Home Health Anemia: space travel deprives us of multiple red blood cells

Anemia: space travel deprives us of multiple red blood cells


Elderly people and (pregnant) women are not the only ones people at risk of anemia : the astronauts too! These are the surprising findings of a world-first study conducted by researchers at the Ottawa Hospital. This analysis of data on 14 astronauts published in the journal Nature Medicine shows that their bodies destroyed 54% of more red blood cells in space than on Earth. Anemia is defined by a level of hemoglobin in the blood below normal values, a substance present in the red blood cells which allows them to transport oxygen to all the organs. On Earth, this rate can vary according to sex and periods of life.

” The astronauts have anemia when they returned to Earth from the first space missions, but we didn’t know why,” explains Dr. Guy Trudel, a physician specializing in rehabilitation and lead author of the study. “The study shows that upon arrival in space, the body destroys more red blood cells and that this process continues throughout the duration of the astronaut’s mission. Before this study, scientists thought space anemia was a rapid adaptation to fluids moving through the astronaut’s upper body. when he arrives in space : Astronauts lose 10% of the fluid in their blood vessels this way.

“Anemia can thwart mission objectives”

The assumption was that the body quickly destroys 10% red blood cells to restore balance and that their control returns to normal after 10 days in space. But the scientific team discovered that the destruction of red blood cells was mainly linked to the presence in space itself and that it was not only caused by the movement of liquids. She demonstrated this by measuring the destruction of red blood cells in 14 astronauts during their six-month mission. On Earth, the body creates and destroys two million red blood cells every second. The researchers established that the body of the astronauts destroyed 54% more red blood cells than normal during these ten months.

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In the lab, they proceeded by measuring the tiny amount carbon monoxide present in the breath samples of astronauts. A molecule of carbon monoxide is produced each time a molecule of heme (dark red pigment in red blood cells) is destroyed. “Fortunately, having fewer red blood cells in space is not a problem because the body is weightless. adds Dr. Trudel. “After landing on Earth, anemia can thwart mission objectives because it lowers energy, stamina and strength. Its effects are not felt only after landing while the astronaut must once again deal with gravity. »

A phenomenon that persists once back on Earth

Five thirteen astronauts who participated in the study had anemia when they returned to Earth. The researchers found that space anemia is reversible, meaning that red blood cell levels gradually return to normal three to four months after returning to Earth. The same measurements were repeated one year after returning to Earth and it turns out that the destruction of red blood cells was still 30% higher than it was before leaving for space. Results that suggest that changes have occurred in space and have influenced the control of production red blood cells up to one year after a long-term assignment.

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This finding has several implications, the first being that it warrants screening blood problems or health which are disturbed by anemia among astronauts, but also among space tourists. Secondly, according to a recent study by this same scientific team, the longer the space mission, the more severe the anemia, which could affect long-duration missions. to the Moon and Mars. Third, astronauts must therefore adapt their diet to increase their production of red blood cells. Finally, it remains to be determined how long the body can sustain this higher rate of destruction and production. of red blood cells.

Above all, this discovery could also have an impact on life on Earth. Because many patients are anemic after a long illness that limited their movements, knowing that anemia undermines their ability to exercise and recover. The scientific team therefore believes that the mechanism of space anemia could offer a possible answer to this problem. This will be explored in future studies. on bed rest on earth. “If we can pinpoint what is causing this anemia, we may be able to treat or prevent it in both astronauts and patients here on Earth. concludes Professor Guy Trudel.

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