Let’s Begin The Carbon Dioxide Talk

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas. It’s discussed at times in this community. It’s discussed in doctor’s offices at times too. So, what exactly is CO2? What influence does it have (or might it have) on COPD lungs? How might it impact you? Let’s begin the discussion.

Early reference to oxygen

As far back as 1000 B.C. ancient Hindu physicians wrote the Charaka and Sustrata. They described the lungs and a substance called “prana vayu.” This was a substance in the air that was vital for life. Some later experts suspected this might have been the first reference to oxygen.1

I wrote a history of oxygen in, “A Pithy History Of Oxygen.” Ironically, despite early physicians speculating about this vital substance that might have been oxygen, another substance in the air was discovered first. Still, this wouldn't happen until the 17th century.

This was a fascinating century for both science and medicine. It was in this century, perhaps, where science began replacing theory. It was also in this century where scientists and physicians began thinking once again that there was more to air than just air. That it has substances in it that were vital to life.

Gas sylvestre

Oxygen was discovered by three different men between 1774 and 1777. This was the vital substance that was probably alluded to by ancient physicians. But, ironically, it was another substance in the air that would be discovered first. And this substance would eventually earn the name carbon dioxide.

So, in the 17th century, great minds were once again thinking about air. But this time they would have actual scientific experiments to back of their theories. Jan von Helmont owned one of these great minds. He speculated that there was were substances in the air, and he aimed to prove it.

He was the first to coin the term gas, which is the Latin term for chaos. He also discovered what he called “gas sylvestre.” For many years in Europe this is what the gas was referred to. Later on, it was given the name we recognize today: carbon dioxide.

What is carbon dioxide?

By the way, van Helmont almost discovered oxygen. If he had lived longer he may just have done that. Oxygen would be left undiscovered for another century. Van Helmont also experienced another problem. He had few followers. The fact that he worked in secrecy for fear of his life was probably a key reason for this. Most of his works were published after his death. He lived from 1580 to 1644.

Today we know of carbon dioxide as a gas. It’s tasteless and odorless. It is a byproduct of combustion, such as what occurs when you burn wood or other fuels. It is also a byproduct (a waste product) of cellular respiration.

What is cellular respiration?

The air on Earth is about 21% oxygen. You inhale this amount of oxygen with each breath. It inhaled into your lungs. It passes through your lungs to your arterial bloodstream. Arterial blood contains freshly oxygenated blood from your lungs. It takes oxygen to all the cells of your body.

Glucose is a simple sugar created by the breakdown of foods. Cellular respiration is a complex process whereby oxygen and glucose are broken down. The end result is adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and a waste product called CO2.

ATP is the main source of energy used by cells to do their work. CO2, on the other hand, is not needed. It enters your venous bloodstream. Venous blood contains deoxygenated blood on its way back to the lungs to pick up oxygen. It also contains waste product CO2.

Once venous blood enters your lungs it comes into contact with alveoli inside your lungs. It’s at this point that CO2 enters your lungs. Here it is exhaled into the atmosphere around you. You then inhale fresh air which contains more oxygen. The process continues over and over and over again. The name for this is ventilation. This term basically means the exchange of air. Or, it means inhaling O2 and exhaling CO2. It’s an essential part of life.

What does this mean for you?

Most people don’t need to think much about O2 and CO2. Most people don’t need to think much about breathing. Most people take it for granted. However, those of us with chronic lung diseases often have to think about these things. This is because lung diseases, such as COPD, can affect both your O2 and your CO2 levels. I wrote about oxygen levels in my post, “Oxygen Levels And Supplemental Oxygen.”

Here I would like to just focus on carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide levels. There are other terms related to the carbon dioxide we also hear in our community: hypercarbia and CO2 retention. What are these terms? What do they mean? These are things we will explore in upcoming posts. So, stay tuned!!!!

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