Altitude and Anxiety: Physiological Adaptation Essay

The lung is a fundamental organ that acts as the boundary between, and filters our outside environment and performs essential respiratory processes that enable us to survive (Cogo. 2011). However, when exposed to less than desirable oxygen pressures, such as being exposed to high altitudes or hyperventilating, the lung is unable to work as effectively, and causes many health deficits. Natives Tibetans have the unique characteristic of being able to tolerate decreased oxygen pressure in high altitude, mountainous areas, which enables them to endure, or not be as drastically affected by hypobaric hypoxia (Gilbert-Kawai et al.

Whilst there is already a multitude of interest and research investigating this physiological adaptation, it is mainly targeted at altitude training for athletes to enhance their performance. This project will take a different approach. Within the realm of studying the lung physiology of native Tibetans, this project aims to highlight Tibetan monks not only for their lung physiology, but also to incorporate their meditative practices, in particular the concept of rlung, to potentially be used as a coping mechanism to aid individuals with breathing related medical diagnosis, specifically that of mental health disorders such as anxiety, as well as the potential possibility of utilising these same concepts to lung diseases (asthma, emphysema, cystic fibrosis) further down the track of this project is deemed successful.

But for the purposes of this proposal, the rationale will focus on the application of high altitude lung physiology and rlung within the context of mental health.

Mental health is an extremely topical within today’s current society, and therefore provides us with a solid foundation to develop new strategies of managing mental health disorders.

Although mental health as a whole is a pressing issue, the most prominent condition in Australia, affecting one in three women and one in five men (Beyond Blue. 2019). While anxiety itself is a natural coping mechanism that the body uses in response to potential threats or dangerous situations, it becomes a bigger issue when these dangers are removed and the anxious feelings remain unprovoked. It physically manifests itself through hyperventilation, increased heart rate, tense muscles and sweating as well as mentally, through worst case scenario thinking and down spiralling negative thought processes (University Hospital Southampton. 2014).


The notion of rlung is “one of three pathogenic processes which are central to Tibetan medical theory”, and has been observed as an effective mindfulness meditative technique (Samuel. 2019).

Hypoxia has been defined as conditions with lower than normal oxygen availability. Altitude exposure and acclimatization have been areas of research for a considerable time. The immediate (acute) effects of lowered ambient pressure of oxygen (PO2) pertaining to the human response and the adaptations to prolonged exposure (chronic) are complex. Several systems (i.e., cardiovascular, pulmonary, and endocrine) react to the hypoxia associated with altitude exposure. Adding to the complexity, these systems rarely react in isolation but rather interact to allow the work of the individual to be accomplished in this type of environment. While generalities exist relating to acute and chronic adaptations (acclimatization) to altitude exposure, current evidence indicates individual responses may facilitate or hinder the acclimatization process.

Responders and non-responders have been identified in the literature during attempts to understand the human response to a lowered partial pressure of oxygen. This review summarizes the affects of acute and chronic exposure to altitude as it relates to exercise and work output. Several sub-categories will be addressed. Included in these categories are the following: (a) acute and chronic exposure; (b) performance and length of events; (c) substrate utilization; and (d) various adaptations associated with various increasing altitudes. While much research has been conducted regarding living high/training low (LHTL) scenarios, this review will only discuss findings associated with acute and chronic exposure to altitude. Thus, the purpose of this brief review is to summarize two basic tenets of altitude and exercise: (a) acute exposure response; and (b) chronic adaptations.

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