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Effects of High Altitude on the Human Body

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Quinn Higgs

on 27 June 2014

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Transcript of Effects of High Altitude on the Human Body

Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness is caused by ascent to high altitude and is commonly characterised by hyperventilation , nausea and exhaustion resulting from a shortage of oxygen. There are three main types of altitude sickness. They are Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), High Altitude Pulmonary oedema (HAPE) and High Altitude Cerebral oedema (HACE). Although they have different names they are on a continuum and range from mild to life threatening.
Fitness at high altitude:

Travelers Guide to High Altitude
You are flying into El Alto, Bolivia. The first thing that happens when you as you step off the plane is your heart rate increases and you start to breath faster. These are the first steps towards acclimatisation. Don’t do anything too strenuous upon your arrival in El alto. Try not run, jump or do some type of taxing job during the first two days. Take care of yourself and avoid catching cold before you go to El alto. This makes you more susceptible to altitude sickness. Drink plenty of water while traveling in El alto. Eat high-carbohydrate meals for more energy and avoid alcohol because it decreases the risk of dehydration. Overall be careful, be aware and be prepared.
Death zone:

The Death Zone is a point in altitude at which human life cannot survive without the aid of an oxygen tank for more than 1 or 2 days. The death zone starts at around 7 320 metres or 24 000 feet. If you were climbing Mt. Everest you would need to travel 1 528m in the death zone to reach the summit. At this height, you are unable to get enough oxygen to, your brain cells start dying, your heart beats faster and faster, your digestive system stops working, your lungs start filling with water, you are tired and disoriented, and physical movement takes great effort.

The body tries to initially cope with less oxygen by making you breath faster and increasing your heart rate. The body also compensates by creating more red blood cells. In each red blood cell there is a complex molecule called haemoglobin which carries oxygen to the muscles and tissues. The red blood cells pass by the alveoli (smallest air sacks) and picks up the oxygen that you inhaled. At high altitudes however there is less oxygen that you inhale per breath. As a result the body creates more red blood cells to increase the amount of haemoglobin that passes the alveoli and gets to your muscles and tissues. This process helps you achieve acclimatisation but takes longer than the other body responses.

Types of altitude training:

Live High, train Low:
The main principle of the live high, train low regime is to boost your red blood cell (RBC) count while you live in high altitude. This means you can benefit from the extra RBC while training and competing at sea level through the increased amount of oxygen that is getting to your muscles.

Live High, Train High:
‘Live High, Train High’ means you have full exposure to high altitude. This will increase performance at high altitudes because the body fully adapts to performing with less oxygen in the air.
Effects of High Altitude on the Human Body
Any physical exercise that you do that lasts for more than a few minutes needs oxygen to produce energy. Without oxygen the muscles would stop working, seize up and in some cases become damaged. Altitude training is generally used by athletes to get their bodies used to having less oxygen to use to power their muscles. Some athletes train in high altitude weeks before their competition so they can have a edge over their competitors. Altitude training has shown to help fitness and stamina for events lasting between 8 - 20 minutes. Normally full acclimatisation takes around 4 - 6 weeks but athletes can acclimatise enough in 2 weeks for the symptoms of altitude sickness not to effect their proformance while also having enough time to raise their red blood cell count.

At high altitude many things happen to your body. These things can happen immediately upon reaching a certain height or after a while exposed to less oxygen. This can have many effects including decreased fitness levels, increased red blood cell count and illness called altitude sickness.

Symptoms Checklist created by Quinn Higgs in Apple Numbers
Whilst it is difficult to find the exact number of altitude sickness cases each year, one study held in 2012 found that 34% of 491 people that took part in the study developed altitude sickness upon or before reaching 4380 meters. They found out age, sex and fitness levels were not significant factors in the development of altitude sickness while ascent rate was the main factor. In another study they found out of 50 000 travelers to Nepal, there are 7 altitude related deaths. In this study it was also recorded that the death rate was 7% for trips above 7000 meters.
Altitude sickness usually starts at around 2400 meters with the mild symptoms becoming noticeable first followed by the more severe symptoms. The table (right) shows a list of symptoms flagging a possibility of altitude sickness.
If you have symptoms of altitude sickness, you should not go any higher for at least 24 to 48 hours. This reduces the risk of HAPE or HACE later on.
Increasing your oxygen with bottled oxygen or something called a portable hyperbaric chambers can help temporarily improve some of the symptoms of altitude sickness.
A portable hyperbaric chamber is a bag into which you are zipped. The bag is then pumped full of air. After one to two hours of treatment, your symptoms should improve significantly. The effect is the same as descending around 2,000 meters .
Other treatment methods include common pain killers, Acetazolamide (Diamox) which reduces the fluid build up to treat the swelling of the brain, Dexamethasone which also is used to treat the swelling and Nifedipine which dilates blood vessels and improves blood supply.
AMS: Acute mountain sickness is caused by reduced air pressure and lower oxygen levels at high altitude
High-altitude pulmonary oedema build up of fluid in the air sacs of the lungs, due to leaky capillaries
High-altitude cerebral oedema is a medical condition in which the brain swells with fluid
By: Quinn Higgs
The best prevention for altitude sickness is climbing slowly. This greatly reduces the chance of getting altitude sickness and is also the most natural method. Other ways include the drug Acetazolamide which is also used for treatment of altitude sickness. Other things like magnesium , glutamine , and milk thistle are proposed to help prevent altitude sickness but there is not much evidence behind this.
The Pathophysiology of altitude sickness is complex and hard to understand. In general it effects the cardiovascular , respiratory and the autonomic nervous system (non-voluntary control over these nerves).
Want to learn more about fitness at high altitude watch this
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