Mountain Vacation? Do These 5 Things to Head Off Altitude Sickness

3 min read

exhausted hiker

Are you considering a trip to hike the Colorado Rockies or the Appalachian Trail for your next vacation? If you’re planning to do any high-altitude hiking or camping, altitude sickness may unexpectedly intrude on your outdoor adventure. Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), or altitude sickness, can occur at elevations higher than 5,000 feet above sea level. It is caused by ascending too quickly.

When you are exposed to high altitude rapidly, your body struggles to adapt to the lower air pressure and oxygen level. Keep in mind that if you have never been to a place of high altitude or have any underlying health conditions, it is best to ask your doctor before making the trek.

If you begin to experience dizziness, tiredness, shortness of breath, sleep interruptions and loss of appetite, these may be signs of mild altitude sickness. Give yourself a few days to adjust to the new climate. If your symptoms worsen over time and include a severe headache, vomiting, confusion, inability to walk, and/or chest congestion, you should be seen immediately at the nearest emergency room. In severe cases, AMS can lead to deadly complications.

Here are a few tips to help ease the risk of serious AMS: 

  1. Ascend gradually and decrease altitude immediately if you feel symptoms. It could take up to 1-3 days at moderate elevation levels to acclimate appropriately. If you are flying to a higher altitude, it may be worth spending some time at a lower altitude for the first few days. For example, stay in Denver 1-2 days prior to making a hike up the Rocky Mountains. If you do begin to feel AMS symptoms, descend immediately. 
  1. Drink fluids and avoid alcohol. Dehydration suppresses your body’s ability to acclimate to higher altitudes. Hydration can help prevent symptoms of AMS. Some studies show that rigorous hydration (100-135 oz. water) prior to increasing altitude is  also protective.  
  1. Consume more carbohydrates. Almost 30 years ago, a high carbohydrate diet was proposed for people who spend time at high altitudes. However, this recommendation was not heavily researched and has only been recently evaluated in modern studies. One study found that carbohydrates provide 15 percent more energy than other macronutrients for the same amount of oxygen use, making a more efficient and effective way to obtain nutrition. Mice who consumed a high carbohydrate diet in this study experienced higher oxygen capacities than their counterparts, allowing for less strain on their bodies.  
  1. Consider nutrition supplements. Nutrition supplements can be helpful for preventing further symptoms of AMS. Gingko Biloba, and herb touted for its multiple health benefits, has been shown to have a possible effect on the prevention of AMS. Rhodiola Rosea has been studied for its function of increasing oxygen saturation in the human body as a powerful herb for the prevention of AMS. 
  1. Antioxidants are key. Antioxidants like Vitamin C and Vitamin E have been effective for reducing free radical damage, but can they prevent and help alleviate symptoms of AMS? According to research, antioxidants can play a major role in the prevention of AMS. This is especially true if daily supplementation occurs 3-4 weeks prior to high altitude exposure. 

Even though you can prevent AMS, your body may not be fully prepared to handle a high altitude despite all efforts. Next time you decide to head to the mountains for your winter ski trip or hike the Appalachian Trail, take these helpful tips into consideration to enjoy and relax on your vacation.

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