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Hemoglobin, a “high performance” protein

In 1984, famous Italian cyclist Francesco Moser used hypoxia training (lack of oxygen) to reach a better sports performance. He was the first human being to reach a 50 km/h continuous pedaling. He achieved seven world records in four days.

Moser’s feat was not unnoticed by Dr. Érica Mabel Mancera Soto, a physiotherapist, and M.Sc. in Physiologist and Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) Sciences Ph.D.

During the last four years, Dr. Mancera of the UNal Faculty of Medicine’s Department of Human Body Movement carried out her doctoral research and came to a relevant conclusions for sports medicine, exercise physiology and inclusively for pediatric consultations.

Under the supervision of Professor Édgar Cristancho of the “Hypoxia adaptions and physical exercise” research group and cooperation from University of Bayreuth Professor Walter Schmidt, they have researched the variations and adaptations of blood hemoglobin mass, which may be a determining factor to become cognizant if a child can eventually become a high-performance athlete.

Children and adolescents with high potential hemoglobin

With a sample of 476 children and adolescents between 9 and 18 years of age, the project considered four variables: gender, city altitude, population maturity, and physical condition. Furthermore, the research project compared two groups, with and without sports training.

The study was carried out at two altitudes: at 2,500m. above sea level (8,200ft.) and below 1,000m. (3,280 ft.) with 276 individuals for the first group and 200 for the second.

After an internship in Germany, Dr. Mancera learned Dr. Schmidt’s, “Reoptimized carbon monoxide inhalation method” and began to use in Colombian children and youngsters.

The method consists of providing people a non-toxic dosage of carbon monoxide according to the age, weight, gender and physical condition. The carbon dioxide links to hemoglobin and acts like a marker to observe the changes in carboxyhemoglobin levels.

This allows measuring mass instead of concentration of hemoglobin, which is not a trustworthy variable when there is physical exercise, as it depends on plasma alterations.

Dr. Mancera explained: “It’s like a soup if it boils, it evaporates and what’s left is very concentrated and if I add water it dilutes. In the same manner, any change in body water changes the concentration of hemoglobin and could provide a false reading of the amount of hemoglobin in the body. This is why it is important to measure the mass of hemoglobin, which is more accurate.”

Colombia, a gap in sports performance

Measuring the mass can help how hemoglobin is being produced, a definitive process to achieve better sports performance. Precisely this is why some athletes turn this production into their goal, inclusively achieving levels which could be considered as doping. The process of producing blood red cells is called erythropoiesis.

While in other countries there is awareness and a predefined goal on how to guide the career of an athlete since a young age, the cases reported in Colombia are scarce and in most cases not planned. There is no control or follow-up to the health of young athletes in Colombia. The great national champions are born randomly and not as a sports medicine policy from childhood as occurs in European countries.

What happens with the behavior of hemoglobin mass when children become adults? Is it that same for girls as for boys? Previous studies were carried out in Australia, and not under Bogotá altitude conditions.

Mancera says that hemoglobin is like a small oxygen cart which carries 97% of the oxygen from the body to the muscles so they can have enough oxygen for physical exercise. “This is why hemoglobin mass is so important, the higher it is, physical performance is better, naturally. If this didn’t occur, we couldn’t move,” she added.

Government institutions that helped

With support from the City’s Sports Science Applied Unit (UCAD, for its Spanish acronym) and the COLDEPORTES Doping Control Laboratory, the researchers gathered the conditions to carry out the research project in Bogotá, with stress tests, ECG’s and blood tests.

For the lower altitude tests in the Province of Valle del Cauca, the group received support from the Unidad Central del Valle. They also received support from two other European universities, the University of Oporto (Portugal) and the University of Barcelona (Spain) which helped with internships for the researchers and training in different experimental techniques as well as with supplies to carry out the project.

“The support of researcher UNal Doctoral Sciences-Biology candidate Diana Marcela Ramos Caballero was also crucial for the project,” said Mancera.

Most of the physically trained children analyzed belong to cycling, mountain bike, skating, and athletic clubs and leagues. The untrained children analyzed came from public and private schools including the UNal Instituto Pedagógico Arturo Ramírez Montúfar (IPARM).

When children have high hemoglobin mass they can become accomplished athletes in high-resistance sports modalities.

The project showed that the hemoglobin mass significantly increases in men from the III stage of maturity of the Tanner scale, which helps to observe the physical changes in genitals, chest and pubic hair during puberty (close to 12 years of age) in both genders.

In women the hemoglobin mass is stable during puberty, a fact which is related to increased testosterone production in men.

The results of the research project have been important for the sports medicine community which achieved second place during the recent World Sports Medicine Congress held in Brazil. Dr. Mancera also received an acknowledgment from UNal obtaining second place in the 3-minute thesis contest, also held recently.

Mancera considers pediatricians could take into account the hemoglobin mass in children, to complete their diagnosis, especially in cases of hemoglobin, in cases of anemic children or for child athletes, so they can assess oxygen transportation.

Find more information on the subject in the following link (in Spanish):



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