Diabetes and Mount Everest

Using the high altitude of Mount Everest, scientists have expanded our understanding of how low oxygen levels in the body are linked with Type II diabetes.

The research, led by investigators from the University of Southampton in the UK, was published in the journal PLOS One.  

The study found that several markers of insulin resistance were increased after six to eight weeks exposure to low oxygen levels (hypoxia) at high altitudes. Insulin resistance occurs when cells fail to respond to insulin, which regulates sugar levels. Too much sugar leads to Type II diabetes.

During the study, 24 people traveled to Mount Everest and underwent assessments of glucose control at Everest Base Camp, which is at an altitude of 17,000 feet. Half the group remained at Base Camp while the other half climbed the mountain to a maximum of 27,000 feet. Measurements were taken in each group at week six and week eight of the trek.

Investigators discovered that the subjects’ change in glucose levels was related to increased markers of inflammation and oxidative stress.

The study was led by Mike Grocott, Professor of Anaesthesia and Critical Care at the University of Southampton.

 “These results have given us useful insight into the clinical problem of insulin resistance,” Grocott said. “Fat tissue in obese people is believed to exist in a chronic state of mild hypoxia because the small blood vessels are unable to supply sufficient oxygen to fat tissue. Our study was unique in that it enabled us to see things in healthy people at altitude that which we might normally only see in obese people at sea level. The results suggest possible interventions to reduce progression towards full-blown diabetes, including measures to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation within the body.”

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