What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the words “Mount Everest?” The world’s tallest mountain? Blisteringly cold temperatures? Mountain climbers pushing their bodies to their physical limits? How about type 2 diabetes? While the first three answers are obvious candidates, the fourth suggestion probably comes across as a bit puzzling, to say the least. Though this 29,029 foot mountain would seem to have nothing to do with diabetes, research conducted on this natural landmark could improve diabetes treatment and prevention.
The Role of Oxygen
The substance that may connect Mt. Everest to type 2 diabetes is oxygen. In a recent study, a team of British researchers concluded that low oxygen levels may lead to insulin resistance. In turn, elevated insulin readings often signal the onset of diabetes. Data for the report was collected from a total of twenty-two mountain climbers. The study was conducted in over the span of roughly six months (January to June 2007).
In addition to monitoring insulin levels, the study also recorded the climbers’ body weights at the expedition’s base camp (at an altitude of 17,388 feet, getting to the base camp was a challenge in-in of itself). The subjects’ inflammation levels were likewise documented. Fourteen of the climbers then resumed the trek up the mountain, of which eight reached Everest’s summit. Follow up measurements were recorded at the expedition’s six and eight week mark.
When reviewing this information, the researchers found that the climbers exhibited several signs of insulin resistance. The research team attributed these findings to the presence of oxidative stress and inflammatory markers in the bloodstream (oxidative stress occurs due to an imbalance between pro-oxidants and antioxidants). These changes occurred during a six to eight week period, in which the climbers developed hypoxia in response to the high-altitude environment.
The climbers’ hypoxia-related problems closely mimicked those found in obese people in intensive care units. According to the researchers, obesity prevents blood vessels from supplying fat tissues with oxygen, causing them to develop chronic hypoxia. The study was published in its entirety in the April 14th issue of PLOS ONE, an online scientific journal.
How Patients Might Benefit
The researchers hope that their study leads to the development of new diabetes treatments. Theoretically, such medicines could prevent this disease by alleviating oxidative stress and inflammation. University of Southampton professor Mike Grocott, the study’s lead researcher, stated in a press release that “the results suggest possible [treatments] to reduce progression towards full-blown diabetes, including measures to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation within the body.”
In addition, the release also noted that the study could serve as a blueprint for future research. The report’s co-author, University College London senior lecturer Daniel Martin, wrote that the study’s “exciting results give us a unique insight into the possible mechanism of insulin resistance in diabetes, and provide some clues as to where we should be thinking about focusing further research on novel treatments for this disease”