In my experience, anyone who engages in competitive athletics of any kind will gladly eat, drink, or wear anything that will ethically enhance their performance. Runners eat disgusting gels to boost their energy and spray themselves down with lubricants to reduce chafing. And we’ve all seen football players sucking down oxygen on the sidelines of games. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that you can now actually buy a can of pure oxygen at your local CVS and other stores. The claims surrounding these cans of air are tempting: Inhaling pure oxygen will increase your endurance and energy, reduce recovery times, ease stress, and even help with hangovers.
The internet is full of rave reviews from folks claiming that cans of O2 absolutely deliver all these things. But we live in superficial times populated by “influencers” who are more than happy to tout a product, and the psychology of the placebo effect is powerful stuff. To figure out whether a can of oxygen will make your workouts, stressful days, and hangovers easier, we turn to our old friend: science.
Does supplemental oxygen help you recover faster?
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The first thing to know about all this is that if you’re healthy, your body is pretty much always getting as much oxygen as you need. The air we breathe is approximately 21% oxygen, and at a resting state, your red blood cells will be somewhere in the 95 to 99% range of oxygen saturation just breathing that stuff in. Since you can’t have higher than 100% blood oxygen saturation, most of us are doing pretty good just sitting on our butts, and we don’t need fancy pure oxygen to hit those numbers.
The theory on supplemental oxygen is that when you exert yourself, your body starts burning up that oxygen, and your blood-oxygen levels drop. And this is true! It’s why you breathe harder when you do anything requiring exertion, to get more oxygen in. So the idea that a can of oxygen can help you catch your breath and perform harder and longer seems to scan.
Except that science has found zero evidence for this. Studies have shown that using supplemental oxygen doesn’t enhance performance or speed up recovery times in any significant way. NFL players believe they can catch their breath slightly faster via a combination of having extremely robust cardiovascular systems and a shot of pure O2, but in reality, it’s most probably those multi-million dollar lungs and hearts and not the supplemental gas.
All about condition
That’s the real key here—if your body is rocking 99% blood oxygen to begin with, can it even use the extra oxygen you’re inhaling? Probably not.
So what about increasing mental sharpness, easing hangovers, and other claims about the benefits of supplemental oxygen? Mostly hot air. Hangovers, for example, are due to dehydration and your poor liver glowing red while it works to de-poison your body, they have nothing to do with blood-oxygen levels. And even if it did, the fact remains that even when you wake up with a hangover that feels like someone dropped you from a tall building the night before, you’re almost certainly at 95+% blood oxygen and won’t benefit from more.
That’s the bottom line: Anything people claim extra oxygen can help with, it probably can’t—due to the simple reason that your body already has all the oxygen it needs.
One final note: Breathing in short bursts of pure oxygen is perfectly safe, so if you want to drop a few bucks on a can of air and see what it does for you, go for it. Breathing pure oxygen for any extended period of time (to be clear, we’re talking several hours), however, can be very, very bad for you, resulting in conditions with scary names like “shock lung,” so you shouldn’t just hook up a can of gas and spend all day sucking on it. In other words, don’t overdo it.