Why Do We Need To Breathe Oxygen
We all know what it’s like when you’re out of breath. If you’ve ever had a cold or were sick with a fever you know how uncomfortable it can be to have too little oxygen going to your brain. The body needs oxygen for its many processes. Without enough oxygen your muscles will start to cramp up as well as your heart rate increases. Your blood pressure falls causing dizziness and light headedness. And if you are not getting enough oxygen to your brain, you may feel drowsy and confused. You become irritable and unable to concentrate on anything except finding some air!
The most obvious way that oxygen is used by humans is to breathe it into our bodies. Our lungs absorb oxygen from the atmosphere (from 20% O2) and mix it with other chemicals inside our bodies. This process releases carbon dioxide which makes up about 80 percent of the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is an important waste product of life because it is needed by plants to make more organic material. It also has a role in climate change since it traps heat and warms the Earth’s surface.
Oxygen is essential for life but there are times when our bodies don’t use all the oxygen available to them. When this happens the body produces hydrogen peroxide. Hydrogen peroxide is formed when oxygen reacts with water. In the human body hydrogen peroxide is produced mainly in the liver where oxygen free radicals are released. Free radicals are highly reactive molecules containing one unpaired electron. They are thought to play an important part in aging and cancer development but they do good work killing bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
Free radicals cause damage to DNA resulting in mutated genes and cancerous growths. So it is very important to protect ourselves against free radical damage. One way to do this is to prevent the formation of free radicals by eating foods rich in antioxidants such as vitamins A, C, E and beta-carotene. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals before any damage occurs. Another method for reducing the effects of free radicals is to drink lots of water and reduce alcohol consumption. Water contains no free radicals so it prevents the production of free radicals. Alcohol dehydrates us and causes dehydration of our cells. As dehydration worsens it causes our cells to release toxins and increase inflammation. Inflammation leads to pain, swelling and muscle stiffness. Dehydration also interferes with digestion and absorption of nutrients.
There are some people who worry about being exposed to oxygen while they sleep at night. Some research shows that exposure to high levels of oxygen during sleep can cause memory loss and depression. Other studies show that sleeping in low oxygen environments does not cause these problems. However, the jury is still out on whether long term exposure to low amounts of oxygen can affect the brain. For now, it would seem best to avoid sleeping in rooms that contain higher than normal concentrations of oxygen unless you live in a plastic bag.
So why do we need to breathe oxygen? Why isn’t it just floating around everywhere? Well, oxygen is vital to fuel combustion reactions in the chemical reactions that take place within the cell. Cells require oxygen to burn glucose and fatty acids to produce ATP – Adenosine Tri Phosphate. ATP provides energy to run the activities of the cell. There are three main methods for burning glucose in the absence of oxygen. These are fermentation, glycolysis (anaerobic respiration), and gluconeogenesis. Fermentation uses yeast to convert sugar into acid products. Glucose is converted into lactic acid and then fermented further. Lactic acid is toxic to most animals including humans so it cannot be used directly as a source of energy. Glycolysis takes place without oxygen inside the cell but only produces two moles of ATP instead of the usual four. Therefore it is not efficient. Gluconeogenesis converts pyruvic acid into glucose but requires oxygen.
In addition to providing energy, oxygen is necessary for proper function of the nervous system, kidneys, skin, eyes, ears, stomach and intestines. Oxygen also plays a key role in protecting our immune systems. Our cells generate harmful substances called free radicals which attack healthy tissue. Oxygen protects healthy tissue from free radicals by converting them to less harmful compounds.
One of the greatest threats to our health comes from pollution. Pollution causes increased levels of free radicals. Pollutants include cigarette smoke, car exhaust fumes, pesticides, heavy metals, radiation, solvents, drugs and plastics. Polluted areas often have lower populations of fish due to excessive algae blooms caused by excess nitrogen and phosphorus. Fish provide us with Omega 3 fatty acids which help fight cancer and regulate cholesterol. Since polluted waters often lack oxygen, fish have trouble reproducing.
Oxygen deficiency is becoming increasingly common worldwide. The population in developing countries consumes far fewer natural resources than the population in developed countries. People in developing nations spend much longer hours indoors doing manual labor rather than spending time outside absorbing sunlight. Lack of access to clean drinking water means that millions of people consume contaminated tap water. Many people in poor countries subsist on rice diets lacking in fresh fruits and vegetables. Rice is very low in vitamin B1 which is found primarily in leafy green vegetables. Vitamin B12 is also hard to obtain from plant sources. These deficiencies lead to widespread disease and sickness.
You may wonder: “How did oxygen come to be?” The answer lies deep beneath the oceans. About 2 billion years ago the first single celled organism appeared. An archaeon. Over time different species evolved until eventually multicellular organisms appeared. Their bodies contained trillions of cells. Eventually some of these cells began to specialize and grouped together forming tissues. Tissues formed into organs and eventually became connected to each other forming the circulatory system. Through evolution, animals adapted to land. They breathed air instead of liquid. The lungs absorbed oxygen from the air and delivered it to the bloodstream. This was followed by the development of specialized organs such as the heart and kidney.
Although oxygen is essential to life, it can kill us if we inhale pure oxygen under certain conditions. At high pressures and temperatures pure oxygen kills bacteria by oxidizing enzymes. Pure oxygen can also react chemically with nitric oxide to form ozone (dioxygen). Nitric oxide is produced naturally in the body by neurons. Excess nitric oxide is linked to hypertension and atherosclerosis. Ozone forms when pure oxygen is mixed with chlorine gas. Chlorine is used as a disinfectant. The combination creates large quantities of free radicals and hydroxyl ions. Both ozone and chlorine are powerful oxidizers. They react quickly with almost every element except nitrogen and helium.
We must always remember that although oxygen is absolutely essential to life, it is not good for us. Exposure to high doses of pure oxygen causes severe side effects. Even though most people today usually receive sufficient amounts of oxygen, we should never consider ourselves completely safe from danger. Allowing dangerous gases such as CO2 and NOx into the home could create potentially lethal situations. Finally, I hope that I have shown that although oxygen is essential to life, it can be deadly if given in large doses.
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