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Hematocrit: Altitude for the Win!

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Anyone who follows or participates in highly-active sports may have heard about “blood doping” in relation to top athletes’ sometimes-illicit attempts to gain an edge. Though many methods have been used, the end goal is the same: to reduce fatigue and increase efficiency by raising the oxygen-carrying capacity of human blood. This is where we encounter the term “hematocrit,” which is the test used to measure the proportion of red blood cells in the blood.

Hematocrit is important because the erythrocytes, known as red blood cells, are responsible for delivering oxygen through-out the body and removing carbon dioxide. Red blood cells also take up metabolites such as lactate, a compound that contributes to muscle soreness released from skeletal muscle during high-intensity exercise. The short version: moderately increased hematocrit can trans-late into increased exercise and aerobic performance. This is why athletes tend to care so much about these levels, even resorting to illegal methods to increase them.

Decreased hematocrit, caused by problems such as anemia, bleeding, various diseases, infection, or even over-hydration, can mean more fatigue throughout the day, making work a drag or even leading to lowered situational awareness — potentially disastrous depending on your professional responsibilities!

Higher hematocrit can mean more energy, better suitability for blood donation, and better physical training performance. It should be noted, however, that extraordinarily high hematocrit can lead to an increased load on individuals’ hearts. It’s harder for the heart to push particularly viscous or “sludgy” blood. Increased hematocrit can be caused by a variety of factors, including dehydration, disease and spending time in a low-oxygen state such as high-altitude environments. This is the reason that many world-class athletes try to live or train at high altitude.

If you’re looking to boost your performance a little bit by increasing your blood’s capacity to carry oxygen, or if you’d like to but are currently unable to donate blood due to low red blood cell count, there are a couple of ways to try increasing your hematocrit.

You can eat food rich in iron -some examples include red meat, eggs, dark leafy greens, and dried beans. An iron-rich menu won’t cut it on its own, though — your body needs a healthy dose of vitamin C in order to absorb all that iron including foods like citrus fruit, strawberries, broccoli and Brussels sprouts. Remember, all things in moderation! If you’re in doubt, see a dietician.

Or, you can live or train at altitude! While not an option for everyone, exposure to lower partial oxygen pressure will force the body to compensate for a hostile environment by increasing the blood’s oxygen-carrying capacity. Note that this “bonus” doesn’t last forever: upon return to lower altitude, your hematocrit will eventually return to normal.

Aerospace and Operational Physiology is human performance enhancement consultant providing a multitude of services. Call us today 719-556-4185 to see how we can help your organization!

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