The Effects Of Altitude On Human Physiology

4679 words - 19 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 ...view middle of the document...

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 bronchioles which eventually terminate in small sacs called alveoli.It is in the alveoli that the actual transfer of oxygen to the blood takesplace.The alveoli are shaped like inflated sacs and exchange gas through amembrane. The passage of oxygen into the blood and carbon dioxide out of theblood is dependent on three major factors: 1) the partial pressure of thegases, 2) the area of the pulmonary surface, and 3) the thickness of themembrane (Gerking, 1969). The membranes in the alveoli provide a largesurface area for the free exchange of gases. The typical thickness of thepulmonary membrane is less than the thickness of a red blood cell. Thepulmonary surface and the thickness of the alveolar membranes are notdirectly affected by a change in altitude. The partial pressure of oxygen,however, is directly related to altitude and affects gas transfer in thealveoli.GAS TRANSFERTo understand gas transfer it is important to first understand somethingabout thebehavior of gases. Each gas in our atmosphere exerts its own pressure andacts independently of the others. Hence the term partial pressure refers tothe contribution of each gas to the entire pressure of the atmosphere. Theaverage pressure of the atmosphere at sea level is approximately 760 mmHg.This means that the pressure is great enough to support a column of mercury(Hg) 760 mm high. To figure the partial pressure of oxygen you start with thepercentage of oxygen present in the atmosphere which is about 20%. Thusoxygen will constitute 20% of the total atmospheric pressure at any givenlevel. At sea level the total atmospheric pressure is 760 mmHg so the partialpressure of O2 would be approximately 152 mmHg.760 mmHg x 0.20 = 152 mmHgA similar computation can be made for CO2 if we know that the concentrationis approximately 4%. The partial pressure of CO2 would then be about 0.304mmHg at sea level.Gas transfer at the alveoli follows the rule of simple diffusion. Diffusionis...

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