Altitude has significant effects on the body and our health, at many levels. Whether you’re living at altitude or practising activities at high altitudes, our bodies undergo fascinating adaptations. So, what are the effects of altitude on health? This article explains the impact on breathing, the cardiovascular system, physical fitness and the immune system.
The effects of altitude on the cardiovascular system
Altitude has a significant impact on the cardiovascular system. When we are at high altitudes, the decrease in atmospheric pressure leads to an increase in heart rate and blood pressure. Although this may seem worrying, these cardiovascular adaptations are actually beneficial to our health. Let’s find out why…
The production of red blood cells
One of the body’s main responses to altitude is to stimulate the production of red blood cells. At higher altitudes, where oxygen is less abundant, the body reacts by increasing the production of red blood cells, which are responsible for transporting oxygen to the tissues. This increase in the number of red blood cells results in better oxygenation of the muscles and organs, improving their function and performance.
The production of antioxidants
What’s more, altitude also encourages the production of antioxidant enzymes. These enzymes act as protective agents, neutralising free radicals, which are harmful to cells and can damage the walls of blood vessels. By strengthening antioxidant defence mechanisms, the body is better protected against oxidative damage and oxidative stress, thereby reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and stroke.
The cardiovascular system
Research has also shown that living at altitude can have a beneficial effect on the cardiovascular system. For example, a 2021 scientific study found that people living at higher altitudes had a lower prevalence of high blood pressure. The researchers attributed this observation to the body’s adaptation to altitude, which leads to improved endothelial function, reduced arterial stiffness and lower peripheral vascular resistance.
Similarly, exposure to altitude for a few weeks could reduce blood pressure in hypertensive individuals. Research suggests that this reduction in blood pressure is due to a reduction in vascular resistance, which improves blood circulation.
Adaptation to altitude stimulates the production of red blood cells, promotes the production of antioxidant enzymes and may even reduce the risk of arterial hypertension.
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The benefits of altitude on health – the physical condition
Living at altitude has many advantages for improving physical fitness. The high-altitude environment, characterised by reduced atmospheric pressure and lower oxygen availability, creates stimulating conditions for the body, leading to beneficial adaptations.
Benefits for endurance
One of the main benefits of altitude is improved endurance. When we are exposed to high altitudes, our bodies adapt to compensate for the reduced oxygen available by increasing our lung capacity. By breathing air that has less oxygen, our lungs have to work harder to supply the same amount of oxygen to our bodies. This strengthens the respiratory muscles and improves the efficiency of breathing, leading to greater cardiorespiratory endurance.
What’s more, altitude training is thought to improve endurance in athletes. The researchers found that participants who trained regularly at altitude showed a significant increase in their aerobic capacity, i.e. an improvement in their ability to store oxygen. These results were measured using endurance tests such as maximum oxygen consumption (VO2max). In addition, altitude training also showed positive effects on improving exercise capacity at low altitudes.
In addition, the increased physical effort at high altitudes also stimulates muscle strengthening. Physical activities such as hiking, skiing and mountaineering place greater demands on the muscles, as they have to work against gravity and put in extra effort to maintain performance. Living or training at altitude can help to develop greater muscle mass and serves to improve strength and power.
The effects of altitude on the metabolism
Similarly, a study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology shows that altitude training has beneficial effects on metabolism and fat burning.
The researchers found that altitude training increased energy expenditure at rest and encouraged greater use of fat as an energy source during exercise. These metabolic adaptations may contribute to better weight management and improved body composition.
These examples of scientific research highlight the benefits of altitude on physical fitness, in particular improving endurance, strengthening muscles and optimising metabolism.
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The benefits of altitude on the immune system
Exposure to altitude can have a positive impact on the immune system by stimulating its functions and boosting resistance to infections and allergies.
The health effects of fresh mountain air
One of the main benefits of altitude is its effect on the immune system through exposure to a variety of environmental conditions, including fresh mountain air.
When we are at altitude, our bodies are confronted with climatic changes, lower temperatures and increased exposure to natural elements. These specific environmental stimuli can trigger the production of white blood cells, which are responsible for the body’s defence against bacteria and viruses.
The effects of altitude on red blood cell production
To find out what happens in the body at high altitudes, researchers at the University of Colorado in Denver sent 21 volunteers to a camp near the summit of Mount Chacaltaya in Bolivia (at 5,421 metres), as part of the AltitudeOmics study.
When scientists examined the haemoglobin (proteins that carry oxygen in the blood) in the volunteers’ red blood cells, they found numerous changes that affected the way haemoglobin bound oxygen molecules. And as red blood cells live for around 120 days, these changes persisted in the blood.
Short exposure to high altitude, therefore, leads to a multitude of changes in the red blood cells, enabling them to better manage conditions where oxygen is scarcer. These changes persist for weeks, or even months, even after descending to low altitude.
Increased resistance to infection
Research has also suggested that exposure to altitude can increase resistance to infection. A study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine showed that athletes who trained at altitude had a reduced risk of upper respiratory tract infections compared to those who trained at lower altitudes. The researchers attributed this to the activation of the immune system and improved barrier function of the respiratory mucosa.
Fresh mountain air can strengthen the immune system by reducing exposure to pathogens. The effects of altitude on the immune system can vary. Overall, the evidence suggests a strengthening of resistance to infections and allergies.
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At altitude, the body needs time to adapt to changes in atmospheric pressure and oxygen availability. It’s crucial not to begin intense physical effort as soon as you arrive in the mountains. A period of gradual adaptation is needed to allow your body to adjust to the new conditions. Physical exertion that is too intense too soon can lead to excessive fatigue, shortness of breath and headaches. It can even lead to more serious health problems, such as those presented by the University of Geneva in its study “Acute Mountain Sickness“.
Losing these benefits
The health benefits of altitude can diminish over time. When you descend to a low altitude, your body adapts and some specific benefits may diminish. However, cardiorespiratory endurance and muscle strengthening can be maintained and improved by regular training at low altitudes.
Altitude sickness is a condition that can occur when you climb to altitude quickly without acclimatising properly. Symptoms can include headaches, nausea, dizziness, fatigue and shortness of breath. In severe cases, this can lead to pulmonary oedema or cerebral oedema. These few cases are medical emergencies requiring rapid evacuation to a lower altitude and appropriate medical care.
Hypoxia is a lack of oxygen in the body due to the low atmospheric pressure at altitude. This can lead to a deterioration in bodily functions. It can also affect various organs, including the brain, heart and lungs.
In some cases, altitude can aggravate pre-existing respiratory problems such as asthma. If you suffer from respiratory conditions, it is important to consult a health professional to get appropriate advice before travelling to high altitude.
Dry air at altitude can lead to more rapid dehydration. It is essential to drink enough water to keep yourself hydrated.
Increased exposure to UV rays
At altitude, exposure to UV (ultraviolet) rays is considered to be more of a risk. It is essential to protect yourself from the sun because of the reduced protection against UV rays. Use a broad-spectrum sun cream, sunglasses and a hat to reduce the risks. Take the necessary precautions to enjoy the benefits of altitude in safety.
Book a chalet at altitude
The high mountains, with their majestic landscapes and towering peaks, offer many health benefits. We have explored these beneficial effects, based on scientific research and testimonials from specialist health professionals. Areas covered include breathing, the cardiovascular system, physical fitness and the immune system.
Don’t forget that you need to take precautions to avoid altitude-related complications.
Take care of yourself and enjoy the mountain air from your OVO Network partner chalet on your next Alpine retreat!
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