Have you ever taken a day trip up the mountains only to feel woozy, nauseated, and out of breath? That’s called altitude sickness my friends, and it’s a real problem for both beginner mountaineers and experienced climbers alike.
If you’re planning a camping trip or a hike up your local peak, then you’ll need to know all about Acute Mountain Sickness (aka altitude sickness), its symptoms, and how to prevent and treat it effectively so that you can enjoy the mountains without feeling hungover.
What is Altitude Sickness, How is it Caused, and What are its Symptoms?
It goes without saying that every cell in the human body requires oxygen to function properly. Under normal circumstances, a healthy individual’s blood will contain a Partial Pressure of Oxygen level of 95-100%. Partial Pressure of Oxygen, or PO2, stands for the amount of dissolved oxygen in the blood. When levels drop between 94-90%, you will start to feel the first signs of altitude sickness.
Altitude sickness is like feeling hungover. You might have a headache, feel thirsty, feel a bit nauseated, and have a lack of energy due to low PO2 levels in your blood. Low oxygen levels at high altitudes cause your body to produce more hemoglobin (the protein responsible for carrying oxygen) in order to help the body acclimatize. When this happens too quickly, like when climbing a high mountain in a short amount of time, your blood ends up getting thicker and stickier as more and more hemoglobin is produced. This thick blood makes it harder for your heart to deliver oxygen-rich blood to your cells.
As you ascend into higher altitudes, oxygen becomes less and less available as the air becomes thinner. In addition to producing more hemoglobin, the body tries to adapt to these changes by raising blood pressure, elevating heart rate, and increasing heavy breathing in order to up the oxygen levels in your blood.
However, the higher up in elevation you go, the higher the demands become on your body to get that oxygen. At sea level, the air contains 20.9% oxygen. If you’re climbing a peak like Mt. Whitney which resides at about 14,000 feet, the amount of effective oxygen in the air is only 11.9%. That’s practically HALF the amount of oxygen your body is used to getting!
Just check out this chart below to see for yourself:
When it becomes too difficult for the body to keep up with the oxygen levels your cells need, that’s when altitude sickness begins to occur.
High altitude is considered anything over 5000 feet (1500 meters) above sea level. Altitude sickness can occur anywhere from 8000 feet (2500 meters) and higher due to rapid ascent and decreased oxygen availability.
Symptoms can progressively get worse as you climb higher if you don’t descend to lower elevation or treat symptoms once they begin.
Symptoms of Altitude Sickness
Altitude sickness does not affect everyone. In fact, it only affects about 20% of people who reach elevations of 10,000-14,000 feet. Anything above that, and the percent of those affected can rise to 50% or more.
For those who ascend too fast in a short amount of time (generally 1,500 feet or more in 24 hours) and are dehydrated, out of shape, or suffer from breathing conditions like asthma, you will be more at risk of developing altitude sickness.
However, keep in mind that even the most athletic and most experienced mountaineers are susceptible to altitude sickness, it really just depends on how well your body is acclimating to the change in elevation.
So, what are the symptoms of altitude sickness?
• Breathlessness (keep in mind that breathlessness while at rest is definitely considered a sign of AMS)
• Heart palpitations
• Impaired thinking and concentration
• Loss of appetite
• Swelling of the extremities
At around 8,000 feet, symptoms of altitude sickness can start within the first 2-12 hours but can dissipate within a day or two as your body acclimatizes to the altitude.
Symptoms are generally worse at night as your body naturally uses less oxygen while asleep. In fact, it’s recommended that you sleep at lower elevations for this reason especially if you are already showing signs of altitude sickness. For example, if you climb to 10,000 feet, you should sleep at 8,500 feet in order to prevent or alleviate any symptoms.
The most prominent symptoms of mild altitude sickness include headache, breathlessness, lack of appetite, and trouble sleeping. These are the early signs that you need to up your water intake and allow yourself to take it easy. There is no reason to rush up a mountain if your body is telling you to slow down!
If you experience nausea, lethargy, vomiting, or worse, it’s really important that you descend to a lower elevation as soon as possible until symptoms improve or seek medical attention. The only way to cure altitude sickness is to get to where there is more oxygen.
