Altitude Sickness & The Brain Stage of O2

In this episode: Dr. Greene & Ms. Greene discuss their experience at an elevation of 17,200 feet. Above 9,000 feet the body may be impacted by lack of oxygen. O2 supplementation can be used to counteract the impact of elevation. Turns out, there may be more to it than you think!
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Altitude Sickness & The Brain Stage of O2

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In this episode: Dr. Greene and Ms. Greene discuss their experience at the ACT telescope located in the Atacama Desert at an elevation of 17,200 feet.  Above 9,000 feet the body may be impacted by lack of oxygen. Altitude sickness is common and can range from uncomfortable to dangerous. O2 supplementation can be used to counteract the impact of elevation. Turns out, there may be more to getting O2 at elevation than you think! 

Podcast Transcript of Altitude Sickness & The Brain Stage of O2

Dr. Greene: (00:01)
Hi, this is Dr. Greene

MsGreene: (00:02)
and Ms. Greene and greetings from Chile. Hola!.

Dr. Greene: (00:06)
Hola! We are on a surprising trip and today we went to see the Atacama Cosmology Telescope high in the Andes Mountains, which was an amazing experience at 17,200 feet,

MsGreene: (00:22)
Which was a little bit scary. I’ve had altitude sickness in the past so I was a little bit intimidated by this whole thing. In the past I just, I got sick and I didn’t know why and so this time we tried to figure it out. And so it’d be great to have you tell us all about it.

Dr. Greene: (00:43)
Yeah, I can tell you some things we’ve done for a long time about altitude sickness and some things that are kind of brand new and shocking. Well, let me tell you about how oxygen, how altitude sickness works. When the oxygen levels get low in the air, our body responds by trying to get more oxygen. So the first thing that we do is breathe more quickly.

MsGreene: (01:03)
Yeah, yeah. When, when we first got there and they opened the van doors, I just started hyperventilating, not a lot but just a little bit.

Dr. Greene: (01:11)
And then as the breathing quickly changes the Ph of the blood and the oxygen levels in the blood start going down and so our body responds again without us even thinking about it. By increasing the heart rate, you’re going to pump oxygen around to the tissues. And then the body begins to dilate blood vessels to get the oxygen into the tissues. And so you feel your heart beating. And with the dilation, you can feel headaches come on,

MsGreene: (01:37)
Which that always happened to me in the past.

Dr. Greene: (01:39)
And you feel a little bit dizzy because not enough blood get into your brain, especially if you’re kind of active. And then if the altitude sickness is progressing, you’ll tend to get weak in the legs.

MsGreene: (01:50)
And what about nausea?

Dr. Greene: (01:51)
Nausea too. And both of those come from trying to shunt all the blood you can to your brain to protect that. And so you feel nauseous, you feel weakness all over, you’re sick, you feel sick all over, and then you start to, you think you’re foggy.

MsGreene: (02:08)
Well, I don’t think I got foggy, but in the past, I’ve gotten that, that sick feeling, to the point of I, was really questioning if this fabulous experience, to get to go see this incredible telescope and if I should go or not go? But I went. Yeah.

Dr. Greene: (02:23)
And there are medications you can take to help prevent altitude sickness. Especially if you’re going above 9,000 feet and we won’t talk about that so much in this podcast, but if you are starting to get symptoms, getting a little bit of oxygen and the face mask can be really powerful. And that’s not too surprising since lack of oxygen is the problem.

MsGreene: (02:45)
Right. And I’ve never had that before.

Dr. Greene: (02:46)
And then it starts, your breathing starts to slow down and your oxygen levels in the blood start to come up. Your Ph starts to normalize, your heart rate slows down, your thinking is better, your strength is better. Nausea goes away. It’s like this amazing solution.

MsGreene: (03:02)
Which interestingly enough, on this trip, they gave us each, a little tiny canister with like eight puffs of air. Like that eight.

