When people are asked to name the thing that they consider the most essential in their lives, the answers are often revealing. Some list the Big Three – food, water, and shelter. Others name loved ones and family. A few nerds might specify a fast Internet connection.
But very few of them ever list something that is odorless, colorless, and tasteless, and which is so essential to life that we would die in five to six minutes if we were deprived of it.
The item that almost everyone overlooks, because they take it for granted, is oxygen.
Oxygen – the most essential element for human survival and health
It’s easy to take oxygen for granted because it’s so common – it constitutes almost 50% of the Earth’s crust, 33% by volume of the Earth’s water, and 21% by volume of the air we breathe. Humans inhale over 6 billion tons of oxygen every year. 99% of our body mass is made up of six elements: oxygen, carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus, and oxygen accounts for 65% of this. And our brains may represent only 2% of our body weight, but they consume 20% of the oxygen we breathe.
Oxygen is critical. Almost all of our bodily functions are dependent upon oxygen; we need it not only to breathe, but to power our metabolic processes so that we can extract energy from the food we eat through the process of oxidation. Even on a cellular level our bodies need oxygen; deprived of adequate oxygen, individual cells cannot regenerate or even continue to exist. Every time we breathe, we take oxygen into our lungs, and from there it is spread to the hemoglobin in our blood, and is routed to literally every cell in our bodies. As a chemical element, oxygen’s most important feature is its ability to bond with other elements via the process we call oxidation. In the same way that oxygen allows wood or other combustible items to burn when exposed to heat, oxygen in our bodies allows us to biochemically “burn” the foods we eat to extract nutrients from them.
Insufficient oxygen has been associated with many diseases. If cells do not receive enough oxygen, they lose their ability to function and reproduce properly, which makes them less resistant to disease. Low oxygen levels in the blood have been identified as a cause of many diseases, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, and some forms of cancer.
So how do we increase our bodies’ access to life-giving oxygen?
This is a question many consumers ask, especially after returning from health food stores where every aisle seems to be full of products promising to better oxygenate our bodies. There is a veritable industry supplying these products, and a fortune being made from selling them. Unfortunately, few of these products are backed up by real science, and a few of them are based on and sold using completely false information.
For example, when researching this article I found no fewer than fifty websites that repeated the same claim, that “200 years ago the atmosphere was 40% oxygen” and this is “why people lived longer back then.” This, I guess, is supposed to panic consumers into buying the expensive oxygen-enhancing products, because the current percentage of oxygen in the air is only 21%. The trouble is that this claim is simply not true. First, there has been no appreciable change in the percentage of oxygen in the air in the last 200 years, and 200 years ago the average human lifespan was 35-40 years.
So this is just bogus marketing hype. The problem is not that there isn’t enough oxygen to go around. But it is true that some of the air we breathe these days is full of pollutants, as are far too many of the foods we eat. Therefore, if you are interested in increasing the amount of life-giving oxygen that you get, the best approach is the one already suggested in so many of the articles to this forum – breathe more, and eat more natural, healthy foods.
Getting enough aerobic exercise enables our bodies to take in more oxygen, and over time increases our bodies’ ability to process and utilize that oxygen efficiently. And many foods – notably fresh fruits, green vegetables, sprouted seeds, and nuts –contain high amounts of oxygen themselves, and improve our bodies’ ability to process it. Getting out into nature and “fresh air” also helps – whenever you can, take walks in forests or nature preserves where the air is continuously cleaned by the photosynthesis of the plants and trees. You can also practice breathing exercises such as those taught in yoga, which not only improve our ability to extract more oxygen from the air we breathe, but also reduce stress, which has been shown to reduce the body’s oxygen reserves.
In other words, now that you’ve been reminded how important oxygen is to us, don’t panic. Slow down and just breathe. That’ll do more to increase your oxygen reserves than any of the expensive products health food stores are trying to sell you.