A head in the clouds, suffers from one “small” problem…. the oxygen level in the air can be precipitously low. At altitudes of 4000 m, a breath of air contains about 40 % less oxygen than it would at sea level.
Since oxygen is essential for “burning” fuel – getting enough energy high up in the stratosphere, can be problematic.
Living high living low
Curious as to how animals cope, in such extreme environments, a team of researchers ascended the mountains of Peru – in search of high living mice.
They located two species of mice who are “mountain mice” – these animals and their ancestors, have lived in the mountains forever, so they are uniquely adapted to high altitude living.
The team then descended to ground zero – to locate two species of mice, that are adapted to live LOW i.e. at sea level.
All of the mice drained their fuel tanks in the lab, as they were put through their paces.
Filling up the fuel tank
There are two fuel sources that animals can use to RUN on – carbohydrates or fats.
- Carbohydrates are considered the low octane version of fuel – containing around 4 calories/gram.
- Fats are considered the high octane fuel, holding around 9 calories/gram.
This difference in calories, is why health gurus encourage humans to run on carbs, rather than fats. But the high calorie value of fats, means Mother Nature tends to put more value on fat, than sugar – which is why, she stores our excess calories in the form of FAT.
For an animal – it has twin threats for survival….
- Threat number 1 – the fuel tank is empty
- Threat number 2 – the animal, ends up filling somebody else’s fuel tank
Mother Nature’s priority is to fill up the fuel tank and keep it fuelled….
The high living dilemma….
Keeping the fuel tank full is complicated in the mountains,
By definition, high altitude living needs more punch (its freezing, so more fuel is burned for heat), but this must be achieved with low oxygen.
Fat provides more punch. But burning fat requires more oxygen.
The team speculated that mice living at high altitude, might need to watch what fuel they put in their tank.
High living requires more carbs
On paper ….
A carb is able to provide around 15 % more energy, for the same amount of oxygen in comparison to fats.
So what happens in high living mice ?
They do indeed choose to run on carbs, not fat.
The team found that the high altitude mice, have special chemistry i.e. genetic adaptions, in their heart muscles, allowing them to squeeze more juice out of carbs, SAFELY.
To do this SAFELY, both species of mice had extra oxidative capacity.
Living on carbs requires special chemistry
Carbs are harder to use, they create more oxidative stress , than fats.
Few humans are real mountain men.
Unless your ancestors were from the mountains, you’re unlikely to have the genetic adaptions that allow you to run SAFELY, on lots of carbs. It makes sense for you to fuel your tank, with a little more of the high octane low oxidative stress fuel i.e. fat and cut back on those carbs.
As you contemplate new health habits for the new year – start by obeying the rule of thirds.Increase in Carbohydrate Utilization in High-Altitude Andean Mice. Current Biology (2012) 22(4): 2350-2354. Marie-Pierre Schippers, Oswaldo Ramirez, Margarita Arana, Percy Pinedo-Bernal, Grant B. McClelland.
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