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Breathe Easy: Your Body’s Cells and Oxygen

Perfectly Healthy Cellfood body oxygen cells health

Did you know?....  

Everyone knows that we can't survive very long without oxygen, but do we know exactly why? Here are ten reasons why oxygen matters so much in the human body:

  1. You need oxygen to turn food into energy - Oxygen plays several roles in the human body. One has to do with the transformation of the food we eat into energy. This process is known as cellular respiration. During this process, the mitochondria in your body’s cells use oxygen to help break down glucose (sugar) into a usable fuel source. This provides the energy you need to live.

  2. Your brain needs a lot of oxygen - While your brain only makes up 2% of your total body weight, it gets 20% of your body’s total oxygen consumption. Why? It needs a lot of energy, which means a lot of cellular respiration. To just survive, the brain needs around 0.1 calories per minute. It needs 1.5 calories per minute when you’re thinking hard. To create that energy, the brain needs a lot of oxygen. If you’re without oxygen for just five minutes, your brain cells start to die, which means severe brain damage.

  3. Oxygen plays an important role in your immune system - Your immune system guards your body against dangerous invaders (like viruses and bacteria). Oxygen fuels the cells of this system, keeping it strong and healthy. Low oxygen levels suppress parts of the immune system, but there’s evidence that suggests low oxygen might also activate other functions. This could be useful when investigating cancer therapies.

  4. Not getting enough oxygen has serious consequences - Without enough oxygen, your body develops hypoxemia. This occurs when you have low oxygen levels in your blood, which quickly turns into hypoxia, which is low oxygen in your tissues. The symptoms include confusion, a fast heart rate, rapid breathing, shortness of breath, sweating, and changes in the color of your skin. If untreated, hypoxia damages your organs and leads to death.

  5. Oxygen is important for treating pneumonia - Pneumonia is a lung infection caused by fungi, bacteria, or a virus. The lungs’ air sacs become inflamed and filled with pus or fluid, making it hard for oxygen to get into the bloodstream. While pneumonia is often treated with medicines like antibiotics, severe pneumonia requires immediate oxygen treatment.

  6. Oxygen is important for other medical conditions - Hypoxemia can occur in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, sleep apnea, and COVID-19. If you have a severe asthma attack, you can also develop hypoxemia. Getting supplemental oxygen for these conditions saves lives.

  7. Too much oxygen is dangerous - There is such a thing as too much oxygen. Our bodies are only able to handle so much oxygen. If we breathe air that has a too-high O2 concentration, our bodies get overwhelmed. This oxygen poisons our central nervous system, leading to symptoms like loss of vision, seizures, and coughing. Eventually, the lungs become too damaged and you die.

  8. All life on earth needs oxygen (almost) - Essentially all living creatures need it to create energy in their cells. Plants create oxygen using carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water. This oxygen can be found everywhere, even in tiny pockets in the soil. All creatures have systems and organs that let them absorb oxygen from their environments. So far, we know of only one living thing – a parasite distantly related to jellyfish – that doesn’t need oxygen for energy.

  9. The ocean needs oxygen to thrive - The ocean is teeming with life, so it makes sense that it would contain lots of oxygen. Unfortunately, oxygen levels in the ocean have dipped significantly in the past decade due to climate change. This has a huge effect on marine ecosystems, disrupting their balance and damaging their health.

  10. Ozone affects the world - Ozone is part of the earth’s atmosphere. While it makes up a tiny part of the atmosphere, this molecule plays an essential role. Stratospheric ozone is found in the upper atmosphere where it guards Earth’s surface from harmful ultraviolet radiation. Losing this layer of ozone would destroy the earth and its creatures. There’s also ozone in the lower part of the atmosphere. This ground-level ozone is created by chemical reactions between man-made pollutants (like car emissions) and sunlight. It’s a dangerous pollutant, meaning that just because something has oxygen in it, it isn’t necessarily good.

