Detox Learning Center

Hypoxia: Why You Should Care About Your Oxygen Levels

“In all serious disease states, we find a concomitant low oxygen state. Low oxygen in the body tissues is a sure indicator for disease. Hypoxia, or lack of oxygen in the tissues, is the fundamental cause for all degenerative disease. Oxygen is the source of life to all cells.”

-Stephen Levine


Oxygen -- No matter our age, gender or background, not a single living creature can survive without oxygen. When you measure the elements that compose the human body by mass, 65% is oxygen. (1) By weight, the earth’s crust is 46.6% oxygen. Our atmosphere is 21% oxygen. Earth is the only planet in our solar system that can sustain life. One of the major reasons for this is it is the only planet with oxygen. These high percentages only confirm how vital proper oxygen levels are to our existence, and how the lack of it could contribute to failing health.

The human body is remarkable. It can adapt and still thrive under a variety of intense conditions. We can survive weeks without food, days without water. But we can survive only minutes without oxygen. Hypoxia is a condition to be educated on and avoid for optimum health.

What Is Hypoxia?

Hypoxia is quite simply an insufficient amount of oxygen reaching the tissues. The mitochondria need oxygen to create adenosine triphosphate or ATP. ATP is the energy required for cells to carry out their specific functions. Nerve impulses, tissue repair, muscle contraction, the synthesis of biochemical agents within cells, and more -- all these actions require ATP. Any movement or metabolic process needs ATP. A constant supply is imperative to maintain cellular processes for life. Without the mitochondria producing ATP from oxygen and the food we eat, life would cease.

What Causes Hypoxia?

There are basically two ways in which hypoxia is induced. There are many reasons it can occur, but they all boil down to:

  • Low blood supply (such as a stroke or other type of blockage) The blood is stagnant and not reaching the tissues because it is unable to flow to them.
  • Low blood oxygen (the blood itself isn’t saturated with oxygen) This can happen because of defective hemoglobin, or not enough atmospheric oxygen to intake. Two subcategories of low blood oxygen type hypoxia would be hypoxemic and anemic disorders. Carbon monoxide poisoning would also fall into this category because the CO gas is taking the place of oxygen on the hemoglobin.

A different form of low oxygen called histotoxic hypoxia stems from the cells being poisoned and unable to utilize oxygen. Oxygen levels may be completely normal, with no blood flow blockages. But agents such as cyanide, narcotics, alcohol, anesthetics medication, or formaldehyde poison the cells. (2) This renders them unable to properly implement oxygen in producing valuable ATP.  

Who Is Susceptible To Hypoxia?

Even though there are only a few ways hypoxia truly plays out, there are many different environmental or health factors that contribute to its occurrence. What are these factors? Anyone can become hypoxic, but who is most at risk? Do you have any of these risk factors?

The Elderly

Aging comes with a higher likelihood of health-related issues. Hypoxia is no exception. Unless specifically mitigated, our mitochondria become less efficient with time and low grade, chronic hypoxia can be a result. This lack of oxygen actually accelerates disease and speeds aging. (3) In short, as we age, we have less oxygen, and less oxygen in our tissues increases aging. Unfortunately, this cycle opens the door to even more serious health issues. These can include but are not limited to insulin resistance, elevated liver enzyme production, further mitochondrial dysfunction, and can contribute to obesity. (4) Hypoxia can also elevate blood pressure and cortisol while dampening immunity.

Those At High Altitudes

oxygen levels at high elevation

Oxygen levels in the atmosphere at sea level are approximately 21%. This percentage goes down as altitude increases. The weight of the air pushing down on the earth also creates pressure gently forcing air into our lungs helping us breathe. The pressure in our lungs is naturally less to create this phenomenon, so air automatically enters into our lungs. This pressure lessens with higher altitudes because there is a decreasing amount of air weighing down on the earth. This combination of low pressure and lower amounts of available oxygen can induce hypoxia quite quickly. The level at which this affects an individual depends on how fast they ascend and how well their body can adapt. Extreme cases can result in severe headaches, hallucinations, and retinal bleeding. (5) Hypoxia is why a mountain climber cannot just decide to climb Mount Everest without extensive preparation and body acclimation.

