Oxygen Addiction and Breathing
By Len Goodman
The following is a Layman’s interpretation and guide to the breathing process. It is in no way intended as a medical treatise or medical reference. Its purpose is to inform but certainly not to substitute for a discussion with a doctor. We have gone to some length to insure the accuracy of the information presented but cannot guarantee it is medically correct. Therefore, we strongly urge that any questions be discussed with a medical professional.
Your lungs are composed of thousands of little air sacks called alveoli. When you “breathe in”, they fill with air. Each air sack is bounded by a permeable membrane, the other side of which are tiny blood vessels. The air in your lungs contains oxygen (O2) which the permeable air sack membrane allows to pass through into the bloodstream. Pumped by the heart, this oxygenated blood is carried, as fuel, to the tissue/muscles which enable your body to function. As you move your body (do work) the oxygen is “burnt” as fuel and carbon dioxide is released as the waste product. Your blood returns the carbon dioxide (CO2) to your lungs where it flows back through the permeable membrane into the air sacks. It’s then expelled when you “breathe out”. All in all, it’s pretty straight forward.
Straight forward, yes. Simple, by no means. Breathing is actually a complex process involving the heart, lungs, brain, blood and muscles (just to name a few of the body parts involved). Also, it’s not perfect. Problems with any one of the parts in play can seriously affect how much oxygen you’re able to take in. And, if you don’t get enough oxygen, you feel short of breath. When you work hard or run a hundred yard dash, for example, you’re burning oxygen at an accelerated rate and producing more carbon dioxide than you need. Shortness of breath is the body’s signal that it has too much carbon dioxide and needs more oxygen. Slow down, gulp in some air and eventually the balance between O2and CO2 will return to normal and your “panting” will abate.
But, what if you can’t get in enough air (O2 ) to satisfy the body’s demand? In that case, you’ll still experience shortness of breath. Obstructions to your airway such as inflammation caused by an infection, or being under water and not having any air available, are some of the things that can prevent air from reaching your lungs. If the volume of air available to you is curtailed, shortness of breath or worse will be the result.
Now let’s say that you’re on dry land, nothing is obstructing your lungs and you’re not working hard. Yet, you still feel out of breath. What’s up with that?
As mentioned earlier, in order to get into your bloodstream and find its way to your muscles, O2 has to pass through the walls of your lungs. But, if those walls have been damaged, not enough O2 will get in, and not enough CO2 will get back out. In this case, your breathing will continue to be labored and there’s not much you can do to set things right.
Variation in any or all of the components of breathing can materially affect how you feel. To live, you need a certain amount of O2 at all times. However, since the air we breathe isn’t 100% O2 a big concern is the volume of air you take in. If your lungs are obstructed or if they’ve shrunk because of disease, you will have difficulty breathing and will probably need supplemental oxygen.
To illustrate, let’s assume that each breathe you take equals 100 units of air and that 100 units per breathe is the amount we need to function properly. Further, assume that earth’s atmosphere is 20% pure O2 and 80% other gases. That means that you get 20 units of O2 every time you take a breath. So, if you can only take in half a breathe, you’re getting 10 units of O2 – not enough for you to breathe without panting. And, certainly not enough to live comfortably.
A lot of people are hesitant to use supplemental oxygen. Their hesitancy is often expressed by saying, “I don’t want to become dependent”. In today’s world, with so much negative press about the problems of addiction, that’s quite understandable. But, you need to get over it! The fact is that we are already dependent/addicted to oxygen. Every living organism on this planet is. Without O2 , we’d all be dead.
Perhaps the real question should be, “How much O2 do I need”? The answer is – as much as necessary for you to breath and function comfortably. It’s an individual thing. Some people need oxygen 24/7, some only when they’re exercising or doing hard physical work. Some not at all.
One way to determine how much O2 you need, is to measure the amount in your blood. There’s a handy little devise that almost all lung patients have called a pulse-oximeter. Put it on the tip of your finger and it will quickly tell you your pulse rate and the percentage of oxygen in your blood. Like other medical marvels, this one is absolutely amazing.
Reading a pulse-ox is straight forward although to interpret the results, you need to be aware of a couple of things. First, your oxygen level. The goal is to keep it over 90%. If it falls below 90%, it may be time to consider supplement oxygen. Next is your pulse rate. It goes up as you increase the amount of exercise or work that you do. Your body needs more fuel (oxygen) as you work and exercise harder. So, your body tells your heart (via signals to the brain) to pump faster. Result – elevated pulse rate – perfectly normal.
But, there are a couple of situations that deserve special consideration. For example, what if your pulse rate is high and your oxygen saturation level is low, even if you’re sitting still? This suggests that you may not be getting enough oxygen and should see you doctor.
What about the case where your pulse and oxygen are both “normal” at rest but materially change once you start to exercise. It’s normal for your pulse to increase, but your oxygen could remain in the “normal” range (above 90%) or drop into the “danger zone”. What then? What’s that telling you?
If you oxygen levels drops but stays in the “normal” range, you’re probably okay. On the other hand, if your oxygen level drops into the “danger zone” (blow 90%) it’s probably time to see your doctor.
However, no matter what the pulse-ox says, if you don’t feel quite right, see your doctor. Listen to your body. If you’re having trouble breathing under any circumstances, see your doctor.
Lack of sufficient oxygen has a lot of negative side effects – beyond just panting and gasping for breath (as if those aren’t bad enough). A low oxygen level places added strain on your heart because it has to pump harder so blood moves faster through your body. Over time, this can damage that vital organ and who needs both a heart and lung problem at the same time?
Lack of sufficient oxygen can also impair your cognitive ability. You could feel light headed or dizzy making it difficult to stand and move around. It could impair your balance causing a fall. Or, you could simply pass out.
So, now you’re checking your pulse-ox regularly and your readings are both in the “normal” range. Yet, you’re still out-of-breath. Why? It may have something to do with the amount/volume of air you can get into your lungs.
If you’re out-of-breath but your oxygen level is still high, it suggests that your lungs are efficiently transferring oxygen to your blood. That’s why your oxygen saturation level is “normal”. But, you may not be taking in enough air to support your activities.
If you keep an eye on your oxygen saturation level, you’ll notice that it may go up and down quickly. It’s “normal” when you start to exercise, drops as you work out and returns to “normal” once you stop. Faced with that pattern, many people wrongly assume that the way to solve their breathing problem is to stop exercising – sit still. Unfortunately, that’s about the worst thing that you can do.
Well toned muscles use oxygen more efficiently than muscles which are flabby. In other words, they need less oxygen to do a given unit of work. So, if you want to use the oxygen you get to the maximum extent possible, keep your muscles toned. Get up off the couch, go for a walk, go to the gym. Stay active.
If we were to compare two people with identical lung problems, we’d likely see that the more physically fit of the two could walk farther and faster than the other. And, use less oxygen to do it. So, which of these two would you rather be?