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How oxygen therapy can heal your body and mind

Reading time: 8 minutes

Oxygen therapy can breathe life back into your health and even treat diseases like cancer, says Dr Leigh Erin Connealy

Oxygen is arguably the most critical element on Earth. Essential in so many capacities, from the air we breathe to the water we drink, this odorless, colorless, gaseous molecule plays a role in countless life-sustaining functions.

Every single cell in our bodies relies on this nourishing “nutrient” every hour of every day for every task. And while you can go without food for two weeks and water for two days, you can’t survive for more than two minutes without oxygen.

Here’s what you need to know about O2 and how to harness its healing power for better health.

The ins and outs of O2

Oxygen is carried throughout the body via red blood cells. For our bodies to function normally, oxygen saturation needs to remain between 96 and 100 percent (as measured by a pulse oximeter). This level should remain constant and is achieved by normal respiration.

However, certain health conditions, such as emphysema, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, can lead to oxygen deficiency, called hypoxia. It makes perfect sense that these lung-related problems cause hypoxia, but other factors can create oxygen deficits as well. Injuries, trauma, inflammation and toxicity can also rob much-needed oxygen from the body.

While supplemental oxygen may be required for chronic conditions, several modalities and therapies can boost oxygen levels throughout the body, resulting in faster healing, restored health and optimal well-being.

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy

The gold standard in oxygen medicine is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). This treatment involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurized chamber at two to three times the normal atmospheric pressure. You sit or lie down in a specialized “pod,” called a hyperbaric chamber, and breathe in pure oxygen while the pressure is slowly increased.

Amazing things happen to oxygen in the body when it is pressurized. Typically transported only by the hemoglobin in red blood cells, under pressure the oxygen dissolves into all the body’s fluids: the plasma, blood, cerebrospinal fluid, etc.

Because it saturates the body, it is easily delivered where it is needed most—even to the tiniest capillaries. The body is literally flooded with life-giving oxygen. In fact, during treatment, HBOT provides 15 times the normal amount of oxygen to cells and up to three times as much to the lungs.

The influx of healing oxygen also stimulates the production of new stem cells. These specialized cells have the incredible ability to turn into different types of cells in the body, making them essential for healing and repair.

According to the International Hyperbarics Association, “Hyperbaric therapy has been shown to significantly increase the concentration of circulating stem/progenitor cells within the peripheral circulation system. By increasing blood plasma oxygen levels, bone marrow-derived stem cells were shown to significantly proliferate and mobilize.”

Not surprisingly, conventional medicine is a bit shortsighted when it comes to applications for this incredible therapy. According to the Mayo Clinic,1 your healthcare practitioner may suggest HBOT for the following conditions:

  • Severe anemia
  • Brain abscess
  • Bubbles of air in your blood vessels, known as arterial gas embolism
  • Burns
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Crushing injury
  • Decompression sickness
  • Gangrene
  • Infection of skin or bone that causes tissue death
  • Nonhealing wounds, such as a diabetic foot ulcer
  • Radiation injury
  • Skin graft or skin flap at risk of tissue death
  • Sudden deafness
  • Sudden, painless vision loss

While HBOT can undoubtedly help in these instances, knowledgeable integrative physicians know that its benefits extend far beyond this limited list.

HBOT and cancer

At the Center for New Medicine and the Cancer Center for Healing, we use HBOT to treat a multitude of conditions, including cancer. Oxygenating the body makes it a less hospitable environment for cancer cells and other malicious microorganisms.

Cancer cells absolutely hate oxygen, so HBOT can aid in the cancer battle in several ways. Malignant cells are anaerobic and can survive only in environments that lack this element. When they’re subjected to high levels of oxygen via HBOT and other therapies, apoptosis (cell death) is more likely.

In addition to promoting the death of cancer cells, it generates growth factors and stem cells that repair damage, promote healing and decrease inflammation.

Many integrative physicians prescribe HBOT after patients undergo radiation to help mitigate the damage caused during this intense therapy. Often we recommend a course of HBOT to patients before they start chemotherapy to shore up their health and bolster healthy cells prior to treatment. Because chemotherapeutic agents can’t distinguish between cancer cells and normal cells, it’s essential to prepare the body for the burden that occurs during chemo and help mitigate the adverse side effects.

We often prescribe a handful of nutraceutical supplements along with a medication called Trental (pentoxifylline) to our patients in conjunction with HBOT treatment. This process, known as oxidative preconditioning therapy, helps to thin the blood and boost blood flow and oxygen delivery to the tissues.

We welcome patients from around the world to come see us for HBOT treatment at our clinic in Irvine, California. You can also visit the American College for Advancement in Medicine website (acam.org) to find a provider near you. In the UK, see the Neuro Therapy Network website (neurotherapynetwork.org.uk).

Other benefits of HBOT

Besides being an excellent adjunct cancer treatment and stimulating the body’s production of healing stem cells, HBOT boasts a variety of other health benefits. It’s been shown to reduce inflammation systemically, which is a big deal as inflammation plays a role in several chronic diseases. Toning down the inflammatory response can lead to better wound healing, quicker surgical recovery, reduced scarring and much more.

Patients who receive HBOT treatment also often report improved cognitive function. In a recent study published in Biomolecules, researchers noted, “HBOT has been shown to improve cerebral blood flow, brain metabolism, and brain microstructure, leading to improved cognitive functions, physical functions, sleep and gait.”2

Another lesser-known benefit of HBOT is increased immunity. The saturation of healing oxygen throughout the body helps to kill off harmful pathogens and bacteria and can give the immune system a boost. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, HBOT helps the body “resist infection” and “improves the ability of white blood cells to find and destroy invaders.”3

Additional studies and clinical experience spanning decades suggest HBOT may also be helpful in the treatment of strokes, traumatic brain injuries, surgical wounds and countless other conditions.