The Golden Rules
1. If you feel unwell, you have altitude sickness until proven otherwise
2. Do not ascend further if you have symptoms of altitude sickness
3. If your symptoms are getting worse, descend immediately
4. If you climb high, sleep low
5. STAY HYDRATED to keep your blood from becoming too viscous
Types of Altitude Sickness
In case you didn’t think regular ol’ altitude sickness wasn’t bad enough, there are actually different types of altitude sickness.
Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)
Acute mountain sickness, or AMS, is the mildest form of altitude sickness that can often afflict hikers, high-altitude skiers, and tourists visiting popular high elevation destinations like Machu Picchu, La Paz, or Jungfrau.
The symptoms for AMS are akin to a bad hangover – headache, insomnia, dizziness, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
This is the most common form of altitude sickness, and can be easily overcome by upping your hydration levels and taking it easy.
High-Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE)
On rare occasions, AMS may develop into high-altitude cerebral edema where the brain swells with fluid, resulting in severe impairment. If the swelling goes untreated, it will cause death by brain herniation within 48 hours.
It goes without saying that HACE is considered to be an extreme form of altitude sickness due to low oxygen levels affecting the brain and the ability to think clearly. In fact, people who develop HACE may not even realize that something is “off” about their behavior which is why it’s so important to hike in groups so you can buddy up and keep an eye on one another.
It is estimated that one percent of people who ascend to 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) or more may develop HACE.
The initial symptoms of HACE commonly include confusion and an altered mental state, rapid heartbeat, and possible loss of consciousness. Those who suffer from this form of AMS will attempt to cease all physical movement and will often have trouble sitting up. Early recognition is key because as HACE progresses, the sufferer becomes unable to descend without assistance.
To give you an idea of what HACE may look like, here’s an account from the book Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster where Jon Krakauer describes the effects of HACE upon Dale Kruse, a forty-four-year-old dentist and one of the members of Scott Fischer’s team:
‘Kruse was having an incredibly difficult time simply trying to dress himself. He put his climbing harness on inside out, threaded it through the fly of his wind suit, and failed to fasten the buckle; fortunately, Fisher and Neal Beidleman noticed the screwup before Kruse started to descend. “If he’d tried to rappel down the ropes like that,” says Beidleman, “he would have immediately popped out of his harness and fallen to the bottom of the Lhotse Face.” ‘”It was like I was very drunk,” Kruse recollects. “I couldn’t walk without stumbling, and completely lost the ability to think or speak. It was a really strange feeling. I’d have some word in my mind, but I couldn’t figure out how to bring it to my lips. So Scott and Neal had to get me dressed and make sure my harness was on correctly, then Scott lowered me down the fixed ropes.” By the time Kruse arrived in Base Camp, he says, “it was still another three or four days before I could walk from my tent to the mess tent without stumbling all over the place.”’
The most common symptoms of HACE include:
• Changes in normal behavior
• Coma (in advanced cases)
• Extreme fatigue
• Visual hallucinations
• Walking with a stagger
• Worsening headache that does not respond to OTC medications
One of the best ways to prevent HACE is to keep yourself from ascending more than 3,300 feet a day too quickly at high elevations.
Those suffering from HACE should be brought to lower elevation as soon as possible for medical attention and provided supplemental oxygen.
High-Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE)
HAPE is another severe form of altitude sickness where fluid accumulates in the lungs either in the lung tissue itself or in the spaces used for gas exchange in otherwise healthy individuals at altitudes above 8,200 feet. This means that the lungs are less able to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide properly and the sufferer cannot get enough oxygen to function properly. It is the leading cause of death related to high altitude exposure.
While still a rare occurrence, it’s important to recognize symptoms of HAPE.
These symptoms include (typically a combination of at least two):
• Blue skin color (lips and fingernails)
• Chest tightness
• Coma (in advanced cases)
• Difficulty breathing at rest
• Difficulty walking or inability to keep up with others
• Fever of 101 degrees or higher
• Profuse perspiration
• Rapid heart rate
• Rapid shallow breathing
• Weakness and decreased physical performance
• Wheezing, crackling, or gurgling noises while breathing in at least one lung field (listen with your ear pressed against the sufferer’s chest)
Men and those with sleep apnea are more susceptible to developing HAPE. It is also important to note that HAPE can develop without the traditional signs of altitude sickness.
Using an oximeter to track your arterial oxygen levels is a great way to keep track of your blood oxygen percentage. Typically, an arterial saturation of 90% or more will begin to lessen severity and symptoms.
