It’s no secret that high altitudes reduce the amount of blood that’s able to be pumped around the body. However, what we’ve not known, until now, is why. While many theories have been proposed over the years, none have been confirmed for certain. But new research published in The Journal of Physiology has revealed exactly why this is.

The answer lies in oxygen. At high altitudes, (anything over around 3000 m) oxygen levels in the air are sparse. Because of this, the amount of blood within the body decreases while the blood pressure in the lungs increases. The study has revealed that both of these factors play a part in lowering the amount of blood the heart is able to pump with every beat. Thankfully, none seem to affect our ability to exercise fully.

This kind of research is extremely important as it deepens our understanding of how the human body adjusts to cope when in high altitudes. It will also help in making mountain climbing and other high altitude sports safer. 

The research involved gathering data on how the heart and pulmonary blood vessels are able to adapt in a world where less oxygen is present and was conducted by the Cardiff Metropolitan University in collaboration with the University of British Columbia and Loma Linda University School of Medicine.

While the study was small in size, it’s of no less significance than research that’s carried out globally. It just means that because only Europeans were tested, the results are inconclusive and could be different for people of other descents. But luckily future work is imminent.

“Currently, a number of the research team are ready to depart for an expedition that will focus on high altitude natives who live and work in the industrial mines of the Andean mountains,” explains chief investigator on the project, Michael Stembridge. “Unfortunately, a third of these individuals experience long-term ill health due to their residence at high altitude, a condition termed ‘Chronic Mountain Sickness’. We hope to apply the findings of this work to help improve the health and well-being of these populations by furthering our understanding of the condition and exploring therapeutic targets.”

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