Oxygen, CO2 and How They Impact Our Health

I’ve always been drawn to breathwork. I got trained in HeartMath and heart-focused breathing then went on to learn the Wim Hof Method. This past week I was lucky enough to have Alyssa Chang, brain-based health and movement coach, teach a class for my Healthy Period Protocol ladies on the brain and how this impacts healing. There were too many memorable takeaways to count, but one topic that perked a lot of interest was breathing and specifically oxygen vs. carbon dioxide. And how some of us can be over-breathing, mouth breathing, and creating more stress within the body. This led to me picking up the book The Oxygen Advantage and digging more into this area. I’ve always known that carbon dioxide is essential for our metabolic health (which has a HUGE impact on our hormones), but this book takes it to another level. Let’s dig into some of the basics of breathing that I think are helpful for us to know.

Why Carbon Dioxide (CO2) Is More Than A Waste Product

When we learn about the respiratory system and how we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, no one ever tells you how important CO2 is for your health. CO2 is a key player in releasing oxygen from the red blood cells to be used in the body. So yes, oxygen is important, but CO2 helps us use that oxygen better, which means we can’t leave it out of the picture. Hemoglobin, a protein in our blood, releases oxygen to be used in our tissues (for this like exercise and metabolic function) when it is in the presence of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is essential for smooth muscle tone and blood pH balance within the body.

Over Breathing & The Stress Response

Normally, we should breathe about 10-14 breaths per minute. Mouth breathing typically leads to over-breathing and taking too many breaths. When we over breathe, the body experiences a loss of too much carbon dioxide from the lungs, blood, tissues, and cells. This is called hypocapnia, which leads to hemoglobin holding onto oxygen, which means less oxygen for our tissues and organs. Less oxygen to our tissues and organs means they cannot work as efficiently as they should. This is why oxygen and breathing have such a big impact on our metabolism and hormone health.

Breathing through the mouth alone can increase the stress response within the body. Many of us breathe through our mouth when we sleep (do you snore/wake up with a dry mouth?), when we exercise, and throughout the day without even knowing it. It’s especially interesting that we tend to do this when we exercise because more mouth breathing means less CO2 and less oxygen getting to your tissues. I sure wish I knew all of this when I was rowing in college or competing in Crossfit. As someone with asthma, I think this could have been especially life-changing for my athletic career.

Breathing is important for creating more CO2, but so are carbohydrates. They help produce more CO2 and oxygenate our tissues. Just another reason to include carbs when nourishing your body. When we use fat as fuel for the body, we do not get the same effect, and it is, of course, less efficient since our bodies prefer to run off glucose.

I will leave you with something to ponder:

“We can live without food for weeks and water for days, but air for just a few brief minutes. While we spend a great deal of time and attention on what we eat and drink, we pay practically no attention to the air we breathe.”

-Patrick McKeown, The Oxygen Advantage

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Amanda Montalvo

Amanda Montalvo is a women's health dietitian who helps women find the root cause of hormone imbalances and regain healthy menstrual cycles.

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