Hiking Can Change Your Blood for Months

Wednesday, October 26, 2016 - 18:44

Scientists investigating effects of mountain hiking have found that multiple changes affect the red blood cells' ability to retain oxygen in low-oxygen environments - and it happens within hours.

As Science Alert reports, The human body begins adapting to high-elevation environments as quickly as overnight, and these biological changes can last for months - even after the person has returned to lower elevations.

Researchers found that humans in high-altitude environments start producing new red blood cells that are more capable of supplying oxygen to their muscles and organs than the average human’s blood.

As an example, in places like the Mount Everest, scientists thought humans gradually replaced their red blood cells with new, high-functioning versions that are better able to deal with oxygen transport and delivery.

"That’s been the story for 50 years," Robert Roach, lead investigator and director of the Altitude Research Centre at the University of Colorado, told Richard A. Lovett at Science.

But the problem with that assumption is that it might make sense for populations that spend their entire lives in high-altitude, low-oxygen environments - such as the mountain-dwelling Tibetans and the Andean highlanders - it doesn’t really correlate with the experiences of mountain climbers and skiers.

While the body produces about 2 million new red cells every second, it takes weeks for all the red cells to be replaced, so how can hikers survive up there if it takes weeks to adapt?

To investigate what actually happens, Roach and his colleagues have been working with volunteers taking part in a project called AltitudeOmics and understood that "Low oxygen is also a problem when trauma - from car accidents to gunshot wounds - causes blood loss," says Lovett. "Finding ways to kick the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity into high gear in such an emergency ... could save lives in both the civilian sector and on the battlefield."

The research has been published in the Journal of Proteome Research.

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