Adaptation of iron requirement to hypoxic conditions at high altitude

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2015 Dec 15;119(12):1432-40. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00248.2015. Epub 2015 Jul 16.


Adequate acclimatization time to enable adjustment to hypoxic conditions is one of the most important aspects for mountaineers ascending to high altitude. Accordingly, most reviews emphasize mechanisms that cope with reduced oxygen supply. However, during sojourns to high altitude adjustment to elevated iron demand is equally critical. Thus in this review we focus on the interaction between oxygen and iron homeostasis. We review the role of iron 1) in the oxygen sensing process and erythropoietin (Epo) synthesis, 2) in gene expression control mediated by the hypoxia-inducible factor-2 (HIF-2), and 3) as an oxygen carrier in hemoglobin, myoglobin, and cytochromes. The blood hormone Epo that is abundantly expressed by the kidney under hypoxic conditions stimulates erythropoiesis in the bone marrow, a process requiring high iron levels. To ensure that sufficient iron is provided, Epo-controlled erythroferrone that is expressed in erythroid precursor cells acts in the liver to reduce expression of the iron hormone hepcidin. Consequently, suppression of hepcidin allows for elevated iron release from storage organs and enhanced absorption of dietary iron by enterocytes. As recently observed in sojourners at high altitude, however, iron uptake may be hampered by reduced appetite and gastrointestinal bleeding. Reduced iron availability, as observed in a hypoxic mountaineer, enhances hypoxia-induced pulmonary hypertension and may contribute to other hypoxia-related diseases. Overall, adequate systemic iron availability is an important prerequisite to adjust to high-altitude hypoxia and may have additional implications for disease-related hypoxic conditions.

Keywords: HAPE; PHD2; erythroferron; erythropoietin; ferroportin; hepcidin; hypoxia-inducible factor; iron homeostasis; iron sensor; low oxygen; mountaineer; oxygen sensor; prolyl hydroxylase; pulmonary hypertension; transferrin.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Altitude*
  • Animals
  • Humans
  • Hypoxia / metabolism*
  • Hypoxia / physiopathology*
  • Iron / metabolism*


  • Iron