The History and Science Behind Hyperbaric Oxygen

What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

For those of us who like to dig a bit deeper into the subject matter, we have prepared a summary of the science and history behind Hyperbaric oxygen.

The History

The first experiments in modern chemistry conducted in 1777 by the French nobleman Lavoisier (who correctly described the significance of oxygen and in doing so founded modern chemistry), demonstrated that oxygen combines with fuel during combustion. In an ingenious experiment, he went on to prove that combustion is taking place inside the body of a living animal. His experiments to prove this in ‘man’ were cut short by the French revolutionaries at the guillotine; with the judge stating, “The Republic has no need of scientists or chemists”.

Before losing his head, Lavoisier had commented on the combustion of candle wicks in different degrees of oxygen supply. If insufficient oxygen was present the wick produced a sooty smoke, less light and heat, but if oxygen was freely present, the fuel would burn with a bright light and heat, without the black soot. He later posed the question: if combustion was taking place in living things, could the supply of oxygen produce similar effects on health as incomplete combustion had on the candle flame?

In the great revolutions in clinical medicine that followed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the rationale for the clinical management of disease ignored the scientific thinking of Lavoisier, in favour of a different approach, that is as popular today as it ever was.

The Science

We now know without a doubt that the fuel we receive from our food is combined with the oxygen in our cells to produce energy. This is the predominant chemical reaction taking place in our bodies that gives us the energy to get up and go. It is indeed true that without sufficient oxygen, incomplete combustion takes place. In the same way, Lavoisier’s candle had given less light and heat, our cells could be left running on empty.

There are about 4 trillion cells in our body. With the exception of the cornea in the eye, all those cells depend on the timely delivery of oxygen from the lungs. When we breathe in oxygen, it enters the blood and is bound to the haemoglobin that is contained inside the red blood cells.

The heart then pumps the blood to the rest of the body through blood vessels that get progressively smaller and smaller, until finally, they reach the capillaries (the smallest of all the blood vessels) that are about half the width of the red blood cell.

Ordinary air contains just 21% oxygen. Once that oxygen enters the blood, that percentage begins to fall, until all that is left is for your cells is a tiny 4%. The inside of our cells, where all the action takes place, runs routinely on less than 1% oxygen levels. This process of reducing levels of oxygen is called the oxygen cascade.

Let’s suppose that there is a point in that oxygen cascade that is less efficient. This would happen in conditions such as lung disease, anaemia, heart disease, poor physical condition, or problems with the red cells (sickle cell disease), as well as inflammation, injury, or surgery and wounds. This would result in the cells receiving less oxygen.

What is Chronic Tissue Hypoxia?

Chronic tissue hypoxia is a condition where the concentration of oxygen in the body’s blood cells falls to 0.5% or lower. This process has been proven to alter the way our cells read DNA by a recently discovered class of proteins called the Hypoxia-inducible factors. To date, over 8,000 genes have been found to be controlled by hypoxia-induced factor-1 (HIF1A) alone. Each one of those genes makes a protein that controls how our cells do their thing.

Metaphorically speaking, oxygen levels are a major factor in controlling how a cell thinks and feels. As we develop in the womb it is the oxygen level that signals to the tissues when to grow and develop. This process never turns off and scientists are finding that it can be stimulated through Hyperbaric oxygen.

Outside of specialist areas of medicine, the significance of oxygen cascade is rarely considered. Most medical doctors will not know much about it or its significance. The amount of oxygen delivered to the tissues is thought to be an unalterable process because haemoglobin – the oxygen carrier protein – is a one size fits all kind of guy. So outside of hyperbaric conditions, the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues is usually set.

However, during hyperbaric treatment blood can carry extra oxygen dissolved in the plasma fluid (the part of the blood without the red blood cells in it). More than 10 times the oxygen is carried in the plasma and being outside the red blood cell, it can fit easily into the smallest of blood vessels, leading to higher rates of oxygen penetration in areas that the red blood cell cannot reach!

How Does Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy Speed Healing?

Unhealthy cells and bacteria are unable to protect themselves from high levels of oxygen.

Even under normal conditions, our body uses bleach-like chemicals to clean house. This is done in a controlled way, of course, and on the tiny scale of the cell. To do this our cells need oxygen. Too little oxygen results in reduced cleaning ability, but too much of it, for too long, results in oxidative stress, which could damage the cell.

When hyperbaric oxygen therapy is correctly administered, the change in pressure and oxygen levels triggers the hypoxia-induced factor protein to signal to the cell. The cells respond by expressing the genes to make the proteins that make the antioxidants that protect the cell against the oxidative stress. Only healthy cells have the full ability to do this.

Unhealthy cells and bacteria that thrive in areas of our body with low oxygen levels, (as if they are hiding). They have much less ability to adapt to the excess oxygen supplied during hyperbaric oxygen therapy and tend to get cleaned out as a result.

Known Effects from Hyperbaric Oxygen Laboratory Experiments:

  • Oxidative stress kills abnormal cells.
  • Oxidative stress kills anaerobic bacteria.
  • Oxidative stress kills staphylococcal bacteria.

Oxidative stress alters the expression of 8,000 genes in healthy cells through a protein called hypoxia-induced factor 1.

This stimulates:

  • The release of stem cells from the blood that regenerate tissue damage.
  • The release of stem cells in the brain that can regenerate brain tissue damage.
  • Progenitor cell types to regenerate tissues in spleen, bone, cartilage, heart, pancreas, peripheral nerve, and bone marrow.
  • Endothelial progenitor cells to form new blood vessels (neo-vascularisation).
  • Supportive tissue needed for the healing process.

What Are the Benefits of Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?

Emerging studies are hinting at lots of clinical benefits to be had from hyperbaric oxygen therapy. These include:

  • Anti-ageing
  • Antibiotic
  • Anti-inflammatory in: bowl, brain, joints, bone marrow, wounds.
  • Regenerative to (stem cell-mediated): Brain, peripheral nerve, joints (cartilage and bone), bowl.
  • Speeds healing in: fractures, sprains, muscle tears, micro muscle tears that occur during exercise

This article has used scientific papers as source material. Just because a scientific study comes to a conclusion it does not make it so. We have done our best to use reliable studies, but they may turn out to be wrong. A reference list used for this article is available in the clinic and on request.

Copyright 2019 Hyperbaric oxygen therapy limited.
Without prejudice.