What does holding your breath mean for health?

i amIf you were the breath-holding champion of your friend group in the elementary school pool, you no doubt felt pretty special about it and accomplished at the time. But, from a scientific point of view, is holding your breath really a superpower?

But before getting into what breathing can mean for your health and well-being, it’s important to understand what it does to your body on a physiological level. When you breathe normally, you inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, but your body switches gears when you take in a large breath of air before exhaling. “When holding your breath, your diaphragm moves downward to expand your lungs, therefore increasing the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen,” says internal medicine doctor Ehsan Ali, MD.

It’s no secret that extra oxygen holds your breath forever, though; The longer you ignore your body’s desire to push air out, the more carbon dioxide your body builds up (while, your oxygen levels drop). “When you hold your breath, oxygen has been absorbed into your blood, but carbon dioxide is accumulating. This stimulates your brain’s respiratory center, telling it to signal the lungs to breathe to eliminate carbon dioxide, which is high in the body. Toxic,” says Dr. Ali.

“[Being good at holding your breath] It’s not a good or bad thing, or an indicator of how healthy you are.” – Ehsan Ali, MD

Although we all have the same biological response to oxygen retention, some people are actually better at it than others – but is that a good or bad thing? The good news is that current research has debunked the idea that not breathing for a minute or two can cause permanent damage. However, cerebral hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen in brain tissue, can begin about five minutes after you are cut off from your oxygen supply. But as long as you don’t push that upper limit in your breathing competition, you should steer clear of those risks.

Even so, given whatever Dr. Ali benefits from the practice, you might want to reconsider flexing it as a skill at all. “It’s not a good or bad thing, or an indicator of how healthy you are,” he says. But, he adds, those who participate in cardio-based fitness may have an easier time holding their breath because their lungs are stronger. Even if it may be a reflection of stronger lungs, though, holding the breath does not provide health or wellness benefits in its own right.

Likewise, having a high VO2 max—a metric that indicates your body’s ability to retain oxygen during exercise—can also contribute to your holding your breath. But the opposite isn’t necessarily true, research hasn’t supported the idea that practicing your breath holding (or getting “good” at it) translates to a better VO2 max.

Small studies suggest that holding your breath can increase longevity, help regenerate brain tissue and reduce stress levels. But, since many of these studies are very small or conducted on non-human subjects, all their results should be taken with a grain of salt.

For now, the takeaway is this: There aren’t many science-backed benefits to being amazing at holding your breath. But hey, that doesn’t mean it’s not a great party trick or hinge bio fun event.

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