Understand how our cells breathe: 12 best foods to oxygenate your body

Understand how our cells breathe: 12 best foods to oxygenate your body

Our theme on the blog this month is “time to breathe”. We all know that oxygen is essential for life itself, so it make sense that it is also important for the health of our bodies. But, did you know that every cell in our body also breathes? Nature has designed the body to self-balance, with in-built mechanisms to combat toxins and excess, however what we eat and drink can affect these mechanisms. As part of our detox series, we look at how nutrition plays a central role in determining our health – the health of our cells and consequently our overall health. In this article we share what we think are twelve of the best foods to oxygenate your body, to keep you feeling healthy.

Before we look at the top 12 food items to include in your diet on a regular basis, we are going to take a quick look inside the body, in particular the blood and cells, to understand how the body functions and how the cells breathe.

The body and breath

Think about your breath and the mechanism of breathing. As you inhale oxygen enters your body and goes into your lungs. From there the oxygen passes through a very thin membrane and enters the blood stream, where it binds to the haemoglobin in a red blood cell. The millions of red blood cells then move through your body, delivering oxygen to vital organs, brain, tissues and to every cell that uses oxygen. The waste product, carbon dioxide, binds to the red blood cells and returns to the lungs, where it is expelled from the body, in an ongoing cycle.

The cell and breath

Each cell in your body takes in oxygen (and nutrients), which are then converted into energy and water, to complete a myriad of processes to maintain your body in good health. This is done by the mitochondria within each cell, whose job it is to ensure the cells breathe (called “cellular respiration”). Unfortunately, oxygen is actually toxic to biological cells and molecules. So, each time oxygen is involved in a body process, free-radicals are formed (a process called oxidation).

What are free-radicals?

Free-radicals are atoms or groups of atoms that are highly reactive and can set off a chain-reaction in the body. The effect of free-radicals on our cells is like rust forming on metal when it rains. Or another way of seeing it is like when you slice an apple in half –the apple surface exposed to the air turns brown relatively quickly. Problems can occur when these free-radicals interact with our cell membrane (the outer layer of the cell) or our DNA. These free-radicals can cause damage, which, over time can mean that the cells stop breathing and die.

How does my body deal with free-radicals?

Thankfully, our body is amazing and has its own in-built defence mechanism for dealing with free-radicals: antioxidants.

Antioxidants are molecules that stop the free-radicals before they start a reaction, therefore preventing cell damage and maintaining cell health. The main antioxidants needed by the body are: vitamin E, beta-carotene and vitamin C.

However, sometimes the body can become overwhelmed with the amount of free-radicals being generated and cannot produce sufficient antioxidants to deal with it all. This is known as oxidative stress. As we age, so the theory goes, the amount of oxidative stress increases and so our body starts to age.

Inside the body, if you regularly consume items that make the body work harder, the production of free-radicals will increase. Therefore, to bring health the body, it makes sense to give it foods that help produce and maintain antioxidants and minimise the foods that cause the body to work harder. By eating a healthy diet packed with good nutrition, we can boost the body´s natural defence system.

Blood cells and the breath

For our body to work at optimum health, we also need a healthy blood system. Red blood cells play an important role in transporting oxygen through the body (to the cells, tissue and organs).

Both folate (folic acid) and vitamin A help with red blood cell formation. Folate also helps to boost immunity. Iron is needed to help produce haemoglobin, which we need to carry oxygen around the body. We can get iron through the food we consume. Note, many plant-based sources of iron are nonheme iron, which is harder for the body to absorb (than heme iron, which comes from animal or fish sources). To get the most out of iron-rich foods it is best to eat them with something high in vitamin C, as this helps the body to absorb the iron. Foods that are high in nitric oxide are also good; nitric oxide is known as a vasodilator (something that allows the blood to flow more freely). Vitamin B12 is also needed to help with red blood cell formation – when following a plant-based diet you need to consider taking a vitamin supplement to provide your body with this essential vitamin as its main natural source is animal products.

Top 12 foods to oxygenate your body

To support our body, maintain cell respiration and allow us to breathe easily, we suggest that you include these 12 foods in your diet on a regular basis:

1. Water

Make sure you keep your body well hydrated – this makes it easier for your body to deliver nutrients and oxygen. Drink at least 2-3 litres every day, and more if you exercise regularly.