Those With Low Blood Pressure

As we just established, the pressure level of the air around us is very important in preventing low oxygen. The pressure in which our blood is pumping through our bodies is very important in maintaining ideal oxygen levels as well. Certain genetic conditions, heart issues, low blood volume, severe infections, and nutritional deficiencies can lead to low blood pressure. (6) This may result in not enough fully oxygenated blood traveling to the extremities. Those tissues may, in turn, suffer from hypoxia.

Those Suffering From Asthma, Allergies Or Anaphylaxis

The lungs are the gateway for oxygen to enter our bodies and eventually get to our mitochondria to produce that all-important energy molecule, ATP. Asthmatic and allergic conditions tend to be accompanied by significant inflammation of the airways. (7) This can impede our bodies from absorbing oxygen from the air we breathe in, resulting in hypoxia. Hypoxia itself increases inflammation compounding the problem. Anaphylaxis is a severe, rapid allergic reaction that results in dramatic swelling and inflammation. Airways can become completely closed off, and if not quickly mediated with epinephrine, death can occur.

Those Suffering From COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a group of breathing conditions in where oxygen is restricted. This can include those with chronic infections such as bronchitis and problems like emphysema.

Those Suffering From Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is a condition when breathing either stops periodically or becomes extremely shallow during sleep. This results in low oxygen levels and hypoxia in the tissues.

Heart Attack Or Stroke

Extreme cardiac events or stroke cause restricted or blocked blood flow to specific regions of the body. Hypoxia in the brain after a stroke, for example, is logical. But low oxygen isn’t limited to the brain. After a stroke, the respiratory muscles can become dysfunctional. This can result in pneumonia and abnormal blood clotting, problems that are generally not associated with stroke. Oxygen therapy is critical to their recovery. (8)

Mold Sufferers Or Those with CIRS

Chronic Inflammatory Response Syndrome or Biotoxin Illness is a group of debilitating symptoms from mold exposure. Initially, it was believed that Biotoxin illness was from external exposure only. But now it is understood that bacteria and fungal infections in the body can produce toxic substances that poison the body and create hypoxia. The mold or fungal infection thrives in this inflammatory environment and shields itself from being discovered by our immune system with biofilm. CIRS people are afflicted with terrible fatigue and low energy. Besides fighting these biotoxins, they are being deprived of oxygen getting to their mitochondria resulting in even lower energy levels.

Lyme Sufferers

Lyme disease is another devastating illness that has a link with biotoxins, biofilm, and hypoxia. These microorganisms consume oxygen at the surface of the biofilm they create. This results in a hypoxic environment and rob the surrounding cells. They generate this low oxygen environment to lessen our white blood cells’ capacity to effectively kill them off. (9) Again, Lyme disease sufferers are not only fighting the infection, but the microorganisms are snatching their oxygen before their mitochondria can get to it.

Those Suffering From Parasitic Infection

Parasites are an insidious problem that most are people are unaware they have. Parasites can change their surroundings within their host. Low oxygen levels actually increase their ability to adhere to their host! (10) Eukaryotic organisms have a protein that works as an oxygen sensor. When they detect hypoxia, it stimulates them to adapt to prevent cell death. Conversely, proper oxygen levels in healthy cells help the host’s immune system to recognize and eliminate these unwanted visitors.

Those Suffering From Nerve Pain

hypoxia and nerve pain

Wherever pain is present, blood flow is altered. Nerves that are injured can cause persistent hypoxia in the area of injury. One study revealed that low oxygen levels were still present 28 days after nerve damage. This altered the blood vessels in a way that would not have happened under sufficient oxygen levels. (11)

To summarize, those most at risk are:

  • The Elderly
  • Those at high altitudes
  • Those with low blood pressure
  • Those suffering from asthma, allergies or anaphylaxis
  • Those suffering from COPD
  • Those suffering from sleep apnea
  • Heart Attack and Stroke patients
  • Mold sufferers or those with CIRS
  • Lyme sufferers
  • Those suffering from a parasitic infection
  • Those suffering from nerve pain

This isn't an exhaustive list. Low oxygen levels create some “behind the scenes” issues no matter why they are occurring. Let’s explore some other ways hypoxia can generate problems within the body.

What Other Health Issues Can Be Related To Hypoxia?

