Football players sit on the sidelines, sucking oxygen from masks and tanks; hip millennials lounge in oxygen bars, breathing bubbling oxygen through multicolored water canisters. Pooh-poohed by most experts as money-wasting (and possibly dangerous) psychological massage, oxygen bars are nonetheless expanding their reach, from dugouts to mountain spas. Why?
The science is simple. We normally breathe 20 percent oxygen from indoor air. At sea level, this saturates our blood cell hemoglobin to 98 percent — leaving little room for more. At altitude, the concentration of oxygen is the same, but the atmospheric air pressure is lower. (You are farther away from the center of the earth, so gravity has less pull.) Thus, you get less oxygen with each breath, and the saturation of the hemoglobin drops: usually hovering around 90 percent for most healthy people.
Breathing higher concentrations of oxygen (40 percent from most oxygen bars or 100 percent from anesthesia machines during surgery) seems like a good idea but can have serious negative consequences if used too long. That’s because higher concentrations of oxygen liberate free radicals: Oxygen molecules with charged sides that can damage lung tissue affect various inflammatory control systems and instigate a variety of health problems. Therefore, most medical experts recommend that you avoid increased concentrations of oxygen for prolonged periods of time.
Still, oxygen bars are popular. The concentration of O2 is only 40 percent, not 100 percent, and exposure is usually measured in 10- to 20-minute increments — not long enough to produce any damage. And people love them. That’s because short intervals of oxygen do produce a “high” feeling. This is especially true when the O2 is combined with aromatic scents and definitely when you have a hangover (or an altitude headache). The air smells good, and the act of breathing slowly — closing your eyes and inhaling “purifying” air, with the resulting increase in hemoglobin oxygen saturation — produces a wonderful state of bliss. The endorphins released have not yet been measured in any scientific way, but ask any oxygen bar user why they spend $20 on air and they will tell you: The experience is dreamy.
This observation is not new. In Jules Verne’s 1870 novel “Around the Moon,” he states:
“Do you know, my friends, that a curious establishment might be founded with rooms of oxygen, where people whose system is weakened could for a few hours live a more active life. Fancy parties where the room was saturated with this heroic fluid, theaters where it should be kept at high pressure; what passion in the souls of the actors and spectators! What fire, what enthusiasm! And if, instead of an assembly only a whole people could be saturated, what activity in its functions, what a supplement to life it would derive. From an exhausted nation they might make a great and strong one, and I know more than one state in old Europe which ought to put itself under the regime of oxygen for the sake of its health!”
So for those at higher altitudes, having danced a little too much and drank even more, that morning headache can be treated with a lot of hydration and a little extra oxygen. The treatment works. People feel better. The headache goes away. A little extra oxygen actually helps.
For those huffing and puffing on the sidelines of the football field, oxygen slows the breathing and provides confidence that the next round of contact will be answered with full force. The psychological effect is as powerful as the physical force that drives the legs, and it’s available instantly.
For those in search of urban refreshment, peering behind the curtain of that long zinc bar reveals the Wizard of O2. That extra shot of oxygen infuses customers with a dose of atmospheric bitters, a temporary shot of rejuvenation.
My advice? Use what nature gives us first, but feel free to have an extra helping sometimes, and radiate well-being. To paraphrase the song in the movie, “… if we only had more lungs …”
Dr. Kevin R. Stone is an orthopedic surgeon at The Stone Clinic and chairman of the Stone Research Foundation in San Francisco.