How Long Can You Hold Your Breath Before Brain Damage?

This article aims to answer the question of how long can you hold your breath before brain damage. It also covers topics on how long can a healthy person hold their breath, the benefits and risk factors of holding your breath, and some frequently asked questions about the same.

How Long Can You Hold Your Breath Before Brain Damage?

After five to ten minutes of holding your breath, it is likely that you will develop severe as well as irreversible brain damage. The only exception are younger children who stop breathing and are very cold at the same time. For instance, if a child is put into very cold water and happens to drown, survival after even 30 minutes is possible. 

The various reasons why you may need to hold your breath include swimming, before playing a wind instrument, or just to see how long you can go without breathing. The reason why it is really difficult to hold your breath for longer periods of time is because our body thrives for oxygen, which it gets only by breathing.

The reason why we don’t have to think about breathing is because it is an automatic process that our body is designed to do, and we shouldn’t hold our breath for too long since it goes against the nature of our body. 

What Happens When You Hold Your Breath?

The very first and most obvious effect of holding your breath is that the oxygen levels in your body start depleting. This results in an increase of carbon dioxide in the body, as the body’s way of releasing it is by breathing out. This state is referred to as hypoxia. After about just two minutes, the cells in your body start behaving in different ways as they would normally, thus affecting your organs. 

Your heart can start beating abnormally and your kidneys will start acting up if you hold your breath for too long. 

If you continue holding your breath, the carbon dioxide will start entering your brain by crossing the blood-brain barrier. When noticed by the brain, it starts sending signals to increase the body’s desire to breathe. If you still don’t breathe, you can suffer from a seizure, you can faint, or you may also have brain injuries. 

Since the body is in constant need of oxygen in order to perform its vital functions, holding your breath can prevent new oxygen from entering your body. Generally, when people hold their breath, the body is continuously still using the leftover oxygen to function and aims to release carbon dioxide as waste. However, since in this case, carbon dioxide has nowhere to go, the levels of it keep increasing within the body and cause a natural automatic reflex to breathe again. 

Holding your breath for too long can start causing a burning sensation in your long, and the muscles in your diaphragm will contract in order to force you to breathe again, causing you pain. 

If you still are not able to resume breathing, the body will cause you to faint and lose consciousness. If you are in a safe location, your body will then automatically start breathing normally again to acquire the oxygen it needs. 

However, if you’re in an unsafe location, and you lose consciously, for instance if you are underwater, this is when drowning can happen. 

Holding your breath for too long underwater is especially dangerous if you are alone as it can cause fainting or passing out while you are underwater. This is referred to as a shallow water blackout or hypoxic blackout. 

Here is when your body’s urge to breathe will be active, and you can inhale water which can lead to drowning. Thus, always ensure that you are with people around you when you go swimming, and make sure to know how to swim properly. It also helps to swim only in those areas that have lifeguards available for any help. 

Can Some People Hold Their Breath Longer Than Others?

Yes, there are certain people, who live in mountainous areas, who are able to hold their breath for longer periods of time. This is because of the influence of their genetics and environment. Studies have shown that individuals who live in the Himalayas react differently to hypoxi than those who don’t, especially when compared to people living in lower altitudes.  This is because people living in the Himalayas have adapted to an environment where they live in higher altitudes. In higher altitudes the air around is thinner and thus there is less oxygen available. 

Another difference is found in people who come from the Bajau culture of Southeast Asia. They can spend around 5 hours of their day underwater, deep as 230 feet, and without any wetsuit or oxygen tank! Studies have found that this is because they have spleens that are around 50% larger as compared to other people. This helps them in storing more oxygen-rich blood cells as compared to other individuals. Thus, they are empowered to hold their breaths for longer intervals of time underwater and collect fish and other objects. 

Are There Any Benefits to Holding Your Breath?

There have been some studies done on animals that establish that holding your breath for certain intervals can help in regenerating damaged brain tissue. There are certain breathing techniques that can help in lowering inflammation too. 

A lot of breathing exercises which involve holding your breath for several seconds help in relaxing your muscles and your mind. It also helps in improving cardiovascular health. 

Other benefits of holding your breath includes:

  • Increasing lung capacity and functioning 
  • Positively impacts people who have autoimmune diseases by helping in increasing their lifespan and prevent any further damage to stem cells present in their brain 
  • A study done on salamanders has found that holding oxygen in these animals boosts the regeneration of brain tissue. However, this has not been conducted on humans, but we can reasonably generalise it as humans and other animals do share similar properties (Bouten et al., 2020).

Risk Factors In Holding Your Breath

Until and unless you are holding your breath underwater or in another dangerous situation, holding your breath doesn’t cause any imminent danger to your brain or the body. 

However, some risks according to research (Raitamaa et al., 2019) are highlighted below. Holding your breath for too long can cause:

  • Increase in blood pressure 
  • Risk towards brain damage
  • Affected coordination 
  • Reduction in heart beat rhythm and a slower heart rate. 
  • Spike in blood sugar

Tips to Increase Lung Capacity

You can train your body and lungs to go without oxygen for certain periods (not more than 30 seconds if you are doing this for the first time), and then increase it slowly, step by step. Please remember to start breathing at any moment you feel uncomfortable. 

Divers can get apnea training which can increase their lung capacity. The rationale for this training is to increase your ability to hold your breath gradually by setting alternate periods between breathing and holding your breath for several seconds or minutes (Kohshi et al., 2019).

Before you attempt to increase your lung capacity, it is necessary for you to seek guidance from your physician and consider training with diving experts who have knowledge of life saving techniques when it comes to diving. 

Conclusion 

This article answered the question of how long can you hold your breath before brain damage. It also covered topics on how long can a healthy person hold their breath, the benefits and risk factors of holding your breath, and some frequently asked questions about the same.

Frequently Asked Questions: How Long Can You Hold Your Breath Before Brain Damage?

For how long can a healthy person hold their breath?

A healthy individual can hold their breath for about 30 to 90 seconds. This interval can increase of decrease as it is influenced by factors such as: 

  • Smoking
  • Medical conditions like sleep apnea and asthma
  • Breath training. 

How long can a smoker hold their breath?

A smoker can hold their breath for about 25 seconds only. An individual with healthy lungs can hold their breath for 30 to 90 seconds, while smokers struggle to make it to 30 seconds. 

Can a smoker’s lungs heal?

Yes! The lungs start to heal as soon as a person quits smoking. This is why quitting smoking sooner has better consequences to overall health. In fact, if you quit smoking, it is the easiest way to improve your health. 

Can you recover from brain damage due to a lack of oxygen?

Sadly, a full recovery from complete lack of oxygen either in the form of anoxia or hypoxia is rare. But in mild cases, patients do make a full or at least partial recovery. 

References 

Bouten, J., Bourgois, J. G., & Boone, J. (2020). Hold your breath: peripheral and cerebral oxygenation during dry static apnea. European journal of applied physiology, 120(10), 2213-2222.

Kohshi, K., Tamaki, H., Lemaître, F., Okudera, T., Ishitake, T., & Denoble, P. J. (2014). Brain damage in commercial breath-hold divers. PLoS One, 9(8), e105006.

Kill, C. Take a Breath: The Effects of Respiration on Brain Activity.

Raitamaa, L., Korhonen, V., Huotari, N., Raatikainen, V., Hautaniemi, T., Kananen, J., … & Kiviniemi, V. (2019). Breath hold effect on cardiovascular brain pulsations–A multimodal magnetic resonance encephalography study. Journal of Cerebral Blood Flow & Metabolism, 39(12), 2471-2485.

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