The mammalian diving reflex optimizes mammals' respiration to stay underwater
for a long time. It is exhibited strongly in aquatic mammals (seals, otters,
dolphins, etc.), but exists in a weaker version in other mammals, humans
included. Diving birds, such as penguins, have a similar diving reflex. Every
animal's diving reflex is triggered specifically by cold water contacting the
face -- water that is warmer than 21 ?C (70 ?F) won't cause the reflex, and
neither will submersion of body parts other than the face. Also, the reflex is
always exhibited more dramatically, and thus can grant longer survival, in young
people and animals.
Upon initiation of the reflex, three changes happen to the body, in this order:
1. Bradycardia is the first response to submersion. Immediately upon facial contact with cold water, the human heart rate slows down ten to twenty-five percent. In the seal the changes are even more dramatic, going from about 125 beats per minute to as low as 10 on an extended dive. Slowing the heart rate lessens the need for bloodstream oxygen, leaving more to be used by other organs.
2. Next, peripheral vasoconstriction sets in. When under high pressure induced by deep diving, capillaries in the extremities start closing off, stopping blood circulation to those areas. Note that vasoconstriction usually applies to arterioles, but in this case is completely an effect of the capillaries. Toes and fingers close off first, then hands and feet, and ultimately arms and legs stop allowing blood circulation, leaving more blood for use by the heart and brain. Human musculature accounts for only 12% of the body's total oxygen storage, and our muscles tend to cramp up during this phase. Aquatic mammals have as much as 25 to 30% of their oxygen storage in muscle, and thus they can keep working long after capillary blood supply is stopped.
3. Finally, and most interesting, is the blood shift that occurs only during very deep dives. When this happens, organ and circulatory walls allow plasma/water to pass freely throughout the thoracic cavity, so its pressure stays constant and the organs aren't crushed. In this stage, the lungs' alveoli fill up with blood plasma, which is reabsorbed when the animal leaves the pressurized environment. This stage of the diving reflex does not occur in humans.
Thus, both a conscious and an unconscious person can survive longer without oxygen under water than in a comparable situation on dry land. Children tend to survive longer than adults when deprived of oxygen underwater.
When the face is submerged, receptors that are sensitive to water within the nasal cavity and other areas of the face supplied by cranial nerve V (trigeminal) relay the information to the brain and then innervate cranial nerve X, which is part of the autonomic nervous system. This causes bradycardia and peripheral vasoconstriction of blood vessels. Blood is removed from the limbs and all organs but the heart and the brain, creating a heart-brain circuit and allowing the mammal to conserve oxygen.
In humans, the mammalian diving reflex is not induced when limbs are introduced to cold water. Mild bradycardia is caused by the subject holding his breath without submerging the face within water. When breathing with face submerged this causes a diving reflex which increases proportionally to decreasing water temperature. However the greatest bradycardia effect is induced when the subject is holding breath with face submerged.
Bradycardia (Greek ß?, bradykardía, "heart slowness"), as applied to adult medicine, is defined as a resting heart rate of under 60 beats per minute, though it is seldom symptomatic until the rate drops below 50 beat/min. It may cause "heart attacks" in some patients or cardiac arrest. This occurs because someone with bradycardia may not be pumping enough oxygen to their own heart causing heart attack-like symptoms. It sometimes results in fainting, shortness of breath, and if severe enough, death.  Trained athletes or young healthy individuals may also have a slow resting heart rate (e.g. professional cyclist Miguel Indurain had a resting heart rate of 28 beats per minute). Resting bradycardia is often considered normal if the individual has no other symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting, chest discomfort, palpitations or shortness of breath associated with it.The term relative bradycardia is used to explain a heart rate that, while not technically below 60 beats per minute, is considered too slow for the individual's current medical condition.