HBOT is safe and well tolerated with few contraindications. Talk to your integrative physician about whether this healing modality could benefit you.

Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning

CVAC (Cyclic Variations in Adaptive Conditioning) is another oxygen therapy we use regularly at my clinics in California. Like in HBOT, you sit back and relax in the CVAC pod. But unlike HBOT, in which the high pressure is constant, during CVAC treatment, the pressure, temperature and density of the air changes or is cycled through the machine.

The air warms and cools as the pressure changes and the air is drawn out of the CVAC pod. This process creates a low-pressure environment with cooler and thinner air. To reduce the chances of ear discomfort, patients are required to clear their ears as the pressure changes (ear-clearing techniques are taught prior to treatment).

CVAC is used by people of all health and fitness levels to improve their physical conditioning, increase their energy levels and rid the body of metabolic waste. CVAC therapy helps the body utilize oxygen, enhance cellular recovery and perform better overall.

It also shines when it comes to promoting active recovery from damage caused by either physical or mental stress. CVAC encourages relaxation and deep, productive breathing, which are essential for recovery and optimal wellness.

CVAC also works synergistically with several other integrative therapies, such as these:

  • HBOT (use CVAC after, not before HBOT therapy)
  • Whole-body ozone therapy removes the blood through an IV, adds ozone (a form of oxygen), then returns it to the body
  • Extracorporeal Blood Oxygenation and Ozonation (EBOO) or Recirculatory Hemoperfusion (RHP) Therapy is a type of dialysis that removes waste and adds ozone to the blood (minimum of 24 hours before or after)
  • Firefly Light Therapy uses multi-spectrum light to dilate small blood and lymphatic vessels, increasing circulation
  • Fractionated chemotherapy is low-dose chemo administered more frequently (three days before and after)
  • Infrared sauna uses electromagnetic radiation lamps rather than ambient heat to raise your cells’ temperature
  • Lymphatic massage therapy stimulates areas of the body to encourage the lymphatic system to relieve swelling and remove toxins and waste
  • Nanovated oxygen bath therapy involves bathing in water infused with microbubbles of oxygen that can penetrate the skin
  • Pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF) therapy applies intermittent pulses of electromagnetic energy to stimulate optimal cell function
  • Biofeedback is a mind-body therapy that uses data about the body to teach you how to control its involuntary functions

Talk to your physician about including CVAC or other therapies in your treatment protocols.

Natural ways to boost oxygen levels

If you have access to HBOT and CVAC, you should certainly consider these modalities as frontline treatments for harnessing the healing power of oxygen. That said, there are a few simple steps you can take daily to boost your O2 intake and saturation.

Get moving

Regular exercise is one of the easiest ways to increase your oxygen level. As you strengthen your muscles, you also bolster your cardiovascular and pulmonary function. Regular physical activity improves circulation and helps increase oxygen flow and delivery throughout the body, resulting in improved oxygen levels overall.

Practice breathing exercises

According to the American Lung Association, two specific breathing exercises can help increase oxygen levels, strengthen the lungs and diaphragm, and rid the body of old, stale air.4

  • Pursed-lips breathing: Simply breathe in through the nose and blow air out through pursed lips for at least twice as long. For example, breathe in through the nose for a count of five and exhale slowly through pursed lips for a count of 10 or 12. Repeat several times.
  • Belly/diaphragmatic breathing: Relax your neck and shoulders and inhale deeply through the nose, paying particular attention to how the air fills your belly. (It’s helpful to place your hand on your stomach while you do so.) Slowly exhale, taking two to three times longer than the inhale—for example, in for a count of five and out for a count of 10 to 15. Repeat several times.

Throw open those windows or go outside

Open up your windows to let in some fresh air, or head outside and take a few deep breaths. Doing so will naturally increase your oxygen levels. All the better if you live near a park or open green space free of automobiles and other air pollution.

Add indoor plants to your home

Adding greenery to your home in the form of air-scrubbing houseplants is another excellent way to boost your oxygen levels. These green powerhouses eliminate carbon dioxide and replenish a room with oxygen so you can breathe more easily. Areca palm, spider plant, snake plant, money plant, peace lily, bamboo palm and aloe vera are some of the plants proven to be particularly effective.

Where to get hyperbaric oxygen therapy

Here’s how to find a provider near you.

US

The American College for Advancement in Medicine website (acam.org) has a “find a practitioner” feature. Choose “hyperbaric oxygen” under Specialties to find a provider near you.

The Center for New Medicine in Irvine, California (cfnmedicine.com), offers HBOT along with a host of other integrative therapies.

UK

The Neuro Therapy Network website (neurotherapynetwork.org.uk) has a “find a center” function where you can search for a member center offering oxygen therapy and other life-enhancing therapies for people living with neurological and other long-term health conditions.

The Wellness Lab (thewellnesslab.com) has a clinic in London specializing in HBOT.

Henshaw Hyperbaric Chambers (henshawhyperbarics.co.uk) offers hyperbaric oxygen chambers for home or business use. There are plenty of useful resources on the company’s website, including a zoomable map to find your closest clinic with a Henshaw hyperbaric chamber.

 

References
 
  1. Mayo Clinic, “Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy,” Dec 2, 2023, mayoclinic.org
  2. Biomolecules, 2021; 11(10): 1520
  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine, “Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy,” accessed Feb 15, 2024, hopkinsmedicine.org
  4. American Lung Association, “Breathing Exercises,” Nov 17, 2022, lung.org
APR24, 'Ode to O2'
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