High altitudes can change your blood

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Happy travels and stay safe!

It has long been known that athletes training in high altitudes are experiencing a change developing a faster way to transport oxygen through their red blood cells. What is new now in terms of research conducted is the discovery that this process can begin as soon as overnight.

Throwing prayer flags in the air for good luck before Mt. Everest in Tibet.
Throwing prayer flags in the air for good luck before Mt. Everest in Tibet.
Image source: Brown Gal Trekker

The interesting thing about blood types and different predispositions is looking at the variation of frequencies worldwide which opens up a whole little known world of evolutionary developments where tribes develop into human beings highly tolerant of environments they are born in to deal with and then often have issues somewhere where their recent ancestors have never set foot. A good example is looking at allergy charts and which groups of people are likely to have them. You are for example not likely to meet a Native American with a peanut allergy as peanuts originate from the Americas. Europeans on the other hand have them quite frequently because they are not part of the diet our ancestors have consumed for thousands of years.

Scientists have long known that the body adjusts to the oxygen-deprived conditions of high altitudes. At 5260 meters, close to the level of the Mount Everest Base Camp in Nepal, the atmosphere holds 53% as much oxygen as the air at sea level, making it harder to breathe—and to exercise. The traditional explanation has been that low-oxygen conditions cause the body to build new red blood cells, making it easier to supply oxygen to muscles and vital organs. “That’s been the story for 50 years,” says Robert Roach, lead investigator and director of the Altitude Research Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora.

But mountaineers, backpackers, and other high-country weekend warriors have long known that this story might not be quite right. It takes weeks to produce new red blood cells, and even ordinary people can adapt within days. Now, the new study—the first to look closely at the blood of people trekking up and down mountains—has found that the body begins adapting to elevation as soon as overnight.

Source: Two weeks in the mountains can change your blood for months

Some things take generations to adjust to. It is a process in which those who deal best with the conditions have a longer life, are stronger, more productive and therefore more likely to reproduce passing their genetic predispositions to the offspring. But from the moment we are presented with a new situation, our bodies often tend to do a switch right away making it possible to begin an evolutionary process from within. And this appears to be the case here. So how do the red cells and their ability to transport oxygen faster relate to the ABO group and rh factor sitting on the same red blood cells?

The people from that region have been able to deal well in high altitudes and while the rh negative blood factor runs low, it is noticable how high the percentage of people with blood type B is.

Blood Type B

According to Dr. D´Adamo, creator of the Blood Type Diet:

Blood Type B developed in the area of the Himalayan highlands, now part of present day Pakistan and India. Pushed from the hot, lush savannahs of eastern Africa to the cold highlands of the Himalayan Mountains, Blood type B may have initially mutated in response to climactic changes. It first appeared in India or the Ural region of Asia among a mix of Caucasian and Mongolian tribes. This new blood type was soon characteristic of the great tribes of steppe dwellers, who by this time dominated the Eurasian Plains. As the Mongolians swept through Asia, the gene for Type B blood was firmly entrenched. The Mongolians swept northward, pursuing a culture dependent upon herding and domesticating animals – as their diet of meat and cultured dairy products reflected.

Of all the ABO types, Type B shows the most clearly defined geographic distribution. Stretching as a great belt across the Eurasian plains and down to the Indian subcontinent, Type B is found in increased numbers from Japan, Mongolia, China and India up to the Ural Mountains. From there westward, the percentages fall until a low is reached at the western tip of Europe. The small numbers of Type B in Western Europeans represents western migration by Asian nomadic peoples. This is best seen in the easternmost western Europeans, the Germans and Austrians, who have an unexpectedly high incidence of Type B blood compared to their western neighbors. Modern sub continental Indians a Caucasian people, have some of the highest frequencies of Type B blood in the world. The northern Chinese and Koreans have very high rates of Type B blood and very low rates of Type A.

Blood Type A

It comes to no surprise that people with blood type A appear to have most issues with high altitudes. The adjustment process will be harder more likely than in people with O and B. Of course, in time this can be overcome, but there is always this tendency which the descendants of early farmers need to struggle with while those with blood type B appear to be more in their natural habitat not having that much of an issue adjusting to the need to produce more oxygen faster.

It does appear that people with blood type A struggle more in those regions. And O would be somewhere in the middle.

blood type O

People with blood type O are great adjusters to their environments. But it takes more than that to do well and not simply suffer through the difficulties. And that is where a likely common heritage within people with blood type B is very beneficial.

Researchers have been mystified as to how Tibetans have thrived at altitudes over 4400 meters (14,435 feet). Some high-altitude people, such as Andean highlanders, have an adaptation that adds more oxygen-rich hemoglobin to their blood. But many highland Tibetans, researchers have found, have less hemoglobin in their blood. That helps them avoid serious problems caused by too much hemoglobin, but Tibetans with this so-called decreased hemoglobin phenotype must somehow use small amounts of oxygen efficiently to get enough of it to their limbs while exercising at high altitude. Researchers have been unable to pinpoint the genes that are responsible for this remarkable balancing act in their blood.

But although these genes apparently lower the level of oxygen in the blood, they are responsible for only part of the story of the Tibetans’ adaptation and would not by themselves make a beneficial drug for climbers. “Just lowering your hemoglobin alone would make you less well adapted to high altitude,” points out Jorde. Researchers are still searching for the genes that orchestrate how Tibetans transport low levels of oxygen so efficiently to their tissues—a process that may involve using nitric oxide to boost their blood volume.

Source: The Genetics of High-Altitude Living

So what about people with blood type AB?

blood type AB

AB people have two sides to them and while comfortable in an environment where the weather is pleasant, the land is flat and farming enables them to enjoy a daily diet of what is expected, as the type A ancestors were, they tend to rise to the occasion when challenged with high altitudes and the type of environments that their blood type B ancestors grew accustomed to.

One thing about human beings is that when presented with a challenge, we can rise to the occasion and when a certain group does best, they are more likely to reprocriate.

How well would YOU do climbing these mountains?
How well would YOU do climbing these mountains?
Image source: Peak Explorations

High altitudes are not for everyone. But they train us to be efficient. The same red blood cells where the rh factor is being carried, start carrying oxygen at a higher speed when your body recognizes the need to do so.

“If you are faced with a mountain, you have several options. You can climb it and cross to the other side. You can go around it. You can dig under it. You can fly over it. You can blow it up. You can ignore it and pretend it’s not there. You can turn around and go back the way you came. Or you can stay on the mountain and make it your home.”

– Vera Nazarian

Sources include:

High-altitudes and blood types
Brown Gal Trekker’s Mountain Home
Don’t Date a Girl Who Treks
AltitudeOmics: Red Blood Cell Metabolic Adaptation to High Altitude Hypoxia
The Genetics of High-Altitude Living
NCBI retiring HapMap Resource
Two weeks in the mountains can change your blood for months
Blood Type Frequencies by Country including the Rh Factor


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