Altitude Sickness Prevention: 4 Simple Steps to Master Elevation (with 1 Warning)

Near a sleepy resort town in Sun Valley, Idaho, peaks like Bald Mountain stand over 13,000 feet above sea level. The average territory for tracking big game animals like elk and deer is 9,000 feet and for someone such as myself who lives in Austin, Texas at 450 feet above sea level, that is one massive elevation change.

As I prepare for this trip, one of the things at the top of my mind is altitude sickness prevention. Of all the things I’ll need to be prepared for (between necessary skills, athletic performance, bringing gear etc), the last thing I want to happen is me becoming ill while on the mountain.

This is a common experience for many people who are traveling from one low elevation place to another that is at altitude.

If you are in need of an altitude sickness treatment or altitude sickness remedy, it’s already too late. The name of the game is to focus on altitude sickness prevention.

This article will be a full scientific analysis of all the tools you can use for altitude sickness prevention. We’ll include different herbs for altitude sickness (for the natural-oriented bunch) and some insurance pharmaceuticals that can help you climb Machu Picchu without worry.

What is Altitude Sickness?

There are multiple types of altitude sickness, but the two major health concerns called high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) and high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) are rare and above 12-14,000 feet above sea level.

Acute mountain sickness (AMS) is typically the symptoms that you would experience when changing elevation. This includes things like nausea, headache, shortness of breath and poor cognitive performance.

This all stems from higher altitudes having less oxygen available, requiring our bodies to work harder simply to function.

Preventing Altitude Sickness: Practices and Preparation

According to the scientific literature, the body adapts to a lack of oxygen within days if it is below 10,000 feet [1]. This is great to avoid altitude sickness, but it still doesn’t help me perform when I need to.

One major objective is to be able to handle lower oxygen environments through practices and habits alone. We’ll cover some nootropics below, but here are a couple examples of practices that can help:

Sprints (Tabata) – Doing some form of sprinting in certain intervals (known as high intensity interval training or HIIT) can be highly efficient for improving a physical marker called VO2 max [2]. In simple terms this is the maximum amount of oxygen a person can utilize.

There are some studies that show at altitude your VO2 max declines by up to 15% even when you acclimate to elevation changes [3]. Because of this drop in performance, getting it as high as possible at sea level can help at elevation. You might not be at your best, but it will prevent many of the lowered performance symptoms.

Ketogenic Diet – A diet high in fat and low in carbs (often called a ketogenic diet) can change the way our body and brain metabolize oxygen. According to some studies, our body gets an average of 5% more effective at utilizing oxygen using a high fat diet, which impacts athletic performance (and our ability to breathe!) [4].

A full-scale ketogenic diet is not necessary for altitude, but one that is higher in fat and lower in carbs is probably going to be the best bet going into that situation.

Nootropic Altitude Sickness Prevention

The human body (especially a finely tuned one) is highly adaptable to new landscapes and conditions. Lacking oxygen is no different. To some degree, it is a matter of our body simply having the time to acclimate to these changes.

The practices for altitude sickness prevention listed above are great, but in the moment you are struggling for air, it’s nice to have some supplement options that can ease the transition. None of these nootropics for altitude sickness are going to be the magic bullet, but they can all help the body to adapt.

Altitude Sickness Prevention With… Cannabis?

There are few plants that are the subject of as much attention as cannabis. This is partly due to the controversial nature of the psychoactive ingredient THC, but also because of the wide array of benefits from things like CBD oil (cannabidiol).

There are many benefits of this unique cannabinoid, but an interesting 2013 study in Neuropharmacology concluded that CBD could have a neuroprotective effect during periods of oxygen depletion [5]. The study focused on hypoxic-ischema (brain injury resulting from lack of oxygen) and found that CBD administered to the animals “prevented all these symptoms…CBD exerts robust neuroprotective effects”

Will CBD be powerful enough to prevent altitude sickness? Probably not. But it is a novel and relatively low-risk tool that can be added to our tool belt for protecting our brain.

Altitude Sickness Prevention Stack

A great way to utilize nootropics is by stacking them together in order. Often referred to as a “nootropic stack”, these are used for improving memory formation, learning ability, and a host of others. Companies even provide blended products like Qualia, Mind Lab Pro, or Alpha Brain.

For something that will help adaptation at high altitudes, some different formulas are necessary.

Rhodiola rosea

The first nootropic that comes to mind is called rhodiola rosea, which is an adaptogen that helps the body to… adapt! Specifically, it adapts to stress using a variety of mechanisms [6]. This herb is one of the few that is used by traditional people in China, Russia, and even Viking lore from Scandinavia in order to adapt to higher elevation and harsh conditions.

Known as an anti-fatigue agent, it is one of the top herbs for altitude sickness, which has been used for the better part of the past few thousand years.

Acetyl-L-Carnitine

A 2011 study in Nutrients looked at L-carnitine (an amino acid found in many meats) and found that it improves energy metabolism and cognitive functioning [7]. Being able to produce more energy and function effectively is of paramount importance when energy resources (oxygen) are scarce. From this study alone, there is clear evidence ALCAR can be a powerful altitude sickness treatment or prevention mechanism.

Theanine

Another amino acid found in green tea, theanine is popular among most nootropics enthusiasts as a symbiotic tool with caffeine. What makes theanine valuable beyond its cognitive effects are neurotransmitter advantages that are helpful while at altitude. There is clear evidence that serotonin levels drop the higher in elevation you go [8]. Some consider this a major reason for depression among populations at altitude.

Theanine has an effect of normalizing serotonin [9], but without overdoing it in something like St John’s wort or 5-HTP.

Coenzyme Q10

This co-enzyme is valuable for producing more cellular ATP (energy) in the mitochondria. Any time our mitochondria are healthy and producing more energy, the better off we are going to be. While this could technically be a staple in your supplement cabinet, while changing altitudes it will be even more beneficial.

Essential Oils for Altitude Sickness

Certain essential oils can help with altitude sickness including things in the pine family that reduce stress and (perhaps) work in other ways. For the most part, essential oils are not going to have the same effect as a supplement or other pharmaceutical drugs, but what you will need depends on the change in altitude and personal health.

Altitude Sickness Prevention: Going Nuclear

Hiking through Sun Valley, Idaho is as majestic as it is challenging. At that altitude my body will probably acclimate pretty quickly with a healthful diet and some of the nootropics I have mentioned above.

Changing to a much different altitude can be a different story. For people looking to go nuclear and ensure they prevent altitude issues, Diamox (acetazolamide) is a prescription drug that can help. It is not something we recommend, but Dr. Daniel Stickler at Apeiron Center for Human Potential briefly mentioned it to me on a recent walk together [9].

My philosophy is always to try and limit prescription drugs to a minimum, but if is a major objective and you have had a history of altitude sickness before, you should have the freedom to utilize whatever tools are necessary. All of these tools can be valuable to some extent, but use them with care and mindfulness.

References (Click to Expand)
  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20417340
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8897392
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12388462
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7000826
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23587650
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21036578
  7. http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/3/8/735/pdf
  8. https://ajp.psychiatryonline.org/doi/abs/10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.10020289
  9. https://www.apeironcenter.com/

Author

Mansal Denton is the founder of Nootropedia on a quest to inform users on effectively utilizing nootropics and smart drugs. His work has been featured in Forbes, Inc, Entrepreneur, and Vice.