Air - A primal need
Updated: Sep 28
With recent fires, poor air quality and the use of masks for COVID-19, the element of air has been on my mind. Air is the most immediate need of our organism. We can go months without food, days without water and sleep – but we can only go minutes without air. Why is air so vital for our survival?
The lungs take in oxygen, which is carried by red blood cells to tissues throughout the body where they enter into small organelles within cells called mitochondria.
Mitochondria are known as the power plant of the cell because they make ATP – the energy currency of the body. Running the body and all of its biochemistry is akin to running a city. It takes a tremendous amount of work (energy) to build new buildings, produce products for the supply chain and maintain the infrastructure of streets - power lines and general upkeep. Your body is similar. Energy is the driving force of productivity – the battery keeping the body running. The body is in a delicate balance where it cannot live long without adequate ATP levels.
ATP is made by the burning or oxidation of carbohydrates, fats and occasionally protein – essentially combustion of the body’s fuel stores. The process is known as cellular respiration. Oxygen is taken into the mitochondria along with a fuel where it is burned to produce ATP, CO2 and water. So on some level, mitochondria are the lungs of the cell and drive the rate of energy production of the body.
We can produce energy without oxygen but it is extremely inefficient and isn’t enough to maintain the needs of the body for long.
Mitochondria are fascinating in that they have their own genomes – their own set of genes that are separate from the genes of the cell nucleus – meaning they have their own blueprint of responses to cellular and environmental conditions. Unlike most of our inherited traits, we only inherit mitochondrial genes from our mothers. Mitochondria from the father powers sperm to the egg, but does not contribute to the future energy genetics of the offspring.
Mitochondria are believed to be bacteria that were symbiotically engulfed along the way in our evolutionary arc – in fact - mitochondrial genomes more closely resemble bacterial genomes than our own. Prior to this step in our evolution, eukaryotic cells like the ones in our body could not use oxygen – so the symbiotic relationship with bacteria was a huge step forward to possess the ability to utilize oxygen for energy. Plants have mitochondria too – and serve the same function for their physiology.
Why do we have oxygen in our air? The main oxygen producers on our planet are plants from both our oceans and land. Algae and other aquatic plant life produce the majority of our oxygen – up to 70% (1).
What are diseases of air or oxygen?
Anemia is a common one. It’s a disease with low red blood cells - which limits the body’s ability to bring air to cells. Top symptoms of anemia are weakness, fatigue, high heart rate and headache. These symptoms make sense when we think of how muscles need energy to contract – low ATP means weak muscles. Imagine a cell that isn’t receiving the oxygen it needs. How would you feel if you were stuck in a small room with no windows for too long? You’d have a headache too, right? With fewer red blood cells and a bunch of cells hungry for oxygen, the body adapts by increasing the heart rate to bring blood faster to tissues. The body maintains the stability of the system, but the increased heart rate might be perceived by you as anxiety.
Or how about sleep apnea, the disease where the airway – your throat - is occluded at night leading to episodes of snoring and hypoxia (low oxygen). Symptoms are far reaching and include cognitive decline, depression, anxiety, headache, and sexual dysfunction. The brain is one of the most energy hungry organs in the body because it is doing so much work. When oxygen is limited, ATP production declines and the brain doesn’t have what it needs to run the ship.
Or how about low blood pressure? Low blood pressure you say?? Isn’t that a good thing? Yes, it decreases your risk of stroke, but your brain needs adequate blood flow to bring oxygen to drive energy production. High enough pressure is needed to bring the flow of blood against gravity to the brain. Taking too many blood pressure meds, chronic stress or tall lanky body types can run the risk of low pressure and low brain oxygen. Think brain fog, slow thinking or a lifetime of it could lead to cognitive decline issues.
With the layer of smoke decreasing oxygen levels as well as masks decreasing oxygen levels, cellular respiration has the potential to be compromised during this time.
How are you doing with air? Do your cells have their needs met? You will both feel better if you do.
Breath deeply today – you and your cells will thank you.
1. Fenical, William (September 1983). "Marine Plants: A Unique and Unexplored Resource". Plants: the potentials for extracting protein, medicines, and other useful chemicals (workshop proceedings). DIANE Publishing. p. 147. ISBN 978-1-4289-2397-3.