Acid-base balance at high altitude in lowlanders and indigenous highlanders

J Appl Physiol (1985). 2022 Feb 1;132(2):575-580. doi: 10.1152/japplphysiol.00757.2021. Epub 2022 Jan 13.


High-altitude exposure results in a hyperventilatory-induced respiratory alkalosis followed by renal compensation (bicarbonaturia) to return arterial blood pH (pHa) toward sea-level values. However, acid-base balance has not been comprehensively examined in both lowlanders and indigenous populations-where the latter are thought to be fully adapted to high altitude. The purpose of this investigation was to compare acid-base balance between acclimatizing lowlanders and Andean and Sherpa highlanders at various altitudes (∼3,800, ∼4,300, and ∼5,000 m). We compiled data collected across five independent high-altitude expeditions and report the following novel findings: 1) at 3,800 m, Andeans (n = 7) had elevated pHa compared with Sherpas (n = 12; P < 0.01), but not to lowlanders (n = 16; 9 days acclimatized; P = 0.09); 2) at 4,300 m, lowlanders (n = 16; 21 days acclimatized) had elevated pHa compared with Andeans (n = 32) and Sherpas (n = 11; both P < 0.01), and Andeans had elevated pHa compared with Sherpas (P = 0.01); and 3) at 5,000 m, lowlanders (n = 16; 14 days acclimatized) had higher pHa compared with both Andeans (n = 66) and Sherpas (n = 18; P < 0.01, and P = 0.03, respectively), and Andean and Sherpa highlanders had similar blood pHa (P = 0.65). These novel data characterize acid-base balance acclimatization and adaptation to various altitudes in lowlanders and indigenous highlanders.NEW & NOTEWORTHY Lowlander, Andean, and Sherpa arterial blood data were combined across five independent high-altitude expeditions in the United States, Nepal, and Peru to assess acid-base status at ∼3,800, ∼4,300, and ∼5,000 m. The main finding was that Andean and Sherpa highlander populations have more acidic arterial blood, due to elevated arterial carbon dioxide and similar arterial bicarbonate compared with acclimatizing lowlanders at altitudes ≥4,300 m.

Keywords: acid-base balance; high altitude; hypoxia; indigenous highlanders; renal compensation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization
  • Acid-Base Equilibrium
  • Altitude
  • Altitude Sickness*
  • Expeditions*
  • Humans