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Nitrous Quick Guide
ver 1.0, 2001
Erowid Note: This document includes a couple of errors and the live links to it have been removed until it can be more thoroughly reviewed.



I've heard a lot of bogus reasons for why people don't do nitrous oxide (the top of the list being "Yeah, maaaan -- that buzz you feel is your brain cells dying!" and "Nitrous makes holes in your blood-brain barrier"), and I've also seen some astonishingly bad nitrous inhaling practices. While I could be just another stroker rehashing old myths, I've tried to delve a little deeper into the science of nitrous. If you find anything erroneous in this passage, please let me know (martin@no-spam.xennahtron.com - I think all you humans can figure out what to do with that address to make it correct).

First, let's address the issue of how nitrous works. That buzz you feel is NOT due to deprivation of oxygen. We all know that if you hold your breath or inhale carbon monoxide (don't do that!) you do not get a nice buzz. You are likely to merely get a headache, pass out, or die, depending on the severity of your actions. What is going on is that the nitrous oxide, because it is fat soluble (which is incidentally why they use it for making whipped cream), crosses the blood-brain barrier and tingles some receptors in your head. [If any of you with more education can provide specifics, that would be great.]

As is the case with any substance that's fun, nitrous is not completely safe, either. As far as I can tell, there are three main ways nitrous can harm your brain: vitamin B12 deficiency, hypoxia, and brain lesions.

One side effect of inhaling nitrous is that each time, a little bit of your body's supply of vitamin B12 gets oxidized. Vitamin B12 is essential for the myelination of the nerves in your body. Without vitamin B12, your nerves de-myelinate and you get neural degradation. This has happened in a couple of cases to hard-core vegans who didn't do all their research and failed to eat enough B12. If you're eating well and keeping healthy, a little less vitamin B12 is not a problem at all. However, if you're oxidizing it faster than your body can absorb and/or utilize it, then you have a problem. How much nitrous does this take? A _lot_. There is one (in)famous case where a man did 200 whipets a day for 6 months. He developed a loss of motor coordination (read: had problems walking) and urinary incontinence. What happened to his brain was probably not pretty, either. Don't try that at home, kids.

This oxidization phenomenon is also why dentists who use nitrous regularly may, over the course of months, slowly develop numbness or tingling in their faces, even though they are not inhaling enough nitrous at once to get anesthetized or high.

Another mechanism by which nitrous can harm you is hypoxia (low oxygen levels in your blood). There are two somewhat orthogonal ways you can get yourself into this situation. One is to not breathe any oxygen -- you could inhale balloon after balloon of helium, for example. Contrary to what most people think, your body's reflex to breath is not triggered by lack of oxygen, but rather by the build-up of carbon dioxide in your blood. That's why it's pretty easy to kill yourself with misconfigured scuba gear.

The other way to get hypoxic is by inhaling a substance that has a higher affinity for your hemoglobin than oxygen. Nitrous is one such substance, although to a much lesser degree than carbon monoxide [again, consult the learned ones for specifics]. Even if you are breathing in oxygen, that oxygen may not be getting into your blood, and you wouldn't particularly even notice until it becomes extreme. Like any reversible reaction, the binding and unbinding of the nitrous oxide to your hemoglobin has a half-life and a time constant. (The half-life of carboxy-hemoglobin is about 5 hours, which is why it's game over if you get a solid lungful of pure carbon monoxide, unless someone can replace all of your blood within about 5 minutes.) If I had to take an uneducated guess, I'd say the half-life of nitrous in the blood is on the order of a few minutes.

Hypoxia is probably the easiest to inflict a kind of nitrous-related brain damage, but fortunately also the easiest to minimize or avoid. My recommendations for minimizing hypoxia would be, first and foremost, never do successive hits of the gas without at least breathing a few breaths in between. In particular, I would avoid re-breathing into a balloon or hitting the trash bag continuously. "Emptying" your lungs before the hit is probably fine, since your lungs don't actually empty all the way. If I recall correctly, even at maximum expulsion, there is about a liter of air left in your lungs, which will serve you well once the rest of your lung capacity is filled with nitrous. (I don't know if this is average, but I can hold my breath on "empty" lungs for about a minute if I'm in a resting state). Note that there will also be a non-trivial amount of oxygen in your blood, too. [consult learned experts]

Secondly, even if you are a breathing a few breaths between hits, doing too many hits in quick succession can still be damaging, because of the higher affinity/half-life thing working against you. You need to let the level of oxygen in your blood build back up again, because that's where you actually need it -- not in your lungs. I would recommend not doing more than one "booster" hit, and wait at least 5 minutes before going for seconds, thirds, etc.

The third way you could trash your brain with nitrous is via Olney's lesions. I'm far from an expert on Olney's lesions, but my basic understanding of them is that a very specific part of your brain withers and dies, leaving a "hole". This is probably what gave rise to the "holes in the blood-brain barrier" myth. Nitrous is a disassociative anesthetic, which is in the same class as DXM (cough syrup), ketamine (anesthetic), and PCP. As far as I know, all disassociative anesthetics will cause Olney's lesions if they are abused. How much is that? Again, unless you are talking about PCP, I think the answer is "a lot". [Erowid Note: There is little, if any, evidence that nitrous oxide causes Olney's Lesions. See The Bad News Isn't In: A Look at the Evidence for Dissociative-Caused Brain Damage, for more information about this.]

All that being said, alcohol can cause all kinds of lesions in the brain too, if abused. I'd wager that the percentage of people in America, at least, who have a drink now and then (and more) is staggering. Most people would agree that 12 drinks spread evenly across a year (i.e. one a month) would have a neglible impact on overall brain function. I wager that the same is true for nitrous. If you are careful to avoid hypoxia and only do 3-4 hits of the gas at maybe 4 or 5 parties a year, I be willing to lay down some money that no study could prove that the amount of damage done is any more than that done by having an equivalent number of drinks.

So party on, if that's your style, but party safely. And remember, any substance use you do is *your* choice, with no one but yourself to blame if things go wrong.

In memory of Richard A. Guy II.