Before becoming a Hyperbaric and Functional Medicine Practitioner, my background was in Exercise Physiology.
I’ve always had a deep passion for the subject of body mechanics and testing the limitations of human performance.
I’ve found that whether we are talking about simple exercise strategies for healthy living, or we are seeking to push our physical boundaries, we must ask ourselves two critical questions:
- What does the body require to perform in the current moment?
- What does the body require to recover from that performance to push the limits again next time?
To answer these questions, we must go through an extensive list of potential factors. Often, individual conditions require specific procedures and protocols to treat.
A patient suffering from necrotic flesh, for example, would have a very different regimen from a professional athlete looking to recover their muscles from an intense workout session.
There are, however, a few factors that are fundamental in hyperbaric therapy. The most important yet most misunderstood of these is the role that oxygen plays in keeping us alive.
Oxygen, the essential nutrient
Oxygen is an all-important nutrient that every living being on Earth uses to produce cellular energy (ATP).
We need oxygen to create the cellular energy necessary to sustain life. We inhale air to deliver appropriate amounts of oxygen to our mitochondria, where energy production transpires.
We then exhale that air to eliminate the cellular wastes created as by-products of the process.
Our red blood cells are responsible for transporting and delivering the oxygen we breathe in.
Using a tool called a pulse oximeter, we can measure how much oxygen we have in our red blood cells at any given time.
This tool uses light to capture how much oxygen saturation our red blood cells have, thereby seeing how close to 100% saturated we are at any moment.
For the most part, barring any severe lung, heart or other cardiovascular conditions, we are all about 96-98% saturated with oxygen all the time. We are almost always carrying all of the oxygen we are capable of having.
It is virtually impossible to maintain significantly higher levels of oxygen than that without special medical tools.
Why else would we want to increase our oxygen levels?
Athletes have long understood the role that oxygen plays in their performance, which is why some of them train at altitude or take drastic steps like blood doping to gain an edge.
Having more oxygen available to working tissues will improve their capacity for work and recovery.
While these are not dramatic increases in oxygen, it is enough to see some performance changes at the elite athlete level. Many competitors will do whatever it takes to shave even a few seconds off their time or gain an extra rep.
Sometimes, our red blood cells might already be fully saturated with oxygen but still unable to deliver oxygen where needed due to circulation trauma, such as macro trauma from an injury or microcirculation damage.
Studies have shown that if we could increase the oxygen level within the body beyond the normal range, we can:
- Increase free-floating oxygen delivery to working muscle tissue
- Improve the speed, efficiency and amount of ATP our cells can make.
- Increase our total amount of mitochondria.
- Increase our capacity for complex brain/motor function.
- Improve the speed of recovery of muscle tissue damaged from exercise.
How can we raise our oxygen levels beyond 100%?
There are many tools out there to help us improve oxygen uptake in different ways. Two common examples are:
- EWOT – Exercise with Oxygen Therapy, wherein patients inhale high levels of oxygen as they exercise on a treadmill or bike.
- Ozone Therapy – the use of Ozone (O3) gas.
It is important to note that while these procedures are beneficial and serve a specific purpose in medicine, they cannot drive oxygen levels higher than 10% oxygen absorption.
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy is capable of providing a lot of oxygenation to our body.
Depending on patient needs, some procedures call for 30-50% increase, while some procedures require us to raise the patient’s oxygen levels to double or triple the maximum absorption capacity.
HBOT involves infusing the blood with so much oxygen that it fills the the red blood cells’ carrying system to 100% saturation, and surplus oxygen ends up getting dissolved directly into the plasma (the liquid portion) of the blood.
Under normal circumstances, our plasma carries almost zero oxygen. But under pressure, our plasma is capable of holding up to 15x more oxygen than our red blood cells can.
How does HBOT work?
Our ability to absorb oxygen or exhale carbon dioxide is directly influenced by pressure gradients.
Just like how water naturally flows down from higher to lower elevations, gases naturally move from higher pressure and higher concentration to lower pressure and lower concentration.
As long as the pressure and concentration of oxygen are higher in the air outside than inside our body, the oxygen will move down that gradient into our body.
The amount and rate at which it moves depends on the amount of pressure that exists. This is why training at an altitude is known to work.
There is 21% oxygen in our air no matter what altitude we go to, and only the pressure of the atmosphere changes when we climb or descend.
At sea level, the pressure of air is 760mmHg and our oxygen pressure is 159 mmHg. Compare that to 8000 ft above sea level, where the pressure is noticeably lower (564 mmHg air pressure and 118 mmHg oxygen pressure). That decrease in pressure is what makes the air feel “thinner” at altitude.
It is the same but opposite phenomenon when we go below sea level. As we descend below sea level, the pressure increases, meaning our ability to absorb air and oxygen also increases. Simply put, the deeper we go, the more pressure there is, the faster and more oxygen our blood can absorb.
A hyperbaric chamber is a controlled environment. This means it can reliably control the amount of time and pressure exerted without having to descend below sea level.
This allows us to measure and manipulate the oxygen absorption of our cells more predictably. Once this extra oxygen is absorbed into our plasma, it can be used by the body to make more ATP and produce more energy, increasing the capacity of our working tissues to perform, heal, and recover faster.
10 well-established benefits of Hyperbaric Oxygen
- Increased oxygen perfusion (Immediate increase in free-floating oxygen available for tissue use)
- Neovascularization- Angiogenesis (the process of growing new blood vessels)
- Increased white blood cell function (Improved neutrophil and macrophage activity)
- Nerve healing factors (Increase in VegF, BDNF, HIF1)
- Increased capacity for wound healing (PDGF, VegF, collagen production circulatory healing)
- Stem cell release (up to 8-fold increase in mesenchymal and CNS stem cells)
- Vasoconstriction (decrease edema and swelling from damaged tissues)
- Mitochondrial healing (increase in size, shape and number of mitochondria)
- Anti-inflammatory (reduction of inflammatory cytokines, increase in anti-inflammatory cytokines)
- 10. Anti-microbial/microbiome balancing (reduction in anaerobic pathogens, increase in aerobic probiotics)
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy comes in many different types of chambers and configurations, offering different amounts of pressure and different amounts of oxygen for various purposes, whether for healing wounds, treating nitrogen sickness, or muscle regeneration.
Some of these chambers are used strictly in clinical environments, while others can be utilized in home environments.
As amazing a tool as hyperbaric therapy is with its many therapeutic benefits, it is important to consult with a knowledgeable medical practitioner on the subject in order to make sure you are choosing the proper equipment, procedure and therapy schedule for your specific health needs and wellness goals.
That said, beginning a regimen of hyperbaric oxygen for performance and/or recovery is a game changer for those who take their athletics and their health seriously.
Access to regular sessions in a hyperbaric chamber can drastically improve the performance and recovery rate of muscles, tissues, and organs, allowing us to heal faster, train harder and push ourselves beyond our physical limits to gain a competitive edge.
More and more professional athletes (including LeBron James, Joe Namath, Rashad Jennings, Rafael Soriano, and Olympic gold-medalist Michael Phelps) to keep up with the rigorous physical demands of their field. Even celebrities and entertainers (like Madonna and Justin Bieber) have added this therapy to their routine in order to maintain healthy skin and mitigate the aging process.
As this technology becomes more widely available and affordable to the public, we could potentially see this therapy used to improve overall productivity, wellness and health of people who suffer from physically debilitating conditions and those who simply wish to improve their daily experience.
If you enjoy reading our blogs and are interested in what hyperbaric oxygen therapy can do for you, feel free to contact us today.
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