There has been a lot of speculation among all the locals and visitors up here, even the students who do rotations with us, on whether merely living at altitude can yield health and/or fitness benefits. And this is a conversation that has been going on for quite some time.
At our clinic, what we’ve been finding over these past two decades of our practice and research is that the way individuals respond to altitude is not so simple. Yes, in many cases of acute mountain illness we see, the remedy may simply be more oxygen, whether that means being hooked up to an oxygen concentrator or descending in elevation. But the answer to whether living at high altitude will improve your health and/or fitness in itself is much more complex.
Studies have been and continue to be conducted all over the globe, not surprisingly in other countries with high-altitude communities like India, Nepal, Argentina, and Bolivia (you may remember Dr. Chris’s accounts of the Chronic Hypoxia conference she attended earlier this year in La Paz). An article in Berkley Wellness from 2014, Are Higher Elevations Healthier?, cites some speculation that appetite may be suppressed at higher elevations because of the effect it has on hormones like leptin, and that the added physical exertion required for your body to function in an environment with lower oxygen may also require more calories.
Sure. This is consistent with some of our own speculation at Ebert Family Clinic. But there is so much more to it.
Altitude does demand a lot from the body. Bodies born and raised up here tend to be more well-adapted. Bodies not born, but raised up here certainly have a great chance at achieving more advanced levels of acclimatization. Healthy bodies that come up to altitude on occasion may experience little to no symptoms of mountain illness. But as soon as a pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition comes into play, all bets are off, and the high altitude can become more of a threat than an asset.
On the other hand, we’ve also seen some recent studies (and personal accounts from patients and readers) that indicate certain conditions may experience relief from various symptoms at higher elevations (see Altitude As Asthma Treatment or Increasing the Altitude to Decrease the Symptoms of Parkinsons). And there are many other variables here besides the elevation, like air and water quality or culture. Summit County’s population is consistently rated among the healthiest, most long-lived in the country. But how much does the culture of outdoor activity influence that? And how does the popularity of craft beer and marijuana use affect that? Is there a “typical” diet up here?
The way each individual body acclimatizes depends on so many physiological factors and fine processes. Very generally, the better your body carries out these processes, the easier your life at altitude will be. With this in mind, it might seem that those who thrive at altitude are already in good shape, while those who are prone to the most difficult transitions may very well be fighting other inhibiting factors already.
It would seem that for every accommodation your body makes at altitude that may benefit its function at sea level, there are other compromises. We’ve heard from more than one athlete that muscle training at altitude may not be as effective, because your cardiovascular and respiratory capacity will max out before you reach the limit of your strength. We’re also finding that blood oxygen saturation levels may be lower at altitude for many people while sleeping. While lower oxygen may stimulate some beneficial transformation in the body (increased red blood cell counts, for example), it may also very quickly complicate body function under certain conditions. In addition to all that, there is a strong genetic factor to an individual’s response to altitude that we still have much to learn about.
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.