CO2 - Carbon Dioxide, Not Just A Waste Product
By Tyler Woodward
Carbon dioxide if most often described as a waste product. You breathe oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, it’s the metabolic equivalent to the fumes released from your car. Little did you know carbon dioxide is anything, but a waste product and in fact, carbon dioxide is arguably just as essential as oxygen in the body.
- What Is Carbon Dioxide?
- CO2 & Vasodilation
- CO2 & Altitude
- How To Increase Your Carbon Dioxide Production
What Is Carbon Dioxide?:
Carbon dioxide or CO2 is the gas produced in the process of cellular respiration, the burning of oxygen and energy (as sugar, fat or amino acids) into fuel as ATP and water. In plants, they also utilize carbon dioxide and water to perform photosynthesis. Although carbon dioxide is most well-known for being released as a byproduct of this energy production process in humans, it’s extremely essential in order to be able to use oxygen.
Hemoglobin, the main protein of our red blood cells, is responsible for transporting both oxygen and carbon dioxide throughout our blood. In the lungs hemoglobin releases carbon dioxide and picks up oxygen, while in the blood hemoglobin picks up carbon dioxide and releases oxygen into our cells. Hemoglobin must pick up carbon dioxide in order to release oxygen and visa versa. As a matter of fact, the more carbon dioxide in your cells and in your lungs, the more oxygen that can be absorbed and utilized to create energy.
This is through a process known as the Bohr and Haldane effect. The easiest way to think about this is that your “body” cells must trade carbon dioxide to your red blood cells in order to exchange oxygen. The more CO2 they give off, the more oxygen they can absorb.
This occurs as a result of the slightly acidic nature of CO2. The CO2 in your blood makes your blood more acidic, lowering the pH of your blood surrounding your tissues . This acidity changes the shape or conformation of hemoglobin into protonated hemoglobin to allow it to release oxygen and pick up CO2. The more acidic your blood (to a point), the more oxygen that can be released.
The opposite effect occurs in your lungs. The more CO2 present in your lungs changes the shape of your hemoglobin molecules to carboxyhemoglobin allowing more oxygen to be absorbed and carbon dioxide released into the lungs.
In fancy scientific words… In the lungs the higher partial pressure (amount) of oxygen in your lungs changes the conformation (shape) of hemoglobin allowing it to bind with a greater affinity (to more) to oxygen. In the tissue, the higher partial pressure (amount) of carbon dioxide in the tissues also changes the conformation (shape) allowing it to bind more readily to carbon dioxide and release more oxygen.
Long story, short the more carbon dioxide you produce, the more oxygen your cells can utilize.
It’s worth noting that CO2 in the bloodstream is managed by an enzyme called carbonic anhydrase in your red blood cells that breaks up carbon dioxide and water into bicarbonate salt & a hydrogen proton. This enzyme prevents too much carbon dioxide from building up and prevents your blood from becoming too acidic. This is in contrast to lactic acid which accumulates in the bloodstream and must be detoxified over time by the liver.
Read More: What Does It Mean To Be Healthy
CO2 & Vasodilation:
Carbon dioxide is also a known vasodilator, particularly in the brain, but also in muscles and other tissues throughout the body. A vasodilator is a compound that causes a blood vessel (vaso means vessel) to “dilate” or widen. This expansion of the arteries allows more blood to flow through to the area, increasing the amount of oxygen delivered to the tissue.
This is an extremely important self-regulating system within the body!
The more energy burned in a given tissue, like during exercise, the more CO2 is produced. The CO2 signals nearby arteries to increase the amount of blood flow to that area. The increase in concentration of CO2 in that area also increases the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the red blood, allowing more oxygen to be released and carbon dioxide to be absorbed.
This is also one of the primary benefits of utilizing glucose (sugar) for fuel. Glucose metabolism produces 1 CO2 molecule for every O2 molecule burned. This upregulates energy production as more CO2 is released from the cell and more oxygen is burned. In contrast burning fat or protein (amino acids) for fuel produces 80% and 70% respectively the amount of carbon dioxide. For example, if you burn 10 molecules of oxygen with sugar it produces 10 molecules of carbon dioxide, but fat would only produce 8. This might seem like much of a difference, but when you account for the thousands of mitochondria in our cells this tiny difference adds up quickly.
Read More: What Is Magnesium Bicarbonate
CO2 & Altitude:
Have you ever wondered why athletes train at high altitudes? The further above sea level that you go, the less oxygen is in the air or atmosphere. This is what makes it more difficult to breathe and causes higher levels of fatigue when you visit places in high altitudes. But if you remain in these places for only a short period of time, your body begins to adapt to these conditions.
These adaptations include:
- Decrease in Mitochondrial Biogenesis - The formation of new red blood cells
- Increase Erythropoiesis - The formation of new red blood cells
- Possible shift towards more glucose metabolism from fatty acid metabolism
It’s very interesting, but it has been repeatedly found that muscle cells decrease the amount of mitochondria as the altitude increases. This is likely as a result of an increase in efficiency of the mitochondria. Due to the lower levels of oxygen in the atmosphere, there is relatively more carbon dioxide in the lungs, allowing oxygen to bind more readily to hemoglobin. This also likely coincides with the increase in glucose metabolism found in people who live at high altitudes compared to fatty acid metabolism.
The same effect also constitutes what is known as “the Lactate” paradox. Due to the decreased amount of oxygen at higher altitudes, it was expected that higher amounts of lactic acid would be produced due to the hypoxic (lack of O2) conditions. Although, the opposite was found! In people that lived at high altitudes and were adapted to the conditions, they produced less lactic acid during maximal exertion compared to those at sea level! Carbon dioxide was found to dramatically help to improve the efficiency of the energy production systems, while also suppressing the formation of lactic acid! In fact, those adapted to the high-altitude living were also found to have a higher work capacity.
High-altitude living has also been repeatedly found to result in an increased lifespan and a reduce rates of a number of diseases including:
- Lower risk of developing hypertension or diabetes-associated anemia
- Decreased risk of developing heart disease, diabetes or having a stroke
- Decreased rate of developing various types of cancer (1, 2)
- Increased Longevity
This is likely as a result of a downregulation in the production of lactic acid from CO2. The predominant characteristic of cancer cells, known as the Warburg effect, is that cancer cells even in the presence of oxygen produce lactic acid. Therefore there are chronically low levels of lactic acid found in the blood of cancer patients. This is reduced from the hypoxic conditions resulting from living at altitude.
How To Increase Your Carbon Dioxide Production:
- Consume adequate carbohydrates and/or sugar to fuel glucose metabolism
- Utilize baking soda or carbonated drinks to reduce lactic acid content in your blood
- Supplement with vitamins B1 & B3 to increase glucose metabolism
- Move to altitude or at least spend more time at altitudes (go skiing!)
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Learn More: 5 supplements To Reduce Cortisol Levels
My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good