Take a Deep Breath

Portable oxygen canister to clear mental cobwebs?

The air we breathe, along with water and food, is essential for life.

The difference is really one of time. You can go weeks without food, days without water — but only minutes without air.

It’s the oxygen. Without it the body shuts down.

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So, with oxygen this essential to life, wouldn’t it be better to get more of it? Especially since the air we breathe is only 21 percent oxygen?


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That is the contention of companies that now offer portable oxygen canisters for sale to the general public. They amount to handheld versions of the oxygen masks football players use on the sidelines of games. For a mere 15 cents or so per huff, you can buy a canister of 95 percent pure oxygen (add shipping, and it’s more like 25 cents a huff).

Inhaling a little pure O2 has one benefit that goes back to the practice of WWII pilots who drank too much the night before. It can clear up the mental cobwebs of a hangover in a few breaths.

Is it worth it? And what’s it good for?

Low oxygen content in the blood is a bad sign. It’s what happens when you are at higher altitudes, before your body adjusts. It’s also a sign of poor cardiovascular function, one reason that heart patients at UCLA’s Ronald Reagan Medical Center are sent home with oximeters, small devices that can read their oxygen levels, said Dr. Richard Shemin, chief of cardiac surgery.


“It’s a little probe attached to your finger, with a light in it. It measures the oxygen content in your skin,” Shemin told LifeZette.

Using the device, patients can send the information to their doctor, who then knows if they are getting enough oxygen or not.

That same device — a finger pulse oximeter — can be purchased online for between $15 and $65. A good one costs about $40.

What they reveal, using infrared light, is oxygen saturation in the blood, or technically the percentage of hemoglobin sites occupied by oxygen. Normal levels are 95 to 100 percent. When the level is 90 to 95 percent, that is low but not necessarily a health issue. If it is below 90 percent, you are suffering hypoxemia. Below 80 percent — and the heart, lungs and brain stop working.

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The medical solution is oxygenation, which means carrying an oxygen tank around with you and breathing through a nose tube. So being able to read your oxygen levels is a helpful hack, since low levels need to be medically addressed before the get worse.

Then there are the rest of us, who merely suffer the effects of short-term oxygen deprivation, such as when we run up a flight of stairs. That’s where portable oxygen canisters come in.

“My perception is that they (the oxygen canisters) are for training and if you feel like you are out of breath,” said Dr. Lewis Maharam, former medical director for the New York Marathon and author of “Running Doc’s Guide to Healthy Running.”

“As a boost for runners, there are tons of testimonials, but the research is really sketchy as to whether it makes a (long-term) difference,” he told LifeZette.

Maharam’s principle objection to using oxygen as a training device is that “it can be a crutch, and no organized running organization will let you take it on the course.” Plus, there is the tendency of oxygen to make you train “beyond your perceived exertion” levels, he said.

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That, however, is just what proponents believe is the benefit of athletic oxygen.

While studies have shown little long-term benefit of using oxygen before or after a workout (except for relief from being winded), several studies have shown that using oxygen during a workout lets you exercise longer and more intensely by getting more oxygen to your muscles. Research has shown that athletes who breathe pure oxygen can increase their performance by up to 40 percent.

As for the rest of us nonathletic types, inhaling a little pure O2 has one benefit that goes back to the practice of WWII pilots who drank too much the night before. It’s a great way to clear up the mental cobwebs of a hangover in just a few breaths.

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