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Is It Safe to Hold Your Breath?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 08, 2021

There are many reasons why you may hold your breath. You may hold your breath while swimming, before playing a wind instrument, or just to see how long you can hold it. It's hard to hold your breath for long periods of time because your body needs oxygen, and it gets it by breathing. 

You don't have to think about breathing. Your body breathes automatically. Holding your breath goes against what your body is designed to do.

What Happens When You Hold Your Breath?

The first thing that happens when you hold your breath is oxygen levels decrease. Then, carbon dioxide levels increase because your body gets rid of that gas by breathing out. This state is called hypoxia. After just a minute or two, your cells start to behave differently than they normally would. This can affect all of your organs.

If you hold your breath for too long it can cause your heart to start beating irregularly. It can damage your kidneys and liver.

Holding your breath also causes the amount of carbon dioxide building up in your body to cross the blood-brain barrier. Your brain notices this change and increases your body's desire to inhale and exhale. If you still don't breathe at this point, you can have a seizure, faint, or even injure your brain.

What to Do If Someone Holds Their Breath for Too Long

If you hold your breath for too long you may pass out. The risks of passing out include hitting your head or injuring yourself while falling. If someone you are with passes out from holding their breath and they don't wake up in a few seconds, they may need emergency medical attention immediately. If they are not breathing, start CPR and call 911.

If they are breathing and are not injured, lay them on their back and hold their legs up at least 1 foot in the air. If they do not wake up after 1 minute of this, call 911.

Holding your breath for too long underwater, especially while alone, can lead to fainting or blacking out while you are still underwater. This can happen even if you are in shallow water. This phenomenon is called a shallow water blackout or hypoxic blackout.

At that point, your body's drive to breathe will take over, and you can inhale water, potentially leading to drowning. That's why you should always go swimming with someone else, make sure you know how to swim properly, and swim in areas where there are lifeguards if possible.

How Long Can You Safely Hold Your Breath For?

Certain people, especially those native to mountainous areas, may be able to hold their breath for longer due to genetics and their environment. One study showed that Himalayan highlanders reacted differently to hypoxia than people from lower altitudes. These differences showed they were better adapted to live at higher altitudes where the air is thinner and there is less oxygen. 

Some people from the Bajau culture in Southeast Asia spend up to five hours of their day diving down as deep as 230 feet with no wetsuit or oxygen tank. A study found they have spleens 50% larger than usual. Their large spleens store more oxygen-rich blood cells than the average person, allowing them to hold their breath longer underwater to collect fish, shellfish, and other objects.

A Spanish free diver, Aleix Segura Vendrell, holds the Guinness World Record for the longest time holding one's breath voluntarily. On February 28, 2016, he held his breath for 24 minutes and 3.45 seconds.

Continued

In order to achieve such a result, divers and extreme breath holders inhale pure oxygen for several minutes before their attempt. The longest instance of someone holding their breath without inhaling pure oxygen beforehand is 11 minutes and 34 seconds.

However, most people can only safely hold their breath for 1 to 2 minutes. The amount of time you can comfortably and safely hold your breath depends on your specific body and genetics. Do not attempt to hold it for longer than 2 minutes if you are not experienced, especially underwater.

Are There Any Benefits to Holding Your Breath?

Some preliminary animal studies show that holding your breath may help to regenerate damaged brain tissue. 

Using certain breathing techniques, some of which include holding your breath, may lower inflammation.

Some breathing exercises that involve holding your breath for several seconds can be part of regular relaxation practice. It may also help you to improve the health of your cardiovascular system.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

The Atlantic: "How Asia's Super Divers Evolved for a Life At Sea."

Canadian Red Cross: "Holding Your Breath Underwater."

Consumer Reports: "The Benefits of Breathing Exercises."

eLife: "Hold your breath!"

Guinness World Records: "Longest time breath held voluntarily (male)."

Mayo Clinic: "First aid Fainting."

The Journal of Physiology: "Differences in the control of breathing between Himalayan and sea-level residents."

The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center: "What happens when you hold your breath?"

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: "Voluntary activation of the sympathetic nervous system and attenuation of the innate immune response in humans."

Shallow Water Blackout Prevention: "Shallow Water Blackout: How it Happens."

Wired: "What It Takes to Hold Your Breath for 24 Minutes (Yeah, It’s a Thing)."

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