate and intense over-breathing in the form of hyperventilation. A hyperventilated state is a highly undesirable state to be in. Impaired thinking, memory and hallucinations are all products of a hyperventilated state. Thus we can see the profoundly damaging impacts of stress and anxiety upon the breathing rate and the body.
Most people breathe through their nose under normal conditions, ie. when they are not suffering from a cold or some other illness obstructing the nasal passages. However, there are also a proportion of people known as ‘mouth breathers’ who breathe through the mouth by default, instead of the nose. This is bad for health for a number of reasons.
Proper, ‘functional’ breathing should take place in from and out of the nose. Ukrainian Dr Konstantin Buteyko, creator of the Butekyo method, describes how the breath should be ‘light, regular, effortless, with the primary movement from the diaphragm.’ He goes on to describe how, on the other end of the spectrum, poor breathing is from the upper chest and usually through the mouth.
Mouth breathing can lead to a number of health problems, one of which is sleep apnea , a dangerous condition whereby a person intermittently stops and restarts breathing during their sleep. A chronic mouth breather will have their jaw and mouth in a position that does not allow adequate breathing during sleep.
On top of sleep apnea, mouth-breathers also breathe faster than than nose breathers, leading to the problem we identified earlier: over-breathing.
Another culprit for over-breathing is excessive talkativeness. The National Centre for Neurogenic Communication Disorders and Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences conducted a study into the impacts of continuous talking on ventilation. The study found that the average breathing rate doubled when talking continuously compared to when not talking at all.
CO2 - waste product or magic medicine?
The aforementioned study also found that CO2 levels dropped by almost one quarter after talking continuously for ten minutes. CO2 is an important molecule that often gets overlooked during discussions about breathing. Let’s look into the implications of lowering CO2 in the body...
Cast your mind back again to being in Science class. We breathe in Oxygen and we breathe out Carbon Dioxide. Correct. Carbon dioxide is a more or less waste product of respiration… Incorrect!
Carbon dioxide is not just a waste product. It is a crucial ingredient for the maintenance of the body’s chemical environment. CO2 regulates blood acidity levels along with that of other fluids transiting in and out of every cell.
Whatsmore, CO2 is a vasodilator, meaning it causes our blood vessels to expand and thus increases bloodflow to the brain and vital organs. CO2 helps to lower blood pressure and crucial to today’s discussion topic, increased levels of CO2 reverses the binding of Oxygen molecules to red blood cells. This process is called the Bohr effect and the opposite is also true whereby decreased levels of CO2 causes Oxygen to bind to red blood cells.
Therefore when CO2 levels drop, bloodflow to the brain and our vital organs decreases, blood pressure is able to rise AND Oxygen molecules attach to red blood cells, leading to oxidation and oxidative stress.
We can now see why CO2 is far more than just a byproduct of respiration - it has medicinal, healing properties for the human body and a lack of CO2 causes damage.
Evidence from the world around us
Too much Oxygen is bad for us and Carbon Dioxide is medicine. Breathe less and live longer. ‘Whaaaaat?! Where is the evidence for all of this?!’ I hear you crying out at your computer screen. Well, let’s take a look at some of that evidence…
Elephants vs squirrels
Firstly let’s consider the ancient yogis when they were putting together their systems of pranayama and breathing techniques to calm the mind and bring longevity and health to the body. As one should always do when looking for examples of how to live in equilibrium and balance, they studied nature. They observed that elephants breathed very slowly with a breathing rate of 2 bpm and lived a very long time - longer than most humans. Squirrels, on the other hand, they observed breathing ten times as fast as elephants and living for just two or three years. WIth this solid evidence in favour of slow breathing in mind, the ancient yogis incorporated slow breathing practices into their systems and lived long, healthy lives.
Naked mole rats
Secondly, we can take the example of the small, unassuming rodent, the naked mole rat. These creatures live in vast tunnel systems underneath African desert lands. To say that things in such a habitat are stuffy would be an understatement. The tunnel conditions of the naked mole rats are hypoxic, meaning very little Oxygen is available. What the tunnels do have, however, is A LOT more CO2. On the Earth’s surface, CO2 makes up less than 1% of the air around us. In the cavernous tunnel networks of the naked mole rat, CO2 levels are between 7-10%. Naked mole rats sometimes go as much as 18 minutes without breathing. Despite this lack of Oxygen and dramatically increased percentage of CO2, naked mole rats can withstand cancer, pain and live for up to 30 years. In contrast, other members of the rodent family such as mice and rats, with much higher breathing rates and living in surface conditions, live for just one or two years.
