Oxygen is by far the most important molecule for life on the planet.
Just like many other life forms on Earth, our human bodies have evolved into an elegant but complex system to absorb and utilize oxygen as a source of energy.
As we breathe, oxygen fills our lungs and travels all over the body until it reaches every cell, triggering vital processes that enable us to perform daily tasks for survival, such as the oxidation of food or the release of heat.
Oxygen plays two main roles inside the body – it is both a signaling molecule and an oxidizer.
Oxygen as a Signaling Molecule
Our bodies are constantly reading signals from the outside world and trying to determine the appropriate responses.
Managing the multitude of cellular functions in the human body is extremely complex and relies on a wide range of components, several of which are small oxygen-based molecules that help the body read external stimuli and understand how to increase or decrease the delivery of oxygen to our cells.
In other words, oxygen molecules run the system that regulates how much we are breathing in.
In 2019, researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of this signaling molecule known as HIF-1 (hypoxia-inducible factor one). This molecule tells the body how to respond to the changes in oxygen and pressure that we are exposed to, both of which trigger very distinct reactions in our bodies.
Oxygen as an Oxidizer
In chemistry, the definition of an oxidizing agent is a substance with the ability to accept electrons. Oxygen is an example of one of these substances.
Oxidation refers to the loss of electrons or the increase in the oxidation state of an atom, ion, or of certain atoms in a molecule.
As the opposite, reduction refers to the gaining of electrons or the decrease in the oxidation state of an atom, ion, or of certain atoms in a molecule.
There are many chemical reactions within us that rely on our body’s ability to transfer electrons.
Just as a fire needs an ignition source to light fuel, the body uses oxygen as an oxidizing agent to burn fuel such as sugars (glucose molecules), fatty acids, or ketones. When this fuel mixes with oxygen, it triggers the chemical process of combustion, allowing our bodies to make energy.
This plays a critical role in Redox (reduction and oxidation), which is the balance of chemical reactions that help in modulating our metabolism, inflammation, fight infection, etc.
What Oxygen Does
Oxygen occurs naturally in our atmosphere as O2, where there are two molecules of oxygen bound together. The air we breathe is 21% oxygen, and these O2 molecules are absorbed into our bodies for various purposes. As Dr. Jason Sonners of HBOT USA explains, oxygen is used to:
- Increase immune activation
- Mobilize stem cells
- Reduce cytokine storms and cytokine inflammation
- Heal tissues
- Stimulate growth factor
- Stimulate brain-derived neurotrophic factor
- Stimulate angiogenesis (increasing the rebuttal of microcirculation that allows gas exchange to occur in the first place)
Oxygen is used by every part of the human body to perform vital functions and heal and recover from injuries.
The simple act of breathing gives us all the oxygen our bodies can absorb naturally. Each time we inhale, we absorb a certain amount of oxygen that is just enough for that particular moment.
It’s very difficult for the body to absorb more than that, which is why it’s helpful to artificially increase our body’s oxygen absorption with various oxygen therapies.
Increasing the total oxygen absorption of our bodies increases all the existing benefits of oxygen absorption as well. An example of this is that absorbed oxygen has been proven effective to stimulate a lot of the growth and repair factors that our bodies need to fight and heal through infections.