By Dr. Heather Tallman Ruhm
Recently I have been thinking a lot about the element we call oxygen and its incredible roles in life at large and in our bodies and our internal organisms, our magnificent microbiomes. We
are obligate aerobes - we need oxygen to survive. Most of us know this intuitively. Generally, people can survive 2-3 weeks without food, 2-3 days without water, but only 2-3 minutes without O2.
Our food and water are made of oxygen including our major nutrients. The bulk of our edible fruits and vegetables is H2O – water is one-part Oxygen two-parts Hydrogen - the O part outweighing the H parts by about 8 times. Sugars, fats, cholesterol, and proteins all contain -O’s. Roots need aeration. Wild plants and crop foods do better when their soil is loose and accessible to oxygen. Hydroponics and aeroponics need oxygen too. One critical element in the food chain of this planet is indeed oxygen. Maybe this is just a profound glimpse into the obvious, none-the-less when I contemplate the magnitude of oxygen’s magical molecules, it gives me pause. It makes me want to celebrate O’s existence and protect it too.
Oxygen enters our lungs as O2 and leaves them as CO2. O2 enters plant bodies as CO2 and
leaves them as O2 (pun intended). Plants are made of oxygen and carbon and hydrogen and a
smattering of other elements and so are we. We need plants, they need aerobes. Animals eat
plants and breathe oxygen to stay alive and the cycle is complete. Years ago, I read Sherwin
Nuland’s book How We Die. It made me reflect on our MOA (mechanism of action) of death.
Our ultimate demise, in every case, was a lack of O2. Breath is the vehicle that brings life into
our bodies, delivering oxygen to our lungs and beyond. Remove it, deny access, and we’re
done in 2-3 minutes. Partially remove access and we suffer. In medical school, we had to suck
air through a little red-striped, hollow stir stick to empathize with someone suffering from
emphysema or an asthma attack.
From the outset of this current pandemic, the front-line doctors in NY reported on ill patients with high altitude symptoms, low O2, then breathlessness. This is what we fear. Oxygen is the great elixir of life. No one can imagine life without it, for obvious reasons. The current fear instilled in the minds of men and women, scientists, and laypersons alike is the fear of suffocation. Ironically, living in fear of losing our breath, and keeping our mouths partially covered, encourages shallow breathing and poor oxygenation at a time when we most need O2. We have been given reason to pause during this global pandemic/med-panic, and we should, if for no other reason than to reflect: 1) to appreciate the role of oxygen in our bodies, 2) to find ways to access more of its life-giving properties in our lives, and 3) to support approaches that relieve our deepest fears about losing it.
What are some practical approaches? We can eat plants rich in oxygen and anti-oxidants and make it a top priority to get out in our organic gardens and nature to exchange our breath with plants. We can practice increasing the length of our exhales which encourages deeper breathing and better O2 uptake. We can embrace physical activities that lower our stress and anxiety and put our minds in a more peaceful state. We can lower our carbon footprint and pollution too, by driving less and walking more. We can work on keeping our blood and bodies clean of contaminants to feed and foster our microbiome. When we don’t protect the bacteria that serve us, we get a preponderance of those that overwhelm us. Sometimes we forget the simple stuff: we need clean water, clean air, deep breaths, good food, more probiotics, and fewer potential poisons. This is what makes us youthful – oh yes, and sleep and movement and joy and creativity and oxygen and a little less fear.
Back to oxygen. Thousands of people are placed on blood thinners to assure adequate blood flow, to assure oxygen arrives to our brains and bodies, to prevent cerebral vascular accidents and myocardial infarcts (accidental strokes and heart attacks). No one wants to die this way. One large group that knows they are somehow at risk today is the diabetic population. When a medical professional suspects this condition or monitors it, we do so by measuring hemoglobin in the form of HgBA1C. When there is excess sugar in the blood for too long, it sticks to our hemoglobin. Hgb lives for about 120 days, it has a long time to accumulates these sticky hitchhikers. And when our blood is too sticky for too long, we can’t get oxygen to the far reaches of our arteries and capillaries, and they begin to suffocate. These are the bodies mini-strokes, as it were, that lead to low oxygen and tissue damage, even death.
Dr. Tom Cowan was the first person to introduce me to the idea that our hearts are not the true
source of the movement of our blood. Most people, myself included, were raised and taught to
believe that the almighty heart pump was the end-all, be-all to ones’ sanguine course. The
heart is a profound purveyor of life in many ways and clearly contributes to the flow of our
blood, but it is not the source of its movement. The movement begins as a keenly choreographed
dance in the most minute spaces, in the lungs and their tiny air sacs, in the smallest, most
delicate and narrow arteries and veins, the places where O2, CO2, Hydrogen and other gases
and nutrients are exchanged like currency to feed our cells and remove their garbage.