Oxygen Saturation & Will Power

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In 2021, 57 year old Budimir Šobat from Croatia broke the record for the longest static underwater breath hold with a staggering time of 24 minutes 37.36 seconds. He surpassed the previous record by 34 seconds, which is probably longer than most people could hold their breath in total!

The record has come a long way since the first documented attempt by American Robert Foster who held his breath for 13 minutes 42.5 seconds in a swimming pool in 1959.

Šobat hyperventilated with pure oxygen for 30 minutes before the attempt. This is known as ‘normobaric’ exposure which is breathing pure oxygen at sea-level or normal atmospheric pressure. There is nothing physiologically or genetically unusual about Šobat. He has trained more than the average European male of his age, so is leaner and fitter than most. He started freediving at 47 years of age and the rest is chemistry and physics.

Alongside this is the now well documented story of the North Sea commercial diver Chris Lemons who was left on the seabed at a depth of 100 meters when the ship he was diving from lost position and his umbilical that supplied his breathing gas was severed.

Lemons was carrying an emergency breathing supply that contained only six minutes’ worth of breathing gas however he managed to survive for 29 minutes without breathing until he was rescued.

In both cases, the men were fit and healthy, one a young man in his thirties and the other in his mid-fifties. Both had incredible will power but at the core of what happened in both cases was oxygen, chemistry and physics.

Generally people think of oxygen being transported around the body in their blood attached to haemoglobin. A blood oxygen concentration saturation test taken on a finger provides only part of the picture as it only tells us the amount of oxygen being carried in arterial blood.

Haemoglobin is the main protein in a red blood cell and when the haemoglobin is fully saturated with oxygen we have oxyhaemoglobin and the protein changes to its relaxed state. The more oxygen the haemoglobin has the more receptive it becomes to accepting the next molecule. The main factor that influences saturation with haemoglobin is the pressure of oxygen in the blood

However this is not the whole story because there is oxygen in the plasma that transports the haemoglobin as well as in all the body’s liquids. It is here that we find the answers to Lemons’ and Šobat’s incredible achievements and the key to understanding the advantages of normobaric and hyperbaric oxygen exposure. Getting extra oxygen into the plasma is vital; as haemoglobin transports CO2 through the venal system there is less oxygen available in the returning venal system.

In physical chemistry, Henry’s law states that the amount of dissolved gas in a liquid is proportional to its partial pressure above the liquid. This dictates the amount of oxygen and nitrogen saturated in the plasma. So if we breath pure oxygen this will all be dissolved in the plasma with no nitrogen.

In the case of Lemons he was breathing helium and oxygen but at very high pressure so the volume of oxygen saturated in his body fluids was extreme. The human body cleverly prefers to take the saturated oxygen before it takes the haemoglobin transported oxygen meaning that anoxia occurs later in tissues that would otherwise become oxygen deprived much sooner. Šobat’s experience is similar but there were other factors at play. Lemons was also subject to cold shock which lowered his bodily requirements as he became hypothermic but equally the highly relaxed almost meditative state of Šobat would have similarly reduced oxygen demand to life support levels.

At great depth pure oxygen rapidly becomes toxic, but at shallower depths the pressure simply multiplies the oxygen saturation. What both divers demonstrate is the tissue supporting effect of plasma saturation caused by hyperoxygenation.

At HybO2 we offer normobaric and hyperbaric treatments and therapies at pressures up to 2ATA.