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J Physiol Pharmacol. 2007 Nov;58 Suppl 5(Pt 2):811-8.

Altitude adaptation through hematocrit changes.

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High Altitude Pathology Institute (IPPA), Box 2852, La Paz, Bolivia.


Adaptation takes place not only when going to high altitude, as generally accepted, but also when going down to sea level. Immediately upon ascent to high altitude, the carotid body senses the lowering of the arterial oxygen partial pressure due to a diminished barometric pressure. High altitude adaptation is defined as having three stages: 1) acute, first 72 hours, where acute mountain sickness (CMS or polyerythrocythemia) can occur; 2) subacute, from 72 hours until the slope of the hematocrit increase with time is zero; here high altitude subacute heart disease can occur; and 3) chronic, where the hematocrit level is constant and the healthy high altitude residents achieve their optimal hematocrit. In the chronic stage, patients with CMS increase their hematocrit values to levels above that of normal individuals at the same altitude. CMS is due to a spectrum of medical disorders focused on cardiopulmonary deficiencies, often overlooked at sea level. In this study we measured hematocrit changes in one high altitude resident traveling several times between La Paz (3510 m) and Copenhagen (35 m above sea level) for the past 3 years. We have also studied the fall in hematocrit values in 2 low-landers traveling once from La Paz to Copenhagen. High altitude adaptation is altitude and time dependent, following the simplified equation: Adaptation=Time/Altitude where High altitude adaptation factor=Time at altitude (days)/Altitude in kilometers (km). A complete and optimal hematocrit adaptation is only achieved at around 40 days for a subject going from sea level to 3510 m in La Paz. The time in days required to achieve full adaptation to any altitude, ascending from sea level, can be calculated by multiplying the adaptation factor of 11.4 times the altitude in km. Descending from high altitude in La Paz to sea level in Copenhagen, the hematocrit response is a linear fall over 18 to 23 days.

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