Cells are the building blocks of your body. If they prematurely age, so will you. For this reason, many studies exploring cellular health use telomere length as one way of measuring a cell’s health.

Enough about unhealthy cells, let’s talk about prevention. After all, you’re not here for a science lesson—you’re here to learn how to keep your cells healthy. 

4 Lifestyle Habits to Keep Your Cells Healthy

There’s a lot of conventional wisdom surrounding healthy living: Drink plenty of water, exercise for 30 minutes each day, wear sunscreen, etc. And a lot of that advice is great. What you may not know, however, is that many of those same lifestyle tips apply to cellular health.

It turns out, a lot of health-promoting activities and habits are healthy because they support health on a cellular level. Makes sense, right? When your cells feel good, you feel good.

Let’s dive into four cellular health habits that will help keep your cells thriving.

Maintain a Healthy Diet

“Healthy diet” is a vague term that gets thrown around a lot without explanation. And most people only have a vague idea of what constitutes a healthy diet. Fortunately, when it comes to your cells, eating right is pretty straightforward.

In one study, researchers explored the correlation between telomere length and an individual’s adherence to the Mediterranean Diet and other similar diets. These approaches encourage eating primarily whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. On the flip side, individuals following these diets tend to avoid high-sodium foods, sugars (especially processed sugars), and red meat.

There are two factors at play: free radicals and antioxidants. Free radicals are substances that can damage and deteriorate cells, while antioxidants are the substances that protect the body from free radicals.

So where does the Mediterranean Diet come in? As the fat in red meat cooks, it oxidizes which can then introduce free radicals into the body. By reducing your red meat intake, you can help prevent damage to your cells. And when prevention doesn’t work, go for antioxidant support. Fresh fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of antioxidants. By eating plenty of produce, you can help maintain optimal cellular health.


Exercise Regularly—And by Exercise, We Mean Cardio

Sometimes even the most avid gym-goers avoid cardio.

Resistance training (think traditional weight training) is a great way to improve strength and muscle definition, but toreap the benefits of exercise on a cellular level, you have to include cardio in your workouts. It doesn’t matter if it’s endurance training (jogging, cycling, etc.) or high intensity interval training, just shoot for at least 30 minutes.

If you’re a cardio-phobe, don’t worry—you don’t even have to do it every day to see the benefits. In one study, participants did 45 minutes of cardio three times a week. After only six months, researchers observed much higher cellular strength in that set of individuals than in subjects doing only resistance training or no exercise at all.  You can go for a run Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, take a nice, relaxing weekend, and still support your cellular health.

Don’t Underestimate Sleep

If you ask a random passerby how much sleep is the “right” amount, they’ll probably tell you eight hours per night. And, according to most guidelines, they’d be correct. The amount of sleep a person needs varies, but for most people 7-9 hours a night is sufficient.

But what happens if you sleep less than that? You’ll probably feel pretty lousy, but consistently sleeping too little can also impact your health on a cellular level.

If you’re sleeping five hours or fewer a night, there’s a good chance your cells are being adversely affected.

Practice Mindfulness

Nobody likes being stressed out. It’s frustrating, exhausting, and, as it turns out, bad for your cells. At this point, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that excessive stress has been linked to lower cellular strength in adults.

But the effect of your mind on cellular health goes a step further. Not just stress, but a wandering mind—as opposed to being present in the moment—can have a negative effect on your cells, one study suggests. This, of course, can be difficult to measure. In the study, participants self-reported the degree and type of their day-to-day mind wandering. Those who reported more negative wandering—anxious, racing, and defensive thoughts—were found to have weaker bodily cells.

If mind wandering is detrimental to cellular health, this raises another question: What can you do to counteract a wandering mind and maintain cellular health?

There are a number of meditative practices that can help stave off mind wandering and ground you in the present moment, but one of the most popular is mindfulness.

Practicing mindfulness can help you stay present and reduce your stress, protecting your cells on two fronts! A win-win for your mental state and your cellular health.

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