Low oxygen levels have far-reaching consequences that are not always immediately seen. Hypoxia can create a dangerous metabolic landscape that may lead to severe diseases.

Hypoxia Can Create Epigenetic Changes

Our bodies are continually striving for homeostasis - specific parameters with temperature, metabolic processes and of course, oxygen levels. This is to prevent tissue damage, keep our immune system strong, and allow our cells to replicate efficiently. Chronically low oxygen levels can negatively impact our genetics and severely affect our normal processes.

Intermittent hypoxia from obstructive sleep apnea, for example, can result in epigenetic changes. It can increase hypertension and engages the sympathetic nervous system, our “fight or flight” response. (12) Most cases of hypoxia result in lower blood pressure, but in this instance due to the engagement of the nervous system, it is elevated. The exaggerated reflexes from the lack of oxygen are sensed by the carotid body. Unfortunately, this creates a feedback loop that further increases the sleep apnea. Epigenetics make the oxygen sensors even more sensitive to hypoxia and contribute to the progression of sleep apnea. (13) The lack of oxygen also increases the inflammatory response in the body.

Another area that can generate epigenetic changes with regards to hypoxia, is our adipose tissue. Most people are unaware that this fatty tissue is, in fact, a signaling organ of the endocrine system. When this tissue expands, as would be the case in obesity, hypoxia begins to develop. These lower oxygen levels increase the inflammatory state of the body. White adipose tissue in hypoxic condition influences the expression of over 1000 genes! It increases the use of glucose and contributes to insulin resistance, leading to these cells becoming even more dysfunctional. (14) Men with this issue may be ten times more likely to develop Type II Diabetes. For women, the rates are even higher. Unfortunately, this leads to fibrosis or scarring of the connective tissue within the adipose tissue. Fibroids interfere with normal cell functions and can inhibit proper wound healing. The structure of the tissue itself is negatively altered. To add fuel to this “inflammatory fire”, the genes that express catalase and glutathione peroxidase 1 (both anti-inflammatory) tend to be downregulated in this cycle.

Hypoxia May Contribute To Cancer

An additional way that our gene expression can be influenced is in our chances of developing cancer. Hypoxia is a standard aspect of solid tumors. (15) Low oxygen changes multiple pathways that can help tumor growth. The longer healthy cells experience hypoxia, the more DNA damage is accumulated. The state of hypoxia itself furthers this damage by inhibiting the DNA repair process. This can lead to genetic mutation. Hypoxia can, in turn, make tumors more aggressive and contribute to their growth and metastasis. (16) Multiple myeloma cells that were cultured in a hypoxic environment were able to spread to the bone marrow more quickly than cells that grew in an average level of oxygen. (17)

The level of oxygen in tissues is not equal throughout the body. Breast tissue, for example, is around 8.5%. Kidney tissue is even higher at 9.5%. The cervix and lung are about 5.5%. The pancreas is mid-range at 7.5%. When tumors are analyzed for their oxygen levels, they are all found to be far below their healthy organ counterparts. They range anywhere from 0.3% to 2.2% at the most. These values further indicate that hypoxia may be a huge factor in cancer outcomes. Because the oxygen levels in breast tissue should be high, hypoxia seems to be a distinct component of its metastasis. (18)

Hypoxia can become a deadly state to most cells. The majority of tumor cells, however, not only adapt to hypoxia but become drug resistant. They evolve to not only withstand chemotherapy but radiation as well. (19) Because cancer cells don’t “play by the rules” when it comes to the normal life cycle of a cell (they don’t die in a standard time frame) chemo and radiation therapies can be unsuccessful in targeting them because of hypoxia. Those methods target cells that are growing, like a teenager if you will. These drug-resistant cells are more like adults that stay the same and don’t enter into apoptosis, or normal programmed cell death. (20)

Oxygen Levels Matter

oxygen levels matter

Breathing is a function of our autonomic nervous system that the vast majority of us don’t give a second thought. With hypoxia potentially altering over 1000 genes and contributing to many devastating diseases, our cellular oxygen levels should be something we think about.

Awareness to your own risk level and why or how you could be at risk is the key to overcoming any health challenge. We can actually do something when it comes to our oxygen levels. Supplementing our oxygen levels could be an important key to combat illness and achieve great health. 

Remember, you are in control. We are here to help. 

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