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The blood in your body usually delivers oxygen to each living cell. As you breathe in and draw oxygen into the lungs, the red blood cells usually bind to this oxygen and then carry it through the bloodstream to the cells where it is needed. The concentration of oxygen in the bloodstream is called the blood oxygen level.
On the cellular level, oxygen is vital. It is used directly in the final stages of food breakdown when the body turns food into energy. This is called cellular respiration, also when waste carbon dioxide is produced. Without a sufficient blood oxygen level, your body would not have enough energy to live. Even before reaching a fatal level, normal processes such as cell repair and fighting infections can be disrupted as the body tries to save energy. This is why ensuring that your oxygen levels are in check is advisable.
There are different ways to increase blood oxygen levels, and we'll look into them below. But first, let’s delve into everything you should know about blood oxygen levels.
There are two primary methods to assess blood oxygen levels: blood sample analysis and pulse oximetry.
A blood sample analysis offers a significantly more comprehensive evaluation of your oxygen levels than the information provided with an oximeter through pulse oximetry. The gold standard is the arterial blood gas analysis (ABG), although blood gas analyses can be performed on blood from veins and capillaries, too.
The pulse oximeter usually gives readings in the form of percentages. Normal oxygen levels range between 95 and 100 percent for healthy children and adults. For people suffering from ailments such as lung disease or other health issues, their oxygen levels can fall below 95%.
Various factors and conditions can cause low blood oxygen levels (hypoxemia). Some of the most common causes include:
If you suspect or have been diagnosed with low blood oxygen levels, your healthcare provider will typically recommend further diagnostic tests to identify the underlying cause.
Possible symptoms include:
Different conditions usually affect the lungs or heart, and they end up affecting a person’s blood oxygen levels. For some people, moderate or minor lifestyle changes typically lead to increased oxygen levels. Some of the proven ways to improve your blood oxygen levels include:
Breathing exercises are a natural way to increase blood oxygen levels. Through the deliberate practice of slow2, deep breathing, you can increase the oxygen in your lungs during the exercise, although the effects don’t last long past the end of the exercise. Therefore, deep, slow breathing is best for temporary cases of low blood oxygen, such as when at a higher altitude, or for improvement in the moment, such as waking when you know you have sleep apnea.
However, with time, these breathing practices will improve your lung capacity, ensuring your lungs work more effectively.
Deep belly breathing and pursed lip breathing are some of the techniques experts recommend to increase oxygen levels.
Exercise3 helps improve the oxygen levels in your blood significantly. It may seem counterintuitive because of the shortness of breath as you participate in a vigorous exercise routine; however, as you become accustomed to exercising, your breathing will become more efficient and you’ll take in more oxygen.
Part of this improvement comes from using the muscles between your ribs and also your diaphragm when breathing – like any muscle, these can become stronger and quicker to react, making breathing easier and each breath better4. Over time, your lungs and blood oxygen level will get better and better, even if you have a chronic lung condition5.
Being active will also promote blood circulation. With time, your heart and lung health will improve, thus improving your oxygen levels.
Try to exercise outdoors when possible, to catch a breath of fresh air. Air indoors can contain various pollutants at higher concentrations than outdoors6. When you spend some time outdoors, you breathe in fresh air, which can raise the oxygen levels in the blood if the air quality is better and makes you feel better physically and psychologically7.
Even if you aren't keen on spending time outside on a rainy day, think twice! Wet weather improves air quality by reducing air pollution8, and there are a lot of health benefits when you spend some time outdoors whatever the weather9
When you’re inside, ensure the windows are open to improve the indoor air quality. Opening the windows will also increase the available oxygen in the place.
When sitting or standing, maintain an upright posture, not slouched with curved shoulders. Slouching reduces the space available for your lungs to expand during breathing, making breathing less efficient.
Lying down can exert pressure on your chest and potentially impede your breathing. Therefore, when sleeping at night, there are several strategies you can implement to enhance your blood oxygen levels:
Adding house plants to your living space is one way to increase your oxygen levels naturally and remove harmful pollutants like carbon monoxide10. Plants absorb carbon dioxide and then release oxygen into the atmosphere through photosynthesis as well as increase relative humidity11.
Learn how to breathe better indoors with these air-purifying plants.
Cigarettes contain different compounds12, including carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide binds to the hemoglobin in your red blood cells, blocking oxygen from doing the same. This will reduce the amount of oxygen that is available in the bloodstream.
You may experience shortness of breath when you first quit smoking; this is likely due to longer-term damage caused by the cigarettes. Hence, consulting with a healthcare professional during this journey is advisable. You can ask them for a pulmonary function test to discover if there is any permanent lung damage. In the end, most such issues will fade away progressively since your lungs will start to work more effectively.
A good diet is essential for your oxygen levels. While food is not inherently a source of oxygen, minerals, vitamins, and healthy bioactive compounds are all necessary for your body to function, and that includes your lungs. When searching for food to broaden your first, focus on types abundant in the B vitamin complex, the compound nitric oxide, and the mineral iron.
Iron is vital in creating hemoglobin14, the protein that enables red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the bloodstream. If you fail to consume enough iron, the body won't produce enough red blood cells to carry oxygen, which means your blood oxygen levels will decrease.
