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How does our body react to altitude and thin air?
We all know it without a doubt: mountain air is healthy. At least up to a certain altitude, because from then on you will find that your body knows both physical and psychological limits. Above 2500 meters, the air gets really thin and you can feel the effects. When you get above 8000 meters, there is only 32% of the oxygen in the air that we are used to here at sea level. You can read about the effects this has on your body in this article.
Thin air: good for your condition
When you're high in the mountains, the air is thinner. This means that there is less oxygen in the air. The body will compensate for this by producing more red blood cells. Red blood cells transport oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. They also remove waste products from the muscles. The longer you are at altitude, the more red blood cells you make and the less you "suffer" from the thin air. When you return to sea level after some time at altitude, you also notice that a round of jogging, on the other hand, is much easier. This is exactly why many top athletes train at altitude to improve their fitness.
Effects of altitude on our bodies
How sensitive one is to the effects of thin air varies from person to person. Some people are more likely than others to notice the phenomena that occur above a certain altitude. Ultimately, the same is true for everyone: The higher you get, the greater the strain on your body.
Broadly speaking, these are the effects on our bodies at high altitude:
- 2500 meters: 20% of people already feel the first symptoms of altitude sickness.
- 3500 meters: 40 to 50% perceive symptoms of altitude sickness at this altitude. If you want to do a mountain tour at this altitude or higher, you must first acclimatize well before facing strong efforts.
- 4500 meters: At this altitude, all climbers suffer from the thin air
- 5500 meters: From this altitude, the air becomes really thin. Compared to sea level, it contains half as much oxygen.
- 7500 meters: From an altitude of 6000 meters, one speaks of extreme altitude and the efficiency of the body now rapidly decreases.
- 8000 meters: here you reach the so-called 'death zone'. The body begins to decompose and acclimatization is no longer possible. This means that one can never stay longer than 48 hours at such an altitude and often needs additional oxygen.
Less oxygen due to low air pressure
The oxygen content at any altitude is 21%. However, due to the lower air pressure at high altitudes, the effective oxygen content is reduced. For example, if one is at a dizzying altitude of 8000 meters, additional bottled artificial oxygen is an absolute must to keep the effects on the body under control and survive. However, oxygen for 24 hours quickly weighs 12 to 25 kilos, so no one wants to stay at that altitude for long.
Acclimatization is very important
When hiking or mountaineering at high altitudes, for example in the Himalayas, good acclimatization is extremely important. This way you avoid the risk of acute altitude sickness. The more time you take to do this, the better your body will respond during the rest of the climb. Three points are very important for proper acclimatization:
- Climb high during the day, sleep deeply at night: It is good to exert yourself and climb during the day. But to sleep, you should go back to lower altitudes, following the idea of "settling in".
- Slow ascent: the higher you get, the slower you should ascend. Specifically, this means making fewer vertical meters per hour. Above 7000 meters, for example, you really shouldn't climb more than 200 meters of elevation per hour.
- Drink a lot: The higher you get, the more you should drink. Especially at extreme altitudes, the body needs much more fluid because you sweat more and breathing activity increases. You should expect to drink around 5 to 8 liters per day.