If you suspect HAPE, it’s important to descend as soon as possible and administer oxygen treatment.
How to Prevent Altitude Sickness using Natural Remedies
Now that you know about what altitude sickness is, how it’s caused, symptoms to watch out for, and the different types of AMS, it’s time to get into preventing altitude sickness altogether!
Aside from the gradual and steady ascent that’s recommended, there is always the chance that you may develop altitude sickness despite your efforts.
For example, you may not be drinking nearly enough water, you haven’t eaten enough nutrient dense, energizing, slow burning food, or maybe you haven’t slept well enough. Whatever the case may be, sometimes you’re just physically “off” for one reason or another.
The Best Remedies for Preventing and Treating Altitude Sickness
Here are my top remedies for preventing altitude sickness so that you can have the most enjoyable experience possible while at high altitude.
I totally recommend following the list below if you plan on hiking higher than 10,000 feet. They really DO help!
Things to do BEFORE traveling to higher elevations:
1. Begin drinking more water a week before exposure to high altitude. This will absolutely insure that your body becomes used to higher water intake and will allow you to top up your hydration levels before setting out.
I find that adding a squeeze of lemon helps with getting in more water. You can also use this time to try out some electrolytes to see which one you like best before your trip.
2. Build the blood! Eating more iron rich foods in the weeks leading up to your trip will ensure that your blood cells are strong and fortified with nutrients. Strong blood means better oxygen accumulation and deliverance.
Eat foods like beets, dark leafy greens, grass fed meats, liver, lentils, raisins, black beans, and dark chocolate to naturally get in more iron into your diet.
Take spiralina as a supplement to further build the blood. You can also use Blood Builder by Megafood to strengthen blood cells even further.
3. Start taking your oxygenating herbs and supplements 2-4 weeks before your trip to increase lung capacity and increase your blood cells ability to carry more oxygen. I’ll go over these herbs and supplements in more detail below.
4. Train and get in shape! You can’t climb a 14,000 foot mountain without first climbing several smaller ones first. Well, maybe you can, but it’s going to be really uncomfortable and you will most likely get altitude sickness which is what we are trying to avoid.
I recommend checking out this article to see how best to prepare for high altitude hikes (specifically Mt. Whitney).
5. Prepare! Make sure you are actually prepared for traveling to high altitudes. Check off lists for equipment, clothing, food, and other items you may need and have them ready. I’ve heard of people forgetting to pack PANTS for a 3 day hike up Mt. Whitney. Don’t be that person.
And now, on to the actual remedies! FINALLY.
The first and foremost order of business is to stay hydrated! In fact, it is recommended that you take a sip of water every 15 seconds while hiking up to higher elevations.
Dehydration is a key component of altitude sickness. At high elevation, fluid moves out of the blood and into the surrounding tissues which is why many people tend to swell up or bloat as they ascend. As the blood thickens, dehydration interferes with efficient distribution of nutrients and oxygen and impedes the elimination of wastes.
The result is the headache, fatigue, and general malaise of altitude sickness, as well as extreme thirst.
Drinking enough water before you even start your ascent will help you minimize or avoid altitude sickness altogether. Continue drinking a lot of water as you climb to top up your hydration levels.
I recommend adding electrolytes to your water to help replenish minerals, salts, and sugars that are lost while hiking. This will help keep you from losing too much water and keep your blood thin so that your blood cells can deliver that much needed oxygen to the rest of your cells.
Drinking tea at camp with a good pinch of thyme or peppermint, which are known blood thinners, will help keep blood fluid while also helping with hydration, digestive issues, and help ward off cold and flu in cold climates.
There are a lot of oxygen supplements on the market, but Cellfood stands out from the rest. It enhances the bioavailability of oxygen through its unique ability to “dissociate” water molecules within the body, resulting in the release of abundant nascent oxygen and hydrogen directly to the cells.
It also contains 78 trace minerals, 17 amino acids, 34 metabolic enzymes, and 78 electrolytes!
One study conducted at the University of Pretoria has shown that Cellfood increases blood cell oxygen uptake (VO2 Max), increases iron storage, and decreases muscular fatigue, three things that are pretty important when climbing up high mountains!
Its negative charge allows for rapid absorption of nutrients and enables the body to efficiently eliminate toxins and balance the body’s PH levels.
