Blood altitude adjustment: A superpower in the making
By Kayla Britt, MST Editor
It has been a known scientific fact for a long time that the human body possesses remarkable powers of adaptation. Yet new studies continue to shed light on the speed and scope of these adaptations, revealing an ever-astounding level of intricacy to the human body. One of the most recent studies, called AltitudeOmics, suggests that even short exposure to high elevations triggers long-lasting changes in the oxygen-holding capacity of red blood cells – a finding that could be literally life-saving.
Scientists have long known that the body was capable of adapting to the low-oxygen levels of high altitudes. While many people experience fatigue upon first arriving in high elevations, these effects will lessen or disappear with time. In the past, the predominating explanation was that the body compensated for the oxygen-deprived conditions by manufacturing new red blood cells, allowing oxygen to be transported more efficiently. However, the experiences of “high country weekend warriors”, like mountaineers and backpackers, have indicated that this explanation could not be entirely accurate. Red blood cells take weeks to produce, and even ordinary people can usually start adapting within days. The recent “AltitudeOmics” study further discredits this theory, as it proves that the body can begin adapting overnight.
“AltitudeOmics” was headed by Robert Roach, the director of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. In the study, twenty young volunteers were sent to Mount Chacaltayah in Bolivia with the objective to run up a 3.2 kilometer hill. The mountain’s volunteer camp sits at an elevation of 5,421 meters – roughly equivalent to the elevation of the Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal – and the atmosphere’s oxygen-carrying capacity is only 53% of that at sea level. That means less oxygen is available to breathe.
Immediately after arrival, the effects of oxygen deprivation were potent. According to participant Lauren Earthman, a freshman at the University of Oregon at Eugene, even climbing up a flight of stairs was “immensely more difficult” than what she was expecting. Yet the participants felt much better even after the first day, and they were able to complete their 3.2 kilometer climb after just two weeks. Furthermore, they were still able to complete the climb even after a one to two week absence — without requiring time after returning to re-acclimate!
After the study was completed, the volunteers’ blood was analyzed by a team of biochemists, including Angelo D’Alessandro of the Altitude Research Center. These scientists paid special attention to the volunteer’s hemoglobin – the protein of the red blood cell responsible for retaining oxygen – and found that, intriguingly, the proteins had adapted to bind to oxygen more tightly. Since red blood cells live for approximately 120 days, the changes would last as long as the cells did.
The complexities of this metabolic process are still not entirely understood, but the findings – and their potential implications – have piqued the interests of scientists everywhere. Essentially, this study proves that the body has the ability to kick its oxygen-carrying capacity into “high gear” – and that’s huge. Knowing how to trigger this ability could prove useful to anyone like athletes lacking the time for extended altitude training or tourists suffering from altitude sickness to trauma victims that have experienced massive blood loss. Scientists may have only scratched the surface of this intriguing new “superpower”, but considering the implications, they will likely endeavor to dig deep.