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Back to Public Library | Back to Physiological Effects of Qigong

Oxygen Metabolism

Roger Jahnke O.M.D.

The human system will begin to disorganize and die after several minutes without oxygen. It is a logical progression of thought that leads to the possibility that altering oxygen metabolism might be curative for diseases that have an oxygen deficiency component to their etiology. Both moderate and vigorous body movement and the accompanying muscle work increase oxygen demand in the cells. Evidence from research in exercise physiology demonstrates that muscular activity accelerates the rate of oxygen uptake from the blood (10,11,12,13). It has been shown that training and practice increase ventilitory threshold, anaerobic threshold and mechanical efficiency.(14,15) This suggests that regular body movement with increased breath activity supports adaptation toward increased functional efficiency in the uptake and utilization of oxygen from the blood.

One early source (1896) suggests that just the muscular activity of the breath mechanism itself is enough to increase the uptake of oxygen from the blood.(16) This is not a widely accepted idea. However, most traditional systems of medicine include elaborate methods of breath practice. Some exploration of this mechanism for the absorption and utilization of oxygen is being undertaken.(17) A recent animal study demonstrates that the movement of the breathing apparatus alone may generate oxygen demand(18). Both Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama include breath practices where there is no body movement except of the breathing apparatus itself. Such research suggests that simple breathing techniques alone may increase the amount of oxygen absorbed from the blood. Individuals who are restricted in their movement due to health problems may have access to some of the benefits that have traditionally been reserved for those who do vigorous exercise.

Certain dynamic (active, moving) Qigong and Yoga methods increase the oxygen uptake by virtue of the greater requirement for chemical energy by the cells. Other more quiescent (inactive, still) methods tend to decrease oxygen uptake due to the the lowering of metabolic activity. It has been found that some practitioners of these traditional practices have refined their ability to the point where they actually enter into altered states where the physiological need for food, air or sleep have been almost completely suspended.(3)

The Framingham Study on risk factors for cardiac disease, completed in 1970 by the National Heart and Lung Institute, found that decreased vital respiratory capacity (breath volume in relation to tissue uptake) was directly associated with increased mortality.(19) In Australia an extensive 13 year study completed in 1983 which measured similar parameters of long life, demonstrated that respiratory capacity was "a powerful determining variable", more significant in predicting longevity than tobacco use, insulin metabolism or cholesterol levels. (20)

Recently there has been a tremendous amount of activity in both research and clinical practice which suggests that many deficiency disorders and degenerative diseases are, at least partially, attributable to oxygen metabolism dysfunction, oxygen deficiency or hypoxia. (21,22,23). This view is supported by many of the great names in research; Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Otto Warburg, Emmanuel Revici and Linus Pauling. The Asian systems of self applied health maintenance like Qigong and Yoga/Pranayama proposed this view and developed specific methods for application centuries ago.

The practice of Qigong and Yoga increase oxygen availability which potentially:

  1. Supports energy (ATP, AMP, ADP) generation.
  2. Generates water as a by product of energy metabolism which contributes a major portion to the lymph supply.
  3. Enhances immune function.
  4. Supports the body's ability to neutralize free radicals.

1. Energy Generation
It has been well established that the energy necessary for cell work and body heat regulation is supplied through the reaction of oxygen and glucose to form high energy phosphate bonds.(24) There is a direct relationship between oxygen demand, the impulse to breath and the basal metabolic rate (BMR, the rate that the cells in the body consume oxygen and glucose to produce water, carbon dioxide and energy). Hydrolysis of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is accompanied by the release of chemical energy for cellular and muscular activity.

Preliminary research demonstrates that ATP may be an analog to one aspect of what the Chinese call "Qi" and what the Oriental Indians call "Prana", the vital force or life energy. The aspect of the Qi that is the "basic dynamic force of all vital function" is called Zhen Qi (Genuine Energy).(25) A study presented at the 1988 World Conference on the Academic Exchange of Medical Qigong revealed that blood ATP content increased with exercises which cultivate the Qi.(26) When the mysterious practice of Qi emission was performed the subject's ATP was found to have decreased.

The simple methods of Qigong practice, movement, breath practice moderated with concentration, relaxation and intention may bring a primary substrate of Qi or Prana production, namely oxygen, into the body's energy metabolism cycle. This chain of events is called the "cycle of the transformation of energy" by the chinese.(27) It is likely, however, that this is only one of the components of the broad array of possible energetic mechanisms involved in acupuncture, Qi Gong and other oriental health practices.

In the west we generally characterize ancient medicine as unscientific or even primitive. The Chinese "formula" for the transformation of Qi seems overly simplified. Gu Qi (grain qi), the essence or life force of food, mixes with Kong Qi (28) or Qing Qi(25) (natural air qi), the essence or life force of air to form Zhen Qi (true qi) or the life force of the body.(25,28,29)

Gu Qi

+

Kong (Qing) Qi

=

Zhen Qi

Energy of Food

+

Energy of Air

=

Body Energy

However, it is this same basic formula, disguised in the vocabulary of Western science, that is used in modern physiology.

