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My last trip was just a hiking trip, so I stayed at a hotel. For $35, the hotel offered 20 min at their "oxygen bar". I was tempted, but did not succumb. I didn't have a headache, or feel nauseated, just low in energy. Thus I don't know exactly what was on offer -- I am guessing it was a mixture with the partial pressure of oxygen similar to that at sea level.

Question: For a healthy person, roughly how long a benefit would a 20 minute "return to sea level" confer?

(i.e., minutes, hours, a day, a speedup to acclimatization?) The hotel also had ($19) what looked like 1 or 1.5 liter can of pressurized O2. (portable, essentially weightless.) The can said it delivered "up to 150" squirts or hits or inhalations -- I don't remember the word -- of pure O2 . Would this do anything more for a healthy person than a fleeting boost?

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    What altitude was the hotel at? Is this a hotel at a ski resort or something? Typically those places are at lower elevation than the ski slopes, but even the ski slopes are not all that high (often about 9000 ft, or 2700 m), so that AMS is rare, and likely to be extremely mild if it does occur. If someone did get mild AMS, simply coming down from the slopes to the hotel would normally be sufficient to clear it up. This just sounds like a clever and cynical way to separate tourists from their money. – Ben Crowell Oct 17 '15 at 16:17
  • @BenCrowell A lot of tourists would benefit greatly from an Oxygen bar. The majority of the worlds population lives below 1000ft in elevation, yourself included. If anyone were to feel the effects of elevation, the first thing any medic would do is put you on oxygen. For a healthy person, as with anyone else, more oxygen means better performance. – ShemSeger Oct 17 '15 at 18:15
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    @ Ben Crowell It was at Mountain Village, an uphill extension of Telluride, at 9,500 feet. (Telluride, 8,750; Center of Mtn V abt 9,500. I felt an unusual (for me) lack of energy, but no other symptoms. Hiking trails are higher. – ab2 Oct 17 '15 at 20:28
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    At 9500', AMS is uncommon, and if it does occur it is likely to be mild. For comparison, cabin pressure in a passenger jet is equivalent to 8000'. – Ben Crowell Oct 18 '15 at 0:55
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    A helium bar would give more value for money. It also wouldn't help, but at least you'd get some good laughs. – Some wandering yeti Apr 12 '16 at 16:58
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Save your money.

Although oxygen can be used to provide temporary relief from the symptoms of AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness), it will not affect the process of acclimatization.

As you body adapts to the higher elevation gradual changes in your respiratory and cardiovascular systems, as well as you blood chemistry, occur. These can not be sped up.

Hypoxia (the lack of oxygen available to your body tissue) stimulates the following (and more):

  • the release of erythropoietin -- a hormone that stimulates red blood cell production. Although this hormone is released within hours, it can take several days for the new red blood cells to appear in your body
  • an increase in mitochondria, which are what facilitate the oxygen-fueled reactions in your cells
  • increase in myoglobin which which is the oxygen-binding equivalent of hemoglobin, but is found in your muscle tissue

All of these take time. And while sipping on O2 for a 20 minutes at your resort hotel may make you feel better, the effect is only temporary.

(And it seems some argument could be made that by super-oxygenating your body, you temporary remove the hypoxic stimulation that causes those changes... But I have no proof of that.)

The age old (and correct) advice is to "climb high, sleep low" which allows your body to gradually adjust as you ascend up a mountain. If you are on a weekend vacation to a ski hill, choose a condo down at the base, or in town, rather than slope-side.

In addition, avoiding excess alcohol, and getting plenty of rest are the best ways to smooth your acclimatization.

And, while the science behind the effects of excessive hydration on AMS risk is still inconclusive[3], the typically dryer climate of higher elevations, and the importance of proper hydration to preventing AMS-like symptoms (headache) warrants maintaining healthy intake.


