I’ve always been fascinated by the roles and effects of seemingly simple things in our complex bodies. Take carbon dioxide (CO2) for example. It’s often just seen as a waste product of our cells and a contributor to greenhouse gases. But did you know that CO2 plays a critical role in efficiently oxygenating our cells, a process vital for all of us aerobic organisms? 

This is something I learned about through my Oxygen Advantage training – understanding the Bohr effect, a physiological phenomenon discovered in 1904 by Christian Bohr. It’s amazing to think that the presence of CO2 in our blood actually decreases its pH and reduces haemoglobin’s affinity for oxygen. This means that in areas where CO2 concentration is high, especially in tissues engaged in heavy metabolism, haemoglobin releases oxygen more readily, ensuring efficient delivery to cells that need it the most.

Moreover, CO2 is key in regulating blood flow. Various studies have shown it acts as a vasodilator, helping expand blood vessels and thus increasing blood flow to metabolically active areas. This mechanism is crucial, especially during physical activities when our muscles’ oxygen demand spikes. It’s incredible how CO2 levels, oxygen delivery, and blood flow interact to maintain cellular respiration and physiological balance.

Let me simplify it a bit. Imagine your blood as a delivery truck carrying oxygen everywhere in your body. Haemoglobin is like the cargo hold for oxygen. When cells work hard, like during a workout, they produce more CO2, altering the blood’s environment. Thanks to the Bohr Effect, this increase in CO2 signals haemoglobin to release more oxygen where it’s most needed – it’s like the delivery truck getting a signal to drop off more packages at the busiest stops. This ensures that hard-working parts of our body get the oxygen they need right when they need it. The more CO2 produced, the more oxygen is released, all thanks to this efficient oxygen delivery system.

But what happens when there’s a drop in CO2 levels? Say, if you start hyperventilating due to anxiety or stress, your CO2 levels plummet. This reduces blood acidity, causing haemoglobin to cling onto oxygen, not releasing it as easily to your tissues. This can make you dizzy or lightheaded as your tissues aren’t getting enough oxygen. Over the long term, like with chronic stress or breathing issues, low CO2 levels can lead to various health problems, as your body struggles to maintain the right oxygen balance.

This brings us to chronic hyperventilation syndrome, often linked with ongoing stress and anxiety. When stressed, your breathing pattern may change, becoming faster and shallower, leading to excessive CO2 being breathed out. If this becomes a habit, your CO2 levels may stay lower than normal, disrupting your blood’s acid-base balance and oxygen release. This can cause symptoms like dizziness, tingling, or even shortness of breath, which might, in turn, fuel more anxiety, creating a distressing feedback loop.

In summary, our body’s relationship with CO2 is more complex and vital than we might think. It’s not just a waste product; it’s a crucial part of how our body functions, especially in terms of oxygen delivery. Understanding this gives me a deeper appreciation for the intricate workings of our bodies and the delicate balances they maintain.

For more detailed information, I found the article “Physiology, Bohr Effect” on PubMed really insightful. And if you’re interested in hyperventilation syndrome, Morton E Tavel’s editorial “Hyperventilation Syndrome: Why Is It Regularly Overlooked?” is a great read.

[1] “Physiology, Bohr Effect” – Published on PubMed, this resource explains the Bohr effect in detail, including its physiological implications and the role of haemoglobin in oxygen transport​​. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30252284/

[2] “Hyperventilation Syndrome: Why Is It Regularly Overlooked?” by Morton E Tavel. This editorial addresses the common oversight of hyperventilation syndrome in medical diagnosis and practice​​. https://www.amjmed.com/article/S0002-9343(20)30678-1/fulltext