During later childhood, specifically between the ages of nine and 13, children require a daily intake of 8 milligrams of dietary iron15 and adults need at least 18mg of iron daily. Iron-rich foods include eggs, seafood, and meat. Plant-based iron-rich foods include spinach, kale, dried fruits such as raisins, and fortified cereals such as pasta.
Nitric oxide is another essential dietary nutrient for having good blood oxygen levels in a more circumspect way. It is necessary for the dilation of the blood vessels, allowing more blood to circulate during hot temperatures or exertion, as well as many other bodily processes16.
Beetroot juice is often used as a nitric oxide supplement, as are L-arginine and L-citrulline, and side effects of supplementation can be reduced by taking small supplements more often rather than a large supplement less often17. https://doi.org/10.15167/2421-4248/JPMH2022.63.2S3.2766)).
Finally, the vitamin B complex covers eight important vitamins for health. Vitamin B9, or folate or folacin, is particularly relevant to blood oxygen levels. Insufficient folate is a cause of megaloblastic anemia1819. This is where red blood cells keep growing and never divide into more cells as they should, turning into megaloblasts and getting destroyed before they leave the bone marrow where they are produced. This causes a low blood oxygen level as there are fewer red blood cells overall, and any megaloblasts that do enter the bloodstream take up more room than normal-sized red blood cells.
Vitamin B12 is another B vitamin relevant to blood oxygen levels as deficiency of it can also cause megaloblastic anemia20 and pernicious anemia21. Natural sources of vitamin B12 are all animal products, such as meat, cheese, and eggs, so most people consume enough in their diet; however, vegetarians and vegans may need to take supplements22.
Drinking adequate water23 maintains blood circulation and ensures oxygen and nutrients move through the body efficiently. Without enough water, you’ll experience dehydration, resulting in issues such as lactic acid buildup and hypotension (low blood pressure), and your breathing ability will be affected in the process. Drinking water also helps thin the mucus lining on the lungs, thereby preventing a buildup of harmful substances trapped in it and allowing the lungs to clear it more effectively.
The amount of water you should consume usually depends on factors such as your body composition, activity level, and environment.
If your blood oxygen level is determined to be too low, your physician may recommend some medical intervention to increase your blood oxygen levels instantly. One such intervention is oxygen therapy.
Oxygen therapy is recommended for individuals with hypoxemia24, a condition marked by insufficient oxygen levels in the bloodstream, typically below 92% saturation. Hypoxemia can result from various medical conditions.
This treatment involves supplying you with gas that contains higher oxygen concentrations than regular room air. It effectively improves blood oxygenation by providing additional oxygen through various devices, such as nasal cannulas (small plastic tubes with prongs that fit into your nostrils), oxygen masks, or portable oxygen concentrators.
This technique plays an important role in the aftermath of an accident or during acute illness, especially for individuals with chronic conditions such as COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, cystic fibrosis, or sleep apnea25. Some people are given supplemental oxygen only in hospital, while others treat themselves with it at home.
For those managing chronic lung conditions, long-term supplemental oxygen can improve your overall well-being, facilitate faster recovery, and enable you to maintain an active lifestyle while effectively managing these health challenges.
If you are using a pulse oximeter at home and your oxygen saturation level results are 92% or below, call your doctor as soon as possible or visit the closest emergency room as quickly as possible.
While a blood oxygen level test is valuable for assessing oxygen saturation, it alone cannot pinpoint the specific condition or factor contributing to the low oxygen levels. Additional tests and medical evaluation are necessary to determine the cause of the low oxygen level and develop an appropriate treatment plan.
Additionally, if you have a chronic lung ailment like COPD or asthma, you may need to visit your doctor frequently to ensure your therapy is effective. Call your doctor immediately if you experience any worrying lung-related symptoms.
Visit a doctor so they can carry out some tests. They can administer supplemental oxygen, which will be administered through the nasal cannula or a face mask if your blood oxygen level is worryingly low.
A doctor may administer supplemental oxygen in different instances, including after a patient has been involved in an accident or when suffering from long-term health conditions such as pulmonary fibrosis or sleep apnea. Supplemental oxygen usually ensures you'll feel better, recover faster, and stay active as you manage these conditions.
Oxygen is vital for all bodily functions, and brain damage can occur within a few minutes without a sufficient level. When your blood oxygen level falls below the normal range, hypoxemia is typically a cause for concern. The lower your oxygen level, the higher the risk of complications in various body tissues and organs.
The oxygen level in your blood is a critical indicator of your lung function. Additionally, it can offer valuable insights into how various factors such as physical activity, diet, and environmental conditions impact your overall health and well-being.
If you notice you’re experiencing symptoms of low blood oxygen levels as described earlier, seek medical attention. A doctor will measure your blood oxygen levels and recommend the right course of action based on the results of the tests they administer.
Marion is a freelance health and wellness writer with a passion for all things digital health. She loves diving deep into the latest research and trends in the industry and distilling them down into fun, relatable pieces that people can relate to. Whether you're a health nut or a tech geek, she is always looking for new and interesting ways to help readers access quality and evidence-based information.