New research has discovered that exposure to large amounts of oxygen can help the brain stay in deep, restorative sleep.
The study was conducted by neuroscientists at the University of Alberta who were curious to see how high levels of O2 would affect the brain. To examine this, they administered oxygen to rats who were under anesthesia and looked at how it impacted their neural activity. They found that pumping oxygen led to their brains moving out of an active state and into a deactivated, slow-wave sleep.
Another interesting tidbit: When the researchers removed the oxygen, the brains moved back into rapid-eye-movement sleep. When they were exposed to less than normal levels of oxygen, the brain remained in this active, REM stage.
“We don’t actually know what it is that causes this brain bias into the slow-wave state,” study author Clayton Dickson revealed to me over the phone. “It might be something as simple as oxygen signals to the brain stem to let the organism know everything is fine and you can stay in deep sleep.”
Slow-wave sleep is the deepest stage we humans — and, yes, rats — can reach during slumber. It’s considered important for memory consolidation, physical healing, and to literally recharge both the brain and body.
But yeah, this was tested on rats. So what does it mean for us humans? For starters, the study results shed light on the potential usage of oxygen therapy for humans in a clinical setting who might be struggling with sleep deprivation or conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and sleep apnea. As Dickson noted:
Running this in animals was the first logical step for us; now we’re starting to look at what type of influence it might have in brain activity for humans, and if it would be a type of therapy.
For those of us lucky to be considered “normal sleepers,” this new research might still be beneficial down the line. To make sure we’re getting enough, if not more O2 during the night, some experts suggests sleeping on our sides, since lying on the back or stomach can add unnecessary weight on our lungs and cause an obstruction of air. Other tips include exercising regularly, since oxygen levels naturally increase while we work out, and to avoid alcohol before bed since this can cause the throat to relax — making our airways collapse.
However, it might not be necessary to rush to the nearest oxygen bar. Dickson reminded me that these study results were modest, and there’s still much research to be done:
“The enhancement of the Non-REM over the REM sleep wasn’t as dramatic as you might expect,” he asserts. “The body is pretty good at regulating itself, and it might be the case that oxygen exposure won’t have such a lasting effect if youre doing it over a longer period of time.”