Dr. Greene: (03:12)
Yeah. A little. Just a little bit. Yeah.

MsGreene: (03:14)
A little canister that we each had. And what they said is at the first sign just take a puff. Don’t think about it. Don’t try to hold out. Don’t try to be macho. Just take a puff. So when we got out of the van, we immediately went into this little building and by the way, it was very cold. Yeah.

Dr. Greene: (03:34)
Yeah. It is just like Moonscape Alpha up there. Yeah. It was, it was barren and the wind was blowing so hard and it was so cool.

MsGreene: (03:42)
So went immediately into this little heated workspace where we could warm up. And when I got inside I was realizing I needed to get a puff of oxygen, which one of the other people on the tour helped me to do. I got a puff and like immediately I started to feel kind of normal. It was great. And I’ve not had that experience at altitude before.

Dr. Greene: (04:11)
Yeah, we should say just real briefly. The telescope itself is amazing. It’s helping to look at the birth of stars and the birth of galaxies and the reason it’s so high up is you want to find a place at high elevation. So there’s very little to block the view of space. And that’s extremely dry without moisture in the air. That’s why it’s in a desert and a far away from light pollution. And that’s why this is out in the middle of nowhere.

MsGreene:: (04:35)
Yeah. I’m super impressed with the scientists who are putting this together. The whole thing — just a fabulous experience.

Dr. Greene: (04:41)
But the other thing we want to tell you about is there’s now been a series of studies that have been replicated on seven different mountains and six different continents. So this is real science. And what they found is that if you take people that have already done the ascent, something like this, they have had oxygen, they have felt the relief of that.

Dr. Greene: (05:04)
They took those folks, took them up to high altitude where they were experiencing symptoms and half of them got oxygen who got better, just the way they were expected to. The other half were given just a mask with room air in them — air at altitude. They were getting nothing extra except that face mask. And the results of the study were absolutely shocking. So what happens is our brain is always paying attention to the sensors through our sensors to the world around us and then anticipating what’s going to happen next and initiating a cascade of responses in our body’s unconscious state to prepare for that situation.

Dr. Greene: (05:48)
This cascade of responses to prepare for whatever’s about to come and then adjusting for the situation. So this case where they got nothing, but they already experienced relief from oxygen and the body felt the face mask. What happened was immediately the hyperventilating went down and immediately the heart rate started to lower back to normal and the blood vessels went back to normal and the Ph in the blood went back to normal. The oxygen levels didn’t change at all, but the headaches went away. The nausea went away on treadmill tests. Their performance improved, their muscle strength and endurance improved and their thinking and cognition tests improved. So they had all of the improvement except the oxygen getting back, which they needed. But it gave them this, this brief time where they were able to think clearly and moved to get back to a safe spot. So our brains are just incredible how powerful they are

MsGreene:: (06:46)
That is so amazing. It sounds almost like we’re tricking ourselves.

Dr. Greene: (06:51)
No, it’s not tricking at all. It’s almost the opposite of that is in everything that we do, our brain is on high alert, scanning the world around us, anticipating what may come next, orchestrating a cascade of results, and then adjusting to the new situation. And this is just one example that’s shocking to us because it’s so extreme. But even with something as fundamental as oxygen, our brain responds.

MsGreene: (07:16)
Wow, well, so it really worked for me this time. The oxygen did it. In fact, there is a little, known effect that some people at high altitude don’t get altitude sickness — they actually can get euphoric. Yes, it was a great day. It was really, really fun. And so next time I’m just going to take the oxygen mask.

Dr. Greene: (07:43)
No, no, no, no. Use the oxygen. But if you’re ever stuck, that’s worth knowing.

MsGreene: (07:50)
Well, it sounds to me like it’s time for us to get going, cause I think dinner calls.

Dr. Greene: (07:56)
It does indeed. Buenos Noches!

MsGreene: (07:57)
Buenos Noches!

Published on: July 09, 2019
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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