Age may be just a number, but it's natural to want to feel and look your best as you grow older.
Despite a small dip during the pandemic, overall life spans across the world are increasing. However, our health spans, defined as the years that people are living without chronic illnesses, are shrinking and have been shrinking for decades.
We can thank modern medicine for extending life (i.e. lifespan). From acute care in hospitals and trauma centers to medications that control diabetes and blood pressure or manage other chronic diseases, people that would have died long ago now remain alive a whole lot longer.
But the quality of life for many deteriorates dramatically once they develop a chronic disease. And modern medicine has been extremely poor at extending health span.
The good news is that there are many easy and accessible ways for us to extend our health span. There is ample evidence, for example, that a focus on diet, lifestyle, stress management, sleep, and exercise (to name just a few examples) will not only improve your health span, they will also likely improve lifespan as well.
In addition, there are also developing practices, frameworks, supplements, and technologies that may be able to help.
In this article, we are going to focus on the role hyperbaric oxygen therapy may play in both lifespan and healthspan.
What is Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy?
Hyperbaric Oxygen Therapy (HBOT) combines increased atmospheric pressure with increased inspired oxygen to drive more oxygen into circulation. Typically oxygen is carried on red blood cells. While in a hyperbaric chamber under increased atmospheric pressure, oxygen is also infused into the blood plasma or liquid of the blood. With more oxygen in circulation, our oxygen-carrying capacity increases dramatically.
The benefits of HBOT are due both to this acute infusion of oxygen, the pressure on the body, and the changes in the expression of various genes, at least 8000 of them, during a more extended hyperbaric protocol. The genes modulated by oxygen help decrease inflammation, create more blood vessels, and prevent cells from dying (apoptosis).
HBOT for longevity
In 2020, the Sigal Center for Hyperbaric Medicine began publishing studies on hyperbaric therapy and longevity. They took a group of men and women >64 years old that were active and healthy and put them through a 3-month protocol of hyperbaric therapy. Their protocol included HBOT sessions at 2.0 ATA (the equivalent to 33 feet of seawater) for 90 minutes sessions, 5 days per week.
At the end of this protocol, they were able to show using specialized MRI technology that blood vessels regrew in the brain, regenerating it to a younger age. They also showed that cognitive scores on various types of testing improved as well.
Further studies on this population showed that this protocol improved erections, improved heart cardiac ejection fractions, lengthened telomeres, and decreased senescent cells.
Telomeres are the end of our chromosomes and they get shorter as we age. Senescent cells, otherwise known as “zombie cells”, are cells that accumulate as we age that don’t divide or perform their function and, as a result, lead to inflammation. They are also associated with aging, degeneration and cancer.
Mild Hyperbaric Therapy vs. Medical Hyperbaric Therapy
The Israeli studies were done in medical hyperbaric chambers. These are chambers that are usually made of steel and they go to deep pressures. Most of the indications that are currently covered by insurance in the US use these chambers.
However, over the last 20 years, mild hyperbaric chambers have become very popular with athletes, professionals, and those with chronic neurologic conditions. These chambers typically will go from 1.3 to 1.5 ATA or about 12 to 20 feet of seawater pressure.
We know, for example, that for neurologic recovery and optimization, the mild units can be very effective. The brain is more sensitive to oxygen and pressure so its “sweet spot” for optimized blood flow and oxygen delivery under hyperbaric conditions is usually between 1.3 ATA and 1.75 ATA.
Can Mild Hyperbaric Chambers be helpful for longevity or health span?
The short answer is likely yes, especially for healthspan due to its HBOT’s beneficial effect on cognitive performance as well as its role in day-to-day recovery. Research has demonstrated that at this pressure, there is decreased inflammation, reversal of low oxygen states, and stem cell release as well.
The key, however, to enhancing the effectiveness of the mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy (mHBOT) is creating an integrative strategy that leverages supplements, diet, tech, practices, and practitioners to synergize with treatment in the chamber.
Examples of what we can do pre-HBOT include increasing vasodilation by using supplements like nitric oxide boosters or using red light therapy. During the mild hyperbaric session, portable red light therapy is possible along with muscle stim, the use of foam rollers, massage guns, meditations, and more. After the hyperbaric session, we can use various detox technologies like vibration and sauna post HBOT as well to help with detoxification.
After getting out of the chamber, oxygen will remain at high levels in the system for at least 30 minutes so this can also be a window of time to leverage the oxygen-carrying capacity to do more physical or mental work too. We’ve had cyclists test this at race sites (i.e. bringing the chamber to the race) with pretty amazing results.
The Israelis were able to see massive benefits with their protocols and amazingly, the only thing the patients in the study did was use HBOT. There was no focus on before, during, or after HBOT, including no change in their diet or lifestyle.
So how can we modulate the mild units to make them comparable? My strong feeling is that it’s possible using an integrative strategy (i.e the OneBase way) where we focus on what patients are doing before, during, and after HBOT.
Approaching mild hyperbaric oxygen therapy (mHBOT) this way will enhance energy production in the chamber, increase blood flow, facilitate detox, and boost performance. This I have seen countless times in my clinical practice.
If used in this way, there is no doubt that mHBOT is a disruptive technology that can easily and safely be used in the comfort of your own home and integrated into your wellness and recovery routines.
/ Dr. Scott Sherr