Intermittent Hypoxia – What Happens When You Hold Your Out-Breath Copy

When you hold your out-breath you build up CO2 and deplete O2 in your blood stream.

The longer you hold your breath you become ‘hypoxic’ which is a state of very low O2 levels in your blood.

If it continues for too long the lack of O2 will have serious consequences as we need O2 for life to exist.

However short periods of hypoxia also known as intermittent hypoxia has been shown in various studies to be beneficial to health.

This is where the magical effect of intermittent hypoxia kicks in.

What Happens During Intermittent Hypoxia?

All the effects of hypoxia are generated through the now well-documented “Hypoxia-Inducible-Factor-1”.  These effects are primarily to help you survive lower O2 environments.

It seems that inducing hypoxia through breath-holding creates a positive stress response by turning on your survival mode in the way extreme temperatures from saunas and ice baths do too.

  1. Increase in red blood cells through the production of EPO
  2. Produces growth factors that lead to development of new blood vessels. This happens even in heart disease so can help prevent heart failure.
  3. Induces Nitric Oxide Synthase that has a variety of positive effects on cell tissues. Nitric Oxide helps protect cells from oxidative stress and also stimulates vasodilation. It may even help erectile dysfunction as it is involved in the vasodilation needed to erect the penis.
  4. It induces Tumor protein p53 also known as the ‘guardian of the genome’ that protects the DNA of a cell and prevents cells from turning into cancer cells.
  5. Stem cells can only survive in hypoxia. Stem cells are abundant in fetal circulation where O2 is low. They disappear from the circulation soon after birth. They survive in various locations called ‘Niches’ in the body such as bone marrow in adulthood. The amount of stem cells in the body reduces with age. The theory goes – It is possible that stem cells may migrate from bone marrow to various tissues where they stimulate repair and growth of new cells by just a few minutes of hypoxia a day (intermittent hypoxia). This could benefit many degenerative disorders including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
  6. It has shown in rat models to stimulate neurogenesis in the brain by the proliferation of neural stem cells that can also help memory, cognitive function and even act as an anti-depressant.

Hypoxia & Stem Cells

It has been shown in rats that the number of Mesenchymal Stem Cells (MSC) in the peripheral blood increases by as much as 15 folds by hypoxia.

It is also well recognised that stem cells retained their self renewing properties when cultured in hypoxic environments of 2% oxygen compared to 20% in normal air,

Bone marrow stem cells and mesenchymal stem cells have low numbers of of mitochondria, and are more adapted to anaerobic survival rather than oxygen rich environments.

Oxidative stress

Studies have shown that oxidative stress is a major factor in causing degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and osteoarthritis.

This could be as result of stem cells staying locked in ‘Niches’ by excess oxygen in the blood.

Is Carbon Dioxide Toxic?

In normal amounts carbon dioxide is not at all toxic. It diffuses from your cells into your bloodstream and from there out via your lungs and is always present throughout your body.

You would have to inhale large quantities of CO2 for a prolonged period of time to causes any harm to the body. This duration would be much much longer than what you would expect during intermittent hypoxia.

Diseases That May Be Treated By Intermittent Hypoxia

“Low dose” Intermittent Hypoxia training may be a simple, safe, and effective treatment with considerable therapeutic potential for multiple clinical disorders is receiving increasing support from experimental and clinical studies.

Type 2 Diabetes

This debilitating illness has reached epidemic levels around the world. The current methods of treating it are with drugs that include stimulating insulin release from the β cells by sulfonylureas, stimulating peripheral utilization of glucose by biguanides, and reducing insulin resistance using thiazolidinedione derivatives.

These medications require constant use and their effect diminishes over the time meaning higher doses and more need to be taken, This can lead to all kinds of nasty side effects.

Often extremely restrictive carb free diets need to be employed if a patient wants any chance to reverse or manage the symptoms without relying on medication.

However human embryonic stem cells can be directed to turn into cells that produce insulin. Mice have been seen to regenerate β-cell mass after losing 70%–80% of it.

Coronary artery disease

When blood vessels providing blood flow to the heart die or are blocked, this reduced blood flow can result in a heart attack. A popular surgery is known as a bypass. Blood flow is redirected to the heart by creating an artificial blood vessel. Stents are sometimes used to widen the affected blood vessels too.

However In recent years scientists have been looking for ways to see if the body can create ‘natural bypasses’ by the formation of coronary collaterals.

When narrowing of coronary arteries is gradual by atherosclerosis it has been shown that coronary collaterals form naturally to improve blood flow.

It is thought tissue hypoxia leads to the formation of VEGF that stimulates the growth of these new ‘natural bypasses’

Patients with sleep apnea and hypoxic spells have also been shown to create coronary collaterals naturally.

Dr Buteyko hypothesised that sleep apnea, asthma and other disorders that reduce the amount of oxygen in the blood was actually the body attempting to create a hypoxic environment.

The Buteyko method actually works by creating intermittent hypoxia, which makes perfect sense as to why it has such incredible results at curing asthma and sleep apnea.


As we age normal wear and tear on the joints causes cell damage and if your rate of cell repair is lower than the rate of damage you get the disease known as osteoarthritis.

Scientists are trying to harness stem cells, multiply them in culture and then put them at the site that needs recovery.

Hypoxic conditions have been shown to increase hypoxia-inducible transcription factor HIF-2α that leads to growth of stem cells in osteoarthritis patients.


Parkinson’s arises from the loss of dopamine producing brain cells from the substantia nigra portion of the brain. Symptoms include trembling, loss of gait, posture and low moods.

The use of stem cells to regrow these particular brain cells is currently being investigated.

Autoimmune Conditions

Autoimmune diseases such as ulcerative colitis, Crohns, asthma and arthritis result in an increase of inflammation at the areas affected by the disease. Cytokine plays a major role in the development of inflammation.

In experiments with rats induced with a form of rheumatoid arthritis that were treated with intermittent hypoxia, it was shown to have a powerful anti-inflammatory effect, by a cascade of effects that lead to the inhibition of cytokines.

The Buteyko method also has many years of anecdotal evidence of people recovering from a variety of chronic autoimmune conditions. Now the Wim Hof Method also boasts similar success stories from its users.

Being a past sufferer of an autoimmune condition I believe the cause and treatment is probably more complicated than simply holding your breath.

Factors such as poor digestion, poor lifestyle choices, leaky gut, emotional and physical stress are to be taken into account for the progression of many chronic diseases not just autoimmune.

However intermittent hypoxic training may offer some relief of symptoms and be part of a wider protocol that takes into account the other lifestyle factors.

Memory + Cognitive Function

In this highly competitive and busy world people are always trying to get the edge on their ability to think sharper, faster and with better memories.

The field of nootropics has grown widely in the last few years with attempts to create complex smart drugs and vitamin formulations with the aim to boost cognitive function. However an over looked natural nootropic may lie in simply holding your breath.

Neural stems cells have been shown in studies to proliferate in the brain under hypoxia leading to neurogenesis and the growth of new brain cells. Memory has also been shown to be improved in studies with rats.

Other studies have shown its ability to heal brain lesions that would be caused during degenerative diseases like Alzheimers, Dementia and Parkinson’s.

Intermittent hypoxia causes vasodilation and also increases blood flow to the brain. Could combining certain yoga postures such as inversions and headstands with intermittent hypoxic training be a powerful method to improve cognitive function?