6O2

+

C6H12O6

+

(BMR)

=

Ergs

+

6CO2

+

6H2O

Air

+

Food

+

(BMR)

=

Energy

+

Carbon Dioxide

+

Water

Oxygen (O2) plus glucose (C6H12O6) through BMR yields energy in the form of high energy phosphate bonds (especially ATP) plus water (H2O) which dissolves carbon dioxide (CO2) and facilitates the hydrolysis of energy yielding phosphate bonds. It seems that the chinese knew, without a particularly refined scientific method, that only a portion of the air and food, the essence, was employed in the process: only 20% of air is oxygen and glucose is approximately 60% of food.(24)

The Chinese knew about circulation of the blood approximately 2000 years before William Harvey described it in 1616.(25,28,29) They knew about the energy generating relationship of food and air 2300 years before the elaboration of the Krebs cycle.(25,28,29) The simplicity of the Chinese formula encourages the use of the movement and breath as a health enhancing factor while the complexity of the Western scientific formula tends to mask the importance of the breath and makes the benefits of simple breath practice less access able to the average health seeker?

2. Water Production
A second critical benefit of increased oxygen metabolism generated through the practice of moderate body movement and breathing exercises is linked to the lymph system. Besides the production of energy, in the phosphorylization cycle, there is also the generation of pure water as a waste product or by product.(30) This water is dramatically and directly increased when oxygen consumption is increased at the cell. Because this water becomes involved with the internal cleansing performed by the lymph it is a major link between the breath and lymphatic system function. (Discussion follows in lymph section)

3. Immune Function
ATP drives the activity of every cell. Therefore, immune function as well as the production of immune resources (white blood cells, lymphocytes, t-cells, killer cells, etc) are indirectly dependent on oxygen consumption. These activities become deficient in individuals who are unwell. It has been shown that exercise can mobilize the effect of natural killer(NK) cells.(31) In individuals who exercise so vigorously that they exceed the aerobic level and cross the anaerobic threshold immune function is decreased.(32,33) Both suggest that oxygen deficiency leads to decreased immune function and that moderate exercise increases immune function.

In his research, Nobel Prize recipient Otto Warburg found that oxygen deficiency was typical of cancer cells.(34) There are numerous studies that associate reduced oxygen intake with increased mortality (19,20) and reduced resistance to disease. In studies with elders immunodeficiency was found to be one of several consequences of reduced oxygen metabolism.(35).

Oxygen's effect on the immune function has been demonstrated through research studies on two nutrients that have been shown to have immunomodulating capability. Germanium, an element that bonds easily with oxygen, is thought to increase the efficiency of the use of oxygen in the mitochondria of the cell. In addition, it may help to decrease free radicals in the blood. In a German study it was found that in elderly, injured, stressed and hospitalized individuals the arterial oxygen content is often reduced from normal levels.(36) Administration of oxygen was found to elevate the arterial oxygen content and increase recovery rates. The experimental addition of germanium to the treatment protocol increased oxygen utilization and further accelerated the healing process.(36)

Blood studies on patients with AIDS revealed, in addition to deficient immune capability, low concentrations of Co enzyme Q10, a co enzyme present in all healthy cells. The patients were administered CoQ10 and their symptoms as well as blood immune factors improved.(37) Co Q10 apparently improves the ability of oxygen to produce ATP. Both germanium and Co Q10 enhance the ability of oxygen to support immune function with the implication that increased oxygen through Qigong or Yoga/Pranayama may have a direct impact on immune deficiency states.

4. Free Radical Balance
There are multiple factors that modify oxygen demand and uptake besides the cell work of body movement and organ function. Such factors include the effects of chemical and environmental stress caused by foods, water and airborne pollution. Emotional, relational or career stressors, the stress of injury and the stress of infection also effect the body's ability to absorb and utilize oxygen. Accumulation of these effects can negatively impact on oxygen metabolism and precipitate functional imbalances in the human system.

The normal activity of energy metabolism creates a certain number of by-products. These molecules are called free radicals. With the impact of the above mentioned stressors greater amounts of free radicals are produced. All normal molecules have paired electrons in their outer electron orbits. Free radicals are unstable molecules with an unpaired electron in their outermost electron orbit. In an effort to return to a stable state these renegade molecules steal electrons from healthy molecules causing tissue damage and aging.

The body produces a number of antioxidant enzymes, superoxide dismutase, catalase, glutathione peroxidase and methione reductase, whose job is to neutralize the free radicals produced in normal energy metabolism. However, in an imbalanced or unwell system demand for antioxidant enzymes is high and natural productivity, due to pathology, may be low.

When slow, deep breathing and moderate body motion is activated there is an increased demand for oxygen molecules which are taken up from the blood. The potential for free radicals to bond with this available oxygen, neutralizing the free radical population, may be greatly accelerated when regular Qigong or Yoga/Pranayama is included in a person's daily health routine.

There are a number of strategies for resolution of oxygen deficiency disease (ODD) including the use of antioxidant nutrients (Vitamins A, C, E and selenium), antioxidant enzymes, coenzyme Q10, germanium and germanium bearing herbs and hyperbaric oxygen. There is, however, nothing more available, inexpensive and obvious than oxygen itself taken in maximum daily doses through moderate exercise and breathing exercises.

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