When we take a breath of fresh air into our lungs, oxygen passes from the lungs to the blood where it is picked up and carried through the blood vessels by a molecule called haemoglobin. This oxygen-rich blood is then pumped by the heart throughout the body so that oxygen can be offloaded to cells for conversion to energy. In order to release oxygen from the blood, however, haemoglobin requires a catalyst which involves an increase in body temperature, along with the presence of carbon dioxide. Physical exercise is a good example of these conditions: when we move our muscles the body requires more oxygen to give us energy and perform at a higher intensity. During exercise, our body temperature increases and our cells produce carbon dioxide, allowing extra oxygen to be released by the blood to the muscles and organs. However, when carbon dioxide levels are less than adequate, the transfer of oxygen from the blood to the muscles and organs is limited, leading to poor body oxygenation.
This necessary presence of carbon dioxide was discovered in 1904 by the physiologist and Nobel laureate Christian Bohr, who recognised that CO2 affects the release of oxygen from the blood to tissues and organs. According to the Bohr Effect, when there is sufficient pressure of carbon dioxide in the blood and lungs, pH drops and oxygen is released more readily. Conversely, when carbon dioxide levels are low, haemoglobin molecules are less able to release oxygen from the blood. The way we breathe determines the amount of carbon dioxide present in our blood, and therefore how well our bodies are oxygenated.
Another function of carbon dioxide is that it relaxes the smooth muscle embedded in airways, arteries and capillaries, enabling smooth breathing and healthy blood flow. For those genetically predisposed to asthma, the loss of CO2 caused by over-breathing leads to constriction of the airways. By breathing calmly and quietly, you will retain healthy levels of carbon dioxide and your blood vessels and airways will remain open and clear.
Constriction of the airways and blood vessels in response to hyperventilation can reduce the amount oxygen available to the brain by one half. It is no coincidence that symptoms like fatigue, anxiety and poor concentration are so common nowadays – chronic over-breathing/chronic hyperventilation contributes to all these issues, as well as more serious conditions such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
So how do we ensure that we take in enough carbon dioxide? The solution is clearly not to breathe more: We cannot inhale carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; it is a by-product of metabolic chemical reactions which are required to supply the body with energy. While it is true that carbon dioxide can be classed as a waste gas, we only exhale CO2 to get rid of the excess and it is vital that a certain amount of carbon dioxide is retained in the blood for healthy body function.