Carbon dioxide and good health

You must have heard of carbon dioxide before, but probably not in any positive terms. Carbon dioxide emissions are painted as the major culprit behind global warming. This article however, is about the levels of carbon dioxide in the body. 

The levels of carbon dioxide, also called greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere have indeed increased, from 0.025% in 1750 when industrialisation began, to today’s level of 0.04%, which is a very big increase of 60% in a relatively short period of time.

When it comes to carbon dioxide in the body, generally, oxygen is considered to be the amazing life-giving substance, while carbon dioxide is just a toxic waste product that we want to get out of the body as soon as possible. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

As discussed before in this article about proper breathing and this article about breathing patterns, proper breathing sustains a certain balance between the oxygen that is taken from the air we breathe in 

Just as little as a car works better because it gets more fuel, nor does our body work better because we take more breaths and inhale more oxygen. It’s all about balance. 

If we stop breathing, we die because of oxygen deficiency. But when we breathe too much, as many of us do, we get too much oxygen in the body and too little carbon dioxide. As oxygen is a very reactive gas, excess leads to an increased amount of free oxygen radicals, also known as oxidative stress. But impaired breathing isn’t just about an excess of oxygen and more inflammations. An even more far-reaching negative effect is the lack of carbon dioxide that occurs.

Here are the seven most important reasons why it’s important to increase your body's carbon dioxide tolerance:

  1. Controls breathing - our cells constantly produce carbon dioxide and when the levels in the blood increase, the pH value goes in the other direction and decreases, which stimulates the respiratory center in the brain stem, and we inhale. At the subsequent exhalation, large quantities of carbon dioxide follow the exhaled air. The carbon dioxide levels are then lowered, while the pH is raised, and when the level of carbon dioxide again rises high enough and the pH is lowered enough, a new inhalation is triggered. A lower carbon dioxide pressure, or a low tolerance, makes us breathe faster, and over time, more shallowly.
  2. Regulates pH and proteins to work properly - you may remember the pH scale and that substances with a pH below 7 are acidic and over 7 are alkaline. In our body we have over 100,000 different proteins, each designed to execute various tasks like fighting a bacteria, moving a muscle or digesting the food we eat. In order for the proteins to function optimally, the right pH balance, i.e. the right environment, is absolutely crucial. When our breathing habits are impaired, we exhale too much carbon dioxide, which causes the pH to rise and we thereby change the environment in our body, so that the proteins can’t function as intended.
  3. Antibacterial - carbon dioxide has an antibacterial effect. A study at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden showed that the growth of staphylococci was 1,000 times higher when the bacteria were exposed to normal air (37 degrees) for 24 hours compared to exposure to 100 percent carbon dioxide.  Having low CO2 levels in our body would thus provide a breeding ground for undesirable bacteria, while a higher CO2 content would reduce the risk of infections.
  4. Increase oxygenation - carbon dioxide force the oxygen away from the blood so that it can enter into our muscles and organs, and be of use. This is called the Bohr effect after the discoverer, the Danish Christian Bohr. A simplified example of the Bohr effect are fire extinguishers containing carbon dioxide. A fire needs a material to burn in as well as oxygen. One way to put out a fire is by spraying carbon dioxide on it, which forces the oxygen away and the fire dies out. This is similar to what happens in our body when for example carbon dioxide leaves a working muscle. When the carbon dioxide reaches the blood, to be transported to the lungs for exhalation, the carbon dioxide kicks out the oxygen from the blood, which takes the opposite direction and goes into the muscle, oxygenating it so it can continue to work.
  5. Widens the blood vessels - an optimum carbon dioxide pressure keeps the blood vessels open, as carbon dioxide has a relaxing and widening effect on the smooth muscle surrounding the blood vessels. As an adult has about 100.000 km (60.000 miles) of blood vessels, i.e. 2½ turns around the globe, it’s easy to understand that a lack of carbon dioxide impairs circulation and, for example, causes cold hands and feet. As the blood vessels become more constricted, the heart naturally has to work harder in order to pump the blood, which can lead to high (fight/flight-phase) or low (freeze/exhaustion-phase) blood pressure.
  6. Widens the airways - carbon dioxide widens the airways in the lungs, throat and nose. The respiratory tract can be likened to a snorkel, where the air travels in increasingly smaller passages until it finally reach our lung sacks, the alveoli, where the gas exchange occurs. It’s crucial that the airways are open, as it requires 16 times more effort to move the air in and out of the lungs, for each reduction of airway diameter by 50%. Narrow airways and nostrils and a stuffy nose is logical as it’s the body’s defense mechanism to try to maintain an optimum carbon dioxide pressure. Carbon dioxide is produced in the body and basically all carbon dioxide leaves the body via exhalation. In case of deficiency, the body tries to reduce the outflow by narrowing the airways.
  7. Calms down the brain - in case of panic attacks and fear of flying it is common to get a bag to breathe in and out through, so that a part of the exhaled air is re-inhaled. Exhaled air contains a lot of carbon dioxide and naturally, when we re-breathe some of this air, the carbon dioxide levels in the body are raised and the person with panic attacks or fear of flying calms down.

So, I hope by now you have come to realise that bodily CO2 is super important and that conscious breathing is the way to keep an optimum CO2 pressure. 

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