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How Do 'Himalayan Sherpas' Overcome Hypoxia In The Famous Mount Everest? A New Study Reveals

First Posted: May 24, 2017 05:30 AM EDT

Himalayan Sherpas, who are considered superhuman mountain climbers and guides, could indeed survive the oxygen deficiency also referred to as hypoxia in the famous Mount Everest. So, how do they do that?

A new study suggests that Sherpas are more equipped and efficient at using oxygen to power their bodies. With this, they could overcome the hypoxia, in which the body or part of the body is deprived of enough oxygen supply at the tissue level.

The study was published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. The study was led by Andrew Murray, a physiologist, from the University of Cambridge in the U.K., and other colleagues.

Murray explained that this ethnic group has spent thousands of years living at high altitudes. This is expected as they have adapted to become more efficient at using oxygen and generating energy. He further said that when individuals from lower-lying regions spend time at high altitude, their bodies adapt to some extent to become more "Sherpa-like." On the other hand, they are no match for their efficiency.

In the study, the researchers examined the physiology of two groups. The first group composed of 10 mostly European researchers and the other group composed of 15 Sherpas native to the region. The scientists took the blood and muscle biopsies of the participants. This is to determine the baseline measurement of their metabolism in low-lying areas. Once the groups reached the Everest Base camp, new readings were taken and final measurements were also taken after two months of acclimatizing there.

The results showed based on the readings that the Sherpas' mitochondria were more efficient at generating the chemical adenosine triphosphate (ATP) that enables energy transfer within cells. They also had lower levels of fat oxidation. This means that they were better at producing energy from sugars instead from fat that is less efficient.

The researchers found that Sherpas' altitude advantages are due to a gene variation in the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor A (PPARA) gene. This type of gene favors glucose over fat in producing energy. This study could help the researchers in developing new processes in treating hypoxia, according to Science Alert.

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