There are countless ways to breathe, and some ways are more beneficial than others. And sometimes we think we are doing it better than we actually are. Your blood oxygen level is an important indicator of how efficient your breathing is. And it may be an early warning for non-optimum health.Is there an easy way to tell how much oxygen is actually getting to your cells?
Breathing is something we’ve all been doing for a good long time and many of us don’t really care much for unsolicited advice about it. But in April, 2020 we are at crucial point where a lot of people are dying because COVID-19 makes breathing so difficult, requiring the use of ventilators to sustain life. Here in NYC, up to 80% of patients that require the use of ventilators don’t make it. Those most vulnerable are people whose respiratory function is already compromised.
It stands to reason that your chances of surviving a coronavirus infection are better if you take this opportunity to improve the efficiency of your breathing. Waiting until you are already sick might be too late. Now might be a really good time to establish a practice of mindful breathing that will promote good health and well-being long after we’ve navigated these choppy seas. In this and the next article, I’ve tried to simplify what I consider to be important, and to provide a little context for the how’s and why’s.
First and foremost, getting sufficient oxygen to the cells is essential for not just good health, but survival.
Says Web MD:
When your body doesn’t have enough oxygen, you could get hypoxemia or hypoxia. These are dangerous conditions. Without oxygen, your brain, liver, and other organs can be damaged just minutes after symptoms start.
Hypoxemia (low oxygen in your blood) can cause hypoxia (low oxygen in your tissues) when your blood doesn’t carry enough oxygen to your tissues to meet your body’s needs. The word hypoxia is sometimes used to describe both problems.
Hypoxemia and hypoxia are the source of many of the body’s difficulties. Luckily, your blood/oxygen saturation is something that you have a say about. In 2016, I wrote about metarobics, (“Metarobics: Blood Oxygen Saturation and Health”) based on Peter Gryffin’s book, Tai Chi Therapy: The Science of Metarobics.
If you have done taijiquan and/or qigong for a while you have probably experienced an improvement to your health. Gryffin’s research showed that this is no accident:
But I also realized that having a measurable and physiological understanding of the benefits of Tai Chi for health was critical, for generating acceptance and practice of these arts in the medical community, as well as in the general public. Further research showed that hypoxia underlies or complicates pretty much every chronic condition, including heart, lung and kidney disease, diabetes, immunity, arthritis, and asthma. Since one of the primary goals of Tai Chi is to enhance Qi, or oxygen in the body, it seemed important to investigate potential mechanisms of action related to enhanced oxygen use and delivery. Based on my research, a primary mechanism of action (not necessarily the only one, but a good place to start) was effects on blood oxygen saturation, diffusion, and oxygen based metabolism. From a theoretical perspective, it was possible that the focus on relaxation and the breath resulted in enhanced intake and use of oxygen in the body.
Mindful movement in taiji and qigong does something that, per Gryffin, doesn’t happen in other forms of exercise: It increases oxygen saturation in the blood. Aerobic exercise is important for cardiovascular health; it increases blood flow and lung capacity. But Griffin shows that it actually decreases oxygen saturation in the short term. (I believe that is corrected as your body relaxes post exercise.) For optimum health, both are needed: aerobics increases the volume of oxygen your body takes in and circulates; metarobics improves the efficiency of the blood to carry oxygen.
There is a hidden danger in the COVID-19. You may have pneumonia and not know it.
This article from the NY Times gives an emergency room doctor’s powerful warning about “silent hypoxia” triggered by pneumonia associated with COVID-19. You can have pneumonia and not know it until it has become critical. You may think you are breathing normally, but the oxygen level in your blood has reached a dangerous level.
Dr. Richard Levitan:
“Even patients without respiratory complaints had Covid pneumonia…And here is what really surprised us: These patients did not report any sensation of breathing problems, even though their chest X-rays showed diffuse pneumonia and their oxygen was below normal. How could this be?
…We are only just beginning to understand why this is so. The coronavirus attacks lung cells that make surfactant. This substance helps the air sacs in the lungs stay open between breaths and is critical to normal lung function. As the inflammation from Covid pneumonia starts, it causes the air sacs to collapse, and oxygen levels fall. Yet the lungs initially remain “compliant,” not yet stiff or heavy with fluid. This means patients can still expel carbon dioxide — and without a buildup of carbon dioxide, patients do not feel short of breath.”
Even if you are asymptomatic, it is a good idea to check how efficient your blood is delivering oxygen to the cells. Hypoxemia can be an indicator of other hidden health problems. It can also be reassuring to know that you are functioning at optimum.
How do you check your oxygen saturation level?
It’s easy, actually. There is a device you can buy pretty cheap (Under $50) at your drug store called a pulse oximeter.
A normal reading is 94-100%. Below 94 is non-optimum. You can do before/after checks to see how effective your practice has been. Even an improvement of 1% is a big deal. (I have tested a few of my taiji classes and the median reading for students is 98%.)
Checking your blood oxygen saturation level regularly may save your life. And in less dangerous times can give you valuable feedback about the effectiveness of your taijiquan practice.
My next post will show some ways to breathe more effectively.