The Effects Of Altitude On Human Physiology.

3461 words - 14 pages

- -THE EFFECTS OF ALTITUDE ON HUMAN PHYSIOLOGYChanges in altitude have a profound effect on the human body. The bodyattempts to maintain a state of homeostasis or balance to ensure the optimaloperating environment for its complex chemical systems. Any change from thishomeostasis is a change away from the optimal operating environment. The bodyattempts to correct this imbalance. One such imbalance is the effect ofincreasing altitude on the body's ability to provide adequate oxygen to beutilized in cellular respiration. With an increase in elevation, a typicaloccurrence when climbing mountains, the body is forced to respond in variousways to the changes in externalenvironment. Foremost of these changes is the diminished ability to obtainoxygen from the atmosphere. If the adaptive responses to this stressor areinadequate the performance of body systems may decline dramatically. Ifprolonged the results can be serious or even fatal. In looking at the effectof altitude on body functioning we first must understand what occurs in theexternal environment at higher elevations and then observe the importantchanges that occur in the internal environment of the body in response.HIGH ALTITUDEIn discussing altitude change and its effect on the body mountaineersgenerally define altitude according to the scale of high (8,000 - 12,000feet), very high (12,000 - 18,000 feet), and extremely high (18,000+ feet),(Hubble, 1995). A common misperception of the change in external environmentwith increased altitude is that there is decreased oxygen. This is notcorrect as the concentration of oxygen at sea level is about 21% and staysrelatively unchanged until over 50,000 feet (Johnson, 1988).What is really happening is that the atmospheric pressure is decreasing andsubsequently the amount of oxygen available in a single breath of air issignificantly less. At sea level the barometric pressure averages 760 mmHgwhile at 12,000 feet it is only 483 mmHg. This decrease in total atmosphericpressure means that there are 40% fewer oxygen molecules per breath at thisaltitude compared to sea level (Princeton, 1995).HUMAN RESPIRATORY SYSTEMThe human respiratory system is responsible for bringing oxygen into thebody and transferring it to the cells where it can be utilized for cellularactivities. It also removes carbon dioxide from the body. The respiratorysystem draws air initially either through the mouth or nasal passages. Bothof these passages join behind the hard palate to form the pharynx. At thebase of the pharynx are two openings. One, the esophagus, leads to thedigestive system while the other, the glottis, leads to the lungs. Theepiglottis covers the glottis when swallowing so that food does not enter thelungs. When the epiglottis is not covering the opening to the lungs air maypass freely into and out of the trachea.The trachea sometimes called the 'windpipe' branches into two bronchi whichin turn lead to a lung. Once in the lung the bronchi branch many times intosmaller...

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