Sources:

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2923424/
  2. https://www.princeton.edu/~oa/safety/altitude.html
  3. http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0073185
  4. Many years as a mountain guide, EMT, and Professional Ski Patroller
  • The part about caffeine is scientifically incorrect folk wisdom: outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/5820/… . – Ben Crowell Jun 29 '16 at 14:08
  • Your basic point makes sense, but I don't think the list of physiological adaptations is exactly the right one to consider for people on a ski weekend at a relatively low elevation such as 9500 ft (3000 m). There is a nice table describing the adaptations in House and Johnston, Training for the new alpinism, p. 326. Items #1 and #3 on your list make sense on this time scale, but #2 (mitochondria) doesn't start to happen for weeks. More relevant would be lowered plasma volume and increased blood pH. – Ben Crowell Jun 29 '16 at 14:15
  • Evidence also doesn't support the part about hydration. "While symptoms of dehydration are similar to AMS, no compelling evidence suggests that dehydration contributes to AMS." Hackett, "Caffeine at high altitude: java at base camp," High Altitude Medicine and Biology 11 (2010) 1. – Ben Crowell Jun 29 '16 at 14:18
  • The OP didn't specify a "weekend" or other time-frame, so point #2 is relevant. Regarding hydration, the science is inconclusive at best, but I added some additional info. Removed caffeine. Thanks! – Lost Jun 30 '16 at 3:21
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Oxygen bars aid in recovery, they don't speed up acclimatization, but they do help you recover after a long day of exercise at high elevation and give you more energy. Just as a fire can’t burn without oxygen our cells can’t produce heat and energy without oxygen.

When acclimatizing, climbers spend the day climbing high, but then sleep at lower elevations to regain their strength.

On Everest for example, this is a typical schedule for acclimatizing:

 Trek to Base Camp (BC) from Katmandu - 10 days
 Arrival BC April 1

 Climbing Camp 1 (C1) April 7
 Back to BC April 8
 Climbing C2 April 11
 Back to BC April 13
 Climbing C2 April 17
 Climbing C3 April 19
 Back to BC April 20

 Trekking down to Katmandu April 21
 Back to BC April 26

 1st summit attempt May 1-7
 Trekking down May 7-12
 Back in BC May 13
 Last summit attempts May 16-30  

You'll notice that they don't just progress slowly from camp to camp up to the top, and they don't spend a lot of time up high, they take their time over a period of almost 2 months climbing higher and higher, but always retreating to lower elevations to recover. Before they make their summit attempt they actually leave the mountain and spend about a week at really low elevation regaining strength.

Your level of health does not decrease your body's dependancy on oxygen, oxygen always has something to offer your body, it's necessary for every body function and is literally the most important substance your body consumes. If you think hydration is important, Oxygen is infinitely more valuable, just as your body will operate better while super hydrated, you'll perform infinitely better if your cells have more oxygen.

The bottles will benefit an healthy person just as much as they will an unhealthy person, they give you more energy. Call it a fleeting boost if you will, but it's better than any boost energy drinks or electrolyte gels can offer. All the snacks and drinks you bring for energy on a hike aren't any good for you anyways unless you have a healthy amount of oxygen in your blood to extract the energy from them, this is exactly why people at high elevation experience a lack of appetite. More Oxygen = Better, always.

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    Never underestimate the Placebo effect. For $35 I would spend 20 minutes tell myself I was feeling better, then the next few hours convincing myself I was till feeling better...... – user5330 Oct 17 '15 at 7:08
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    @mattnz Except Oxygen is not a placebo, it's the whole reason we breathe... – ShemSeger Oct 17 '15 at 15:31
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    This answer quotes some facts, but the facts don't connect in a very convincing way to answering the question. – Ben Crowell Oct 17 '15 at 16:10
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    I went to one of those oxygen bars at a ski resort because we were bored and had money to waste. It was a complete waste of money. – whatsisname Oct 19 '15 at 4:37
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    @whatsisname - I get super relaxed when breathing oxygen, I think it feels great. The advantage to oxygen is you can breath at an oxygen bar for 20 minutes, and for some people iit can have the same effect on you as resting in a comfy chair for hours. – ShemSeger Oct 19 '15 at 4:59

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