2. Dark leafy greens

Include at least one portion of dark leafy greens every day (ideally two or more portions). Dark leafy greens include things like spinach, kale, watercress, collard greens and dandelion leaves. These are all iron-rich, good sources of folate and also contain the antioxidants vitamin C and vitamin A. As noted above, remember to also consume a another source of vitamin C to ensure the body absorbs the most iron possible (lemon works really well for this). Green leafy vegetables are high in vitamin K (helps with blood clotting), so if you take blood thinning medication, please check with your medical practitioner about the optimal amount you can eat, as they can affect your blood.

3. Tofu

Tofu is made from soy beans and is another great source high in iron. Try this month´s vegan tofu sushi bowl recipe.

4. Broccoli

Broccoli is one of my favourite vegetables to eat, as it delivers well-balanced nutrition. It is iron-rich and has a myriad of other vitamins and minerals. Try it raw, in our broccoli slaw with tangy mustard dressing. It is great lightly steamed (with a squeeze of lemon juice). You can mix it into a dip, try our broccoli, rosemary and avocado dip, or serve it with tofu, in our broccoli tofu and cashew nut stir fry (swap the cashew nuts for walnuts for maximum oxygenation!)

5. Bell peppers (in particular red and yellow)

Bell peppers are great sources of beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and iron. They are a member of the nightshade family, so some people who have nightshade sensitivity might choose not to eat these items regularly.

6. Carrots

Carrots are another fabulous source of beta-carotene (vitamin A). If you need some inspiration for how to include more carrots in your diet, read our article: 10 recipe ideas for carrots.

7. Green beans

Another great source of folate and iron, green beans also contain antioxidants (Vitamin A and C) (as well as potassium and fibre). Enjoy them raw, or lightly steam with a sprinkle of lemon juice and dill. You can also throw them onto your leafy green salad. Note, green beans are also a source of vitamin K (see note above in green leafy vegetables).

8. Potatoes

High in iron, particularly baked potatoes, potatoes are good to include in your diet a few times each week. (Just don´t eat them as chips or fries!)

9. Berries

Berries are nutrient dense and all types contain high levels of antioxidants, in particular vitamin C. Blueberries in particular are little purple balls of nutrition, and are high in iron. Raspberries are high in folate. Add berries into your breakfast bowl, eat as a snack or add into a juice (try our berry juice recipe. We love our strawberry cake too!

10. Red kidney beans

High in iron and folate (as well as being a fab source of vegan protein) red kidney beans are nutritionally great for your body. We suggest that you soak red kidney beans for four to five hours minimum (overnight is best) to help reduce possible side effects of flatulence. Enjoy as a bean burger or use in a dip – try our cannellini bean with roast garlic and rosemary dip (and swap the cannellini beans for red kidney beans).

11. Walnuts

Walnuts are fabulous sources of Vitamin E, which our bodies need to produce nitric oxide. They are also a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, which helps to lower LDL cholesterol (the bad type of cholesterol). These nuts are also iron-rich.

12. Citrus fruits, like lemons and oranges

All citrus fruits are great sources of antioxidants (especially flavonoids), which help to limit the impact of free-radicals. This helps our cells to breathe.

Raw food to oxygenate the body

Many advocates of raw food diets argue that raw food is one of the best ways to deliver maximum nutrition. However, some foods might be easier to digest when lightly cooked, such as spinach. As with everything here at the retreat we look for balance, so we usually offer at least one dish that contains raw vegetables. Try this month’s recipe which contains many of the raw ingredients on our top 12 list, as well as tofu: vegan tofu sushi bowl.

Make lifestyle changes

As well as maintaining a healthy diet, there are other lifestyle things you can do to help to oxygenate your blood:

Breathe easy – plant-based food for health

Here at La Crisalida we serve a plant-based (vegan) menu, meaning lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, together with wholegrains, nuts and seeds. Find out more about the type of food we serve here. By introducing some (or all!) of the above ingredients into your diet on a regular basis, you will boost the natural working of your body. We regularly share recipes on this blog for you to make at home. You can also come here to the retreat and try our plant-based diet for yourself.

We hope this article helps you to breathe more easily.

About the author

Lisa is one of the founders of La Crisalida Retreats. She is an Epidemiologist, therapeutic hatha and yin yoga teacher and also teaches mindfulness meditation. Lisa has studied NLP and hypnosis, as well as nutrition (she designs the menus).