A hike through the mountains can instantly refresh your senses and clear your mind. There’s just something about the air in the mountains that feels so much fresher than the air found anywhere else.
However, what's the science behind this phenomenon? What makes mountain air so good for you, and is it really as clean as it feels?
City vs. Nature
It comes as no surprise that the air in large, congested cities contains allergens, pollutants, and other compounds that aren’t good for the lungs in the long term. Those exposed to high concentrations of pollutants may experience irritated airways, wheezing, or shortness of breath.
Air pollution may also trigger asthma attacks in those who are susceptible. Longer exposures to air pollution can lead to chronic illnesses such as cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema, and other lung diseases. 1
For those who spend most of their time in cities, it's important to take the proper precautions to ensure that you aren’t at risk for long-term lung disease. If you exercise outdoors, you should try to get away to nature instead of running along the main road. Try not to spend a lot of time outside during rush hour, and keep your respiratory system healthy by diffusing essential oils such as eucalyptus, peppermint, and thyme.
Life at High Altitude
When you get out to the mountains, you leave the city and all of its pollution behind. Despite the fact that this air is cleaner, it's still important to be careful since high altitude may come as a shock for those who are not used to it. It can potentially lead to altitude sickness if you aren’t careful. The air at high altitudes has less oxygen than that at sea level. Symptoms of altitude sickness are similar to the beginning symptoms of the flu, including nausea, fatigue, headache, vomiting, and dizziness.
While you shouldn’t expect to exert yourself the same way you would at sea level, spending time in the mountains at high elevations can actually do wonders for your health. A study conducted in 2016 called AltitudeOmics aimed to find out what actually happens to the body after high altitude exposure.
The study closely looked at the blood of volunteers over a period of two weeks. It found that the body actually begins adapting to elevation as soon as overnight. The study, conducted at the top of Mount Chacaltaya in Bolivia, is 5421 meters tall.
After one night at high elevation, the volunteers began to feel better. After two weeks, they could complete a 3.2-kilometer climb. The volunteers then left the mountains for one to two weeks, after which they returned. Upon returning, they found that they could still complete the 3.2-kilometer climb. This is something most of them couldn’t accomplish at the beginning of the study.
Scientists also examined the hemoglobin in the red blood cells of the volunteers. They found that it retained its oxygen for longer periods of time after high altitude exposure. Red blood cells live for approximately 120 days, and the changes to them last as long as they do. 2
Therefore, slowly exposing yourself to high altitudes can help you acclimate and reap all of the benefits. Living at higher altitudes has been linked to lower levels of obesity, lower blood pressure levels, and reduced risk of heart disease.
Benefits of Mountain Air
Simply getting out into nature and gazing at mountains can offer a sense of inner peace and relaxation. The fresh air, closeness to the earth, and wide expanse of nature can ease feelings of stress. In fact, the Japanese practice of forest bathing has found that simply spending time in a forest environment can promote general well-being and reduce the risk of stress-related illnesses.
Mountain air is filled with beneficial secondary metabolites called terpenes that are released from a wide variety of plants. Upon inhalation, lavender can help promote relaxation and proper sleep, while Scotch pine can ease feelings of stress and support the respiratory system. These are only two plants out of hundreds found on mountains. The wide variety of plants and the compounds they produce work together to support overall wellness.
Recent studies have also shown that spending time at high altitudes can decrease appetite and lower the risk of obesity. 3, 4 A study published in 2017 found that living at a higher elevation is associated with a lower risk of metabolic syndrome—a cluster of conditions including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat, and abnormal cholesterol. 5
In a study published in 2012, researchers found that living at a higher altitude can reduce the risk of developing ischaemic heart disease (IHD) and certain types of cancer. Those who lived above 1,500 meters had longer life expectancies than those who lived within 100 meters of sea level. 6
So, even if you aren’t planning on moving to the mountains long-term, you can still benefit from the fresh mountain air if you visit them from time to time.
Spend More Time Outdoors
Aside from all of the wonderful qualities of mountain air, it's beneficial to spend time outdoors regardless of whether you’re climbing a mountain or taking a stroll through a forest. Especially during the winter months, most individuals seriously lack both vitamin D and serotonin. Getting the proper amount of Vitamin D can help improve mood by boosting levels of serotonin in the brain. Even if it’s cold outside, try to take at least a 10-minute walk every day to boost your health. 7
Simply spending time outdoors can help you disconnect from technology and reconnect with nature. You’d be surprised by just how easy it is to rid yourself of the stress of the day when you take a walk through the mountains. If you can’t manage to get out to the mountains as much as you’d like to, try diffusing essential oils. By diffusing essential oils such as Scotch pine, juniper leaf, cypress leaf, Douglas fir and others, you can bring the therapeutic benefits of the mountains indoors.
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