It’s common to see how long you can hold your breath for, but how does your body know when you’re at your breaking point? In this episode of Human, Patrick explains why it comes down to what’s in your blood.
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The whole point of breathing is so that our tissues can consume oxygen and glucose and turn them into energy, leaving water and carbon dioxide as waste products. This process called cellular respiration is essential to anything that breathes oxygen. And if our tissues don’t get enough oxygen, or experience hypoxia, they can start to die off or see other problems.
There are a bunch of reasons that a tissue might not get enough oxygen — like an iron deficiency might cause anemia, which means that less oxygen will be able to ride on each red blood cell and oxygenate your tissues. Hypoxia can also happen if there’s not enough blood flow to a tissue, like when an artery is too narrow and doesn’t deliver as much blood to its target tissue. Then there’s high altitude where oxygen isn’t as easily available.
High CO2 levels in our blood, or hypercapnia, can cause symptoms like headaches and dizziness, but also more severe symptoms like paranoia, irregular heartbeats, and seizures. Hypercapnia can happen without breath holding too, like if you’re in a submarine or just a stuffy room with the windows closed. Since neither hypoxia or hypercapnia are ideal, our bodies are constantly measuring and reacting to oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. That’s where the carotid bodies come in, receptors embedded in the carotid artery in your neck that are triggered by certain chemicals.
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Pushing the Limits of Extreme Breath-Holding
“Scientists have long speculated that what feel like physical limits are often merely warning signals generated by the brain’s protective circuitry. In the case of breath-holding, a spate of recent studies offers a glimpse of what it takes to tap into the hidden reserves beyond these boundaries—and what price you might pay for access.”
What’s the secret to holding your breath?
“While our ability to breath-hold may not be all that special, when we compare ourselves with other animals, it’s now proving very useful in one particular area of medicine.”
The Limits of Breath Holding
“It’s logical to think that the brain’s need for oxygen is what limits how long people can hold their breath. Logical, but not the whole story.”
This Seeker health series will dive deep into the cellular structures, human systems, and overall anatomy that work together to keep our bodies going. Using the visual structure and quick pacing of Seeker’s Sick series, these human bio-focused episodes will give a new audience an inside look on what’s happening inside all of us.
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