In essence, Cellfood helps your body do all the things it’s having troubles with at high elevations. I’ve used it for a number of years before strenuous exercise with good results and even as a mid-day pick-me-up.
You can add 8 drops to 8oz of water up to 3 times daily during your ascent to help encourage more oxygenation of the blood.
However, if you have never used Cellfood before, I recommend starting out with 2 drops and work your way up from there.
You can get Cellfood here.
Hands down if I had to choose one remedy for treating or preventing altitude sickness, it would be chlorophyll.
If you’re wondering what the heck chlorophyll is it’s the pigment found in plants and algae that give it its vibrant green color. The chlorophyll molecule has some pretty staggering structural similarities to the hemoglobin in our blood which is why it’s been touted as an oxygen enhancer.
Chlorophyll is also known to:
• Alkalize the body
• Deodorize the body
• Increase energy
• Oxygenate cells and tissues of the body
• Prevent altitude sickness
I recommend taking ChlorOxygen soft-gels 3 times daily or adding the drops to your drinking water throughout your ascent for best results.
There have been many reports of people suffering from the onset of altitude sickness who have taken ChlorOxygen and felt much improved within 30 minutes.
The Himalayas have many of the worlds highest peaks, including the infamous Mt. Everest.
Indigenous cultures of Tibet have long used a particular fungus known as cordyceps to combat the ill effects of altitude sickness – which is a strange coincidence considering where it grows!
Cordyceps is an incredibly effective vasodilator that helps directly combat the effects of rising blood pressure as you ascend to higher elevations. This can be especially helpful not only for mild altitude sickness, but also the more severe forms of AMS like HAPE and HACE since fluid is leaking from the blood vessels and into the brain and lungs due to higher blood pressure.
Not only that, cordyceps is known for its ability to increase hemoglobin production and the body’s ability to use oxygen more efficiently at the cellular level. This is why many world-class athletes use cordyceps to improve their lung capacity and aerobic performance.
This supplement works best when used over a long period of time before exposure to high altitudes. I recommend started up to 3 months before your trip for best results. Continue using cordyceps during your trip to keep your lungs and blood health in tip top shape.
I really like this cordyceps supplement since it’s easy to take while on the move.
You could also use it in powder form and make energy balls with it to have as a snack on your ascent.
I have been using cordyceps for many years because I have asthma that is induced by physical activity. Since taking it on a consistent basis, I am able to do HIIT workouts without much trouble – it really does work!
This may sound like a strange remedy for AMS, but I assure you it’s anything but!
This humble little bulb contains a whopping nine compounds that are known to thin the blood and keep it flowing smoothly. If you remember from earlier, high altitudes cause the body to react by producing more hemoglobin, which without proper hydration, can cause the blood to become thick and viscous.
This is where the first signs of altitude sickness can start to creep up on you. So, in addition to staying well hydrated, taking a garlic capsule can help keep things nice and fluid.
This is my favorite garlic capsule. Simply take 1-2 capsules daily. And don’t worry! It’s odorless.
And, garlic isn’t just great for blood flow, it’s also going to help stave off cold and flu while ascending into colder, higher altitudes.
Ginkgo Biloba (A MUST HAVE!)
One of the most reliable single remedies that people have used successfully for altitude sickness is standard extract ginkgo biloba. This herb is known to increase both peripheral and cerebral circulation throughout the body and increases oxygenation of the brain and tolerance to low-oxygen effects.
This herb is best used as a preventative and should be taken several weeks leading up to your exposure to high altitude in order to build up its medicinal properties in your system.
I recommend taking a standard extract of ginkgo biloba to ensure that you’re getting 24% flavone glycosides and 6% terpine lactones that make this herb effective for altitude sickness.
This is my favorite ginkgo biloba supplement. To use it, simply take 1-2 capsules daily (in the morning and in the afternoon) before and during exposure to high altitude.
Also note that ginkgo can keep you awake at night, so it’s important to know how it might affect you before sleeping at high elevation. If it keeps you awake, just take one capsule daily.
And, just to let you know how effective ginkgo biloba can be, here’s a study that shows a marked increase in arterial oxygen levels in comparison to those who took a placebo showing supportive evidence that ginkgo biloba prevents altitude sickness – even in those with no previous high-altitude experience.
