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)
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,
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, 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,
Which that always happened to me in the past.
Dr. Greene: (01:39)
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.
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)
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.
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)
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.
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. 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)
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.
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)
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!