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Using O2 to Help Get Some ZZZ’s

Many people have trouble getting the deep, restful sleep their bodies need. A new study shows that exposure to oxygen can help.


Waking up refreshed and well rested is a luxury that evades many of us far too often. Whether we’ve stayed up late, are trying to squeeze in an early morning workout, or suffer from sleep disorders like insomnia or sleep apnea, getting enough good quality sleep can be a challenge.

Now, neuroscientists at University of Alberta have discovered that exposure to large amounts of oxygen can help the brain move into, and stay in, a state of deep and restorative sleep.

The researchers administered high levels of oxygen (100% O2) to anesthetized and naturally sleeping rats to examine the impact on their brain activity, measured by electroencephalography (EEG).

During a standard nights sleep it is normal for an individual to fluctuate between active or rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep and deactivated, or slow-wave sleep. Slow-wave sleep is a stage considered important for recovery of both brain and body, when metabolites and toxins are cleared from the brain, memories solidify, and muscles undergo growth and repair.

In this study, the researchers found that high oxygen concentrations helped rats reach slow-wave sleep more quickly and stay in this stage consistently, increasing the proportion of sleep time in this stage from 43% to 69%. They also observed associated reductions in heartbeat and breathing rates.

Interestingly, when the oxygen concentration dropped, rats moved back into REM sleep, a state closer to being awake and when we are most likely to dream.

Although researchers don’t know why the high oxygen concentration helps the brain move into the slow-wave deep sleep, the results suggests that oxygen therapy could be helpful for people with chronic sleep problems.

“Oxygen therapy could be used to enhance slow-wave states during sleep to ensure that individuals who may have disrupted sleep are getting enough of the restorative, slow-wave sleep,” explains Clay Dickson, a psychology professor at the University of Alberta and the study’s senior author.

For those of us that are normal sleepers, or the lucky few that fall asleep as soon as their heads touch the pillow, this research doesn’t mean you should rush out and buy an oxygen tank. Instead, focus on getting 7 to 8 hours a night for optimal cognitive function by creating a quiet, undisturbed and comfortable sleep environment, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and winding down with a relaxing bedtime routine.

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Amy Noise is a science communicator who is fascinated by how and why the world works. Always learning, she is passionate about science and sharing it with the world to improve and protect our health, society and environment. Amy earned her BSc (biology and science communication) at the University of Manchester, and MSc (nutrition science and policy) at King’s College London, UK. She tweets sporadically @any_noise