High altitude adaptation in Tibetans

High Alt Med Biol. Fall 2006;7(3):193-208. doi: 10.1089/ham.2006.7.193.


Since the beginning of the Himalayan climbing era, the anecdotal extraordinary physical performance at high altitude of Sherpas and Tibetans has intrigued scientists interested in altitude adaptation. These ethnic groups may have been living at high altitude for longer than any other population, and the hypothesis of a possible evolutionary genetic adaptation to altitude makes sense. Reviewed here is the evidence as to whether Tibetans are indeed better adapted for life and work at high altitude as compared to other populations and, if so, whether this better adaptation might be inborn. Tibetans, compared to lowlanders, maintain higher arterial oxygen saturation at rest and during exercise and show less loss of aerobic performance with increasing altitude. Tibetans have greater hypoxic and hypercapnic ventilatory responsiveness, larger lungs, better lung function, and greater lung diffusing capacity than lowlanders. Blood hemoglobin concentration is lower in Tibetans than in lowlanders or Andeans living at similar altitudes. Tibetans develop only minimal hypoxic pulmonary hypertension and have higher levels of exhaled nitric oxide than lowlanders or Andeans. Tibetans' sleep quality at altitude is better and they desaturate less at night. Several of these findings are also found in Tibetans born at low altitude when exposed for the first time to high altitude once adult. In conclusion, Tibetans indeed seem better adapted to life and work at high altitude, and this superior adaptation may very well be inborn, even though its exact genetic basis remains to be elucidated.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization / genetics*
  • Altitude Sickness / ethnology
  • Altitude Sickness / genetics*
  • Altitude*
  • Asian Continental Ancestry Group / genetics*
  • Ethnic Groups / genetics
  • Female
  • Genetic Predisposition to Disease*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Tibet / epidemiology