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5 Ways Your Body Uses Oxygen

Sept. 25, 2016 at midnight
Updated Sept. 26, 2016 at midnight

With each breath, you're drawing a fresh load of oxygen into your lungs that gets distributed through the body. Oxygen is obviously crucial for both life and your health, yet most people simply take it for granted—they're unaware of exactly how the body uses it. Develop a new appreciation for the more than 500 liters of oxygen you inhale every day by learning why it's so important.

Providing Energy For Cells

Oxygen is primarily used as a source of fuel for every cell in your body. Glucose is supplied by the food you eat, but your body can't put that glucose to good use until there is enough oxygen to react with it on a molecular level. Your body basically uses oxygen to burn the food you eat, resulting in the energy you need. In fact, your cells are so reliant on oxygen for fuel that the death of sensitive brain cells is the main reason why you can't survive without a steady supply of oxygen for more than barely a few minutes.

Killing Bacteria

Your immune system also uses some specialized oxygen byproducts to control bacteria that could threaten your health. The body creates chemicals known as superoxides, then packs them into special holding pouches on aggressive tools of the immune system known as neutrophils. When those neutrophils surround bacteria with those pouches, the extra strong form of oxygen destroys them to keep you healthy.

Thinking Properly

Without enough oxygen, you'll first notice issues with thinking clearly. A lack of oxygen is particularly damaging to the brain because the neurons that power your ability to think are highly reliant on oxygen to transfer electricity. When you're out of breath for too long, the neurons misfire and interrupt your normal brain functions. It's not uncommon for an interruption in breathing to result in unconsciousness. The same situation can occur from a lack of glucose, but this is less common because the body can break down its own tissues to create glucose.

Powering the Muscles

Since every cell in the body relies on oxygen for fuel, it's not surprising that you feel the lack of oxygen most acutely in your muscles. Every time you sprint across the parking lot or play catch with your dog, you're increasing the workload on your muscles and therefore burning up more energy. At a certain point, your muscles are using the oxygen supply faster than your blood can replace it, resulting in a burning sensation and sudden weakness.

Healing Wounds

Finally, your body needs plenty of oxygen when there's an injury to heal—from a simple burn to a serious gash. Since the body needs to replace the dead and damaged cells to close the wound, it needs oxygen to burn as fuel during cell replication at the site of the wound. This is why exposure to pure oxygen in a hyperbaric chamber has become such a widely used treatment for slow healing wounds.

So are you getting enough oxygen? Be sure to see your doctor if you're concerned about your respiratory system—and do so before long-term problems set in.


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