So, if you’re having trouble deciding on remedies for altitude sickness, this is a really good one to go with!
Essential Oils for Altitude Sickness
Essential oils can also help us cope with the onslaught of altitude sickness and its many uncomfortable symptoms.
These remedies should be used in conjunction with what I have discussed above for best results.
Essential Oils for Improving Circulation and Oxygenation
Hiking to higher altitudes can cause sluggish blood flow the higher you get. Aside from drinking enough water and taking ginkgo biloba and chlorophyll on a regular basis, essential oils can be used to further enhance healthy circulation and oxygenation.
Using rubefacient essential oils (ones that encourage circulation) like black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon bark/leaf, ginger, clove, rosemary, and thyme in some carrier oil will help dilate capillaries and increase blood flow.
To make a compact roll-on that you can take with you in your pack, you’ll first need to make a blend since these EOs are HOT and you will need to dilute them.
Begin by adding the following to an empty 5ml essential oil bottle:
• 1 drop cinnamon bark or leaf essential oil
• 1 drop clove essential oil
• 2 drops thyme essential oil
• 4 drops ginger CO2
• 5 drops black pepper essential oil
• 5 drops cardamom essential oil
• 17 drops rosemary essential oil
Cap closed and roll between your palms to mix. Next, add 4 drops (a dilution of 2%) of this blend to a 10ml roll-on bottle, then fill it to the shoulder with a carrier oil like sweet almond oil, olive oil, avocado oil, etc. Do not use coconut oil because it will solidify in temperatures lower than 70 degrees.
To use, simply apply a few swipes to the bottoms of your feet and rub your soles together to work it in. I say this because you really don’t want to touch your face or other sensitive areas if this gets on your hands since it will burn.
Throw your socks back on and enjoy better circulation!
As a side note, you can up the dilution very slowly prior to your trip in order to find the potency that works best for you as some people prefer a bit more bang in their blends.
One of the best essential oils you can use for getting your blood really flowing is to use the blend called Valor.
Just check out the video below to see what it does after it’s applied. Needless to say, I’ll be sure to bring a little bottle of Valor on my next hiking trip!
Don’t want to buy it? Learn how to make your own Valor HERE.
Essential Oils for Nausea at High Altitude
Peppermint will help ease any queasiness by just sniffing it from the bottle or applying a drop to the back of the neck and on the temples. It’s obviously best if these can be made into tiny roll-ons so that they are diluted. I love these tiny roll-on bottles.
Patchouli essential oil can be sniffed from the bottle and also applied topically using a tiny roll-on to the entire stomach and abdomen area. Just use several long strokes with the roll-on and then rub it in.
Patchouli has some very powerful compounds in it that are extremely effective in preventing vomiting due to their ability to reduce the gastrointestinal muscle contractions associated with vomiting.
Essential Oils for Improving Lung Capacity
Here are a few of the best essential oils to help improve your lung capacity as you ascend into higher altitudes. They open up the bronchial tubes, cut through mucus build-up, and allow you to get in some meaningful deep breaths.
My favorites include:
Choose your favorite one and sniff from the bottle periodically to help keep your lungs open and clear.
Essential Oils for Headache (the Onset of Altitude Sickness)
One of the first signs of altitude sickness is a headache. If you start to feel one coming on, up your water intake, take some chlorophyll, and rub some diluted peppermint essential oil on the back of your neck and on your temples.
You’ll be surprised by just how well peppermint essential oil works!
General Nausea Remedies
It’s no secret that ginger has long been used as an effective remedy for nausea and digestive upset. As a bonus, it’s also soothing to the entire digestive tract, warming to the extremities, and helps fight symptoms of sore throat, stuffy nose, and cough.
Drinking peppermint tea when you feel green around the gills can help sooth an upset stomach and digestive tract and help treat general nausea. It’s the perfect alternative if you can handle ginger!
General Headache Remedies
For those of you who may not be overly enthused about taking OTC medicines when a headache strikes, white willow bark is the perfect alternative. In fact, aspirin was originally made using constituents derived from white willow bark so you can rest assured that it will work if and when altitude sickness creeps up. It’s also good for thinning the blood!
You can get white willow bark in capsule form here.
So, there you have it! How to prevent altitude sickness using natural remedies!
What have been your favorites? Please share them in the comments below!
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