In a Nutshell, The Effects of Altitude on the Human Body

By Lloyd C | Updated May 10th, 2010

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altitude on human body

I wrote about the effects of altitude in a previous post, The science behind mountain sickness. However, just after writing that note, I bumped into a paramedic who also has an interest in the effects of altitude. He’s worked for the State Emergency Service and is an avid snowboarder.
It was quite an interesting chat and it certainly gave me a better appreciation of how the human body works at different altitudes.
Rather than diving even deeper into jargon, I came away from the discussion with three main points that explain the effects of altitude on the human body.

Less Oxygen in Each Breath

The percentage of oxygen in the air does NOT actually decrease at altitude. But the atmospheric (or barometric) pressure decreases, meaning the air is less dense, and hence, each breath contains less oxygen. So each molecule of air still contains about 21% oxygen, but there are fewer air molecules in each breath. In scientific-speak, the partial pressure of oxygen in the lungs is reduced. And this reduction means our bodies operate less efficiently.

Less Room in The Lungs for Oxygen

In addition to there being less oxygen in each breath, there’s also less room in the lungs for inspired oxygen. This is because our bodies saturate the incoming air with water and saturated water vapor has a constant partial pressure. It’s difficult to explain this more simply, but basically, if something (partial pressure of oxygen in inhaled air) decreases at altitude, and we remove a constant (partial pressure of saturated water vapor), then the result (gases, including oxygen for delivery to our blood) decreases even further.

Less Pressure to Absorb Oxygen 

With each breath, carbon dioxide is exchanged for oxygen (see gas exchange).
The primary force that feeds this process is atmospheric pressure. As atmospheric pressure drops (when we climb to higher altitudes), the gas exchange process becomes less efficient. So in addition to less oxygen per breath, and less room in the lungs for oxygen, there’s also less pressure to aid the process of oxygen absorption.

These three points mean that our bodies are much less efficient at altitude. Everything deteriorates, not just our climbing speed. I’ll talk about the effects of less oxygen in an upcoming post. So stay tuned.