Yes, the above examples are both taken from animals. Therefore we cannot necessarily infer that the same results regarding slow breathing, low Oxygen and increased CO2 would definitely be observed in human subjects…. Until we look at the case of the 1968 Mexican Olympics. These games were held at a high altitude of 2240m above sea level. No Olympic games before or since have ever been held at such an altitude. Far from having a detrimental impact on the athletes’ performance, many records, particularly in track and field, were broken. These games marked the beginning of so-called ‘altitude training’, whereby athletes subject themselves to both sleeping and training at high altitudes in order to gain the benefits of hypoxic conditions. Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems lists some of these benefits as being:
- Decreased average heart rate
- Decreased blood pressure
- Increased production and release of Human Growth Hormone
- Stimulation of fat metabolism
- Decreased oxidative stress from free radicals
How can we use the Oxygen paradox to our advantage?
So, we have seen clearly how the benefits of slow breathing are huge and that Helmut’s Oxygen Paradox is real. It is impossible to live without Oxygen, but also very difficult to live with it! Now the question is what to do with this information to use it to our advantage?
Unfortunately for the squirrel, it does not have a choice in how slowly or quickly it breathes. It is hardwired by nature to breathe quickly.
We human beings, on the other hand, are extremely fortunate in this regard. As conscious, intelligent human beings, able to take in, analyse and make decisions based upon information, we have a choice. Unlike the squirrel have an ability to control our breathing and manipulate our Oxygen and CO2 levels in order to reap the many benefits of doing so.
If you are interested in feeling what it is like to slow down your breathing rate, use less Oxygen, increase CO2 levels in your body AND experience your inner bliss, we at SOMA have a free meditation masterclass so that you can experience it first hand.
What is SOMA?
SOMA breathing incorporates some of the most widely practiced and beneficial pranayama techniques from around the world and merges them to create something truly transformative and healing. SOMA is specifically designed to train practitioners to slow down the breath and become more Oxygen efficient in order to lead healthier, longer, happier and more abundant lives.
If you enjoy the free masterclass, you might be interested in our 21 day awakening journey!
The SOMA 21 Day Awakening Journey is an immersive, interactive journey deep into the heart of the practice of SOMA breathing.
In our 21 Day Awakening Journey, you will learn and practice a slow, rhythmic breathing pattern, centred around the diaphragm. Alongside extended periods of breath retention, this pattern will train your body to become more Oxygen efficient. As you become more Oxygen efficient, you will need less Oxygen for energy and thus your breathing rate will naturally drop. Your body will drink up more of the magic medicine of CO2. Stress and anxiety will fall away and you will live a longer, healthier, more vibrant life.
You won’t only feel less stressed and live a longer and healthier life. Combining a specially crafted soundtrack of ‘Breathe In Beats Technology’ and energised meditation, SOMA breathing will awaken you to your inner bliss, your natural state - your true essence, and bring you into altered states of consciousness whereby you can manifest your deepest dreams and desires.
Through accessing these deeper states of bliss during SOMA breathing you can begin to shed addictive patterns and carry feelings of inner peace and tranquility with you throughout your entire day. You will feel energised and revitalised, your endurance and creativity will skyrocket. You will receive deep and profound insights about your life and your purpose.
Furthermore, it’s not only you that will benefit from the 21 day Awakening Journey. There are few things more rewarding in life than helping someone to change their life for the better. As an instructor, you will be able to identify a person who is suffering from erratic thinking, anxiety or stress as a result of bad breathing habits. You will be able to give them the gift of the tools and techniques to overcome these bad habits and change their life - and their mind - forever.
Certified SOMA Instructor training
After you have completed the 21 day awakening course you can deepen your SOMA journey even further by becoming a certified SOMA instructor.
During the residential Instructor Course you will learn how to recalibrate your bodily chemistry and functions from a cellular/DNA level to become even more Oxygen efficient. You will be formally certified to give SOMA breathwork sessions and bring healing, transformation and states of bliss to people from all over the world.
Our SOMA instructors are doing amazing things all over the globe to heal people. From overcoming lifelong addictions, depression, stress and anxiety to even curing themselves of chronic and debilitating illnesses such as Lyme Disease, SOMA is changing lives!
If you are interested in joining the SOMA breath movement, you can speak to a SOMA breath specialist here. You can find more information on our 21 Day Awakening Journey here and our Instructor training here.
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8) What’s wrong with breathing through the mouth?’, Medical News Today, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319487#what-causes-mouth-breathing
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10) Woerlee GM, 2005
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12) Becker R, 2017 The bizarre biology of the naked mole rat means Oxygen is a bonus
13) Author unknown, The science of altitude training, Hypoxico Altitude Training Systems, https://hypoxico.eu/hypoxic-training/the-science-of-altitude-training