The Mammalian Diving Reflex

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Cold, bitter, chilled, frozen, frosty, nippy, and frigid. These words conjure thoughts of being stuck in the middle of a blizzard, being miserable, losing feeling in your hands and feet and shivering uncontrollably and eventually death. However if you add any of those adjectives with the word water you suddenly are talking about sustaining ones life instead of making it miserable.

Cold water is the key aspect in the phenomenon called the mammalian diving reflex. This reflex has been beneficially used for thousands of years by whales, dolphins, seals and other mammals that inhabit the frigid waters of the world. The diving reflex slows heart rate and causes peripheral vasoconstriction to keep blood and oxygen to the brain and other vital core organs. This reflex allows these mammals to conserve oxygen and stay submerged over longer periods of time, providing them more time for finding food, protection and travel.

This reflex is also present in humans, although not to the same intense degree as seen in cold water native mammals, and not for the same reasons. Only in recent years have this reflex and the benefits it can provide in the survival of cold water drowning been observed and researched in humans. The focus of this paper is three-fold: first to explain the physiological process that is the mammalian diving reflex and how it is triggered; next the role the mammalian diving reflex plays in the survival of potential cold-water downers; thirdly, how doctors are using this reflex in the practice of modern medicine.

Initiation

The physiology behind the mammalian diving reflex is two-fold, the first being the triggering of the reflex. In the article Mechanism of the Human Diving Response, Brett Gooden observed that, “the res...

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