Sunday, May 13, 2012

How can we prevent altitude sickness? -Tim in Dubuque, IA

Question:  My wife and I traveled to the Rocky Mountains, and she experienced extreme altitude sickness and didn't feel well at all.  We spent the day in Denver first, and she drinks gallons of water.  We bought this product, ChlorOxygen, from a health food store.  Will that help?  Anything else we can do? 

Thanks Tim, for the question!  What you described sounds like Acute Mountain Sickness, and can include nausea, headache, dizziness, fatigue, insomnia, and a general feeling of being unwell.  These symptoms are caused by a lack of oxygen in the blood from the lower atmospheric pressure.  Altitude sickness is tricky, and each person responds differently to changes in altitude.  It can happen to anyone - fit people, young, old, overweight, it doesn't matter.  However, fit people who exercise more often tend to experience less severe symptoms, and adjust faster.  There are exceptions though - altitude sickness can strike fit people too, sometimes very suddenly.

So what can you do?  Sounds like you are already taking some good steps by stopping first in Denver to acclimate, and drinking lots of water.  Here's a longer list of things you can do to prevent or reduce altitude sickness symptoms:

1.  Ascend slowly.  Spend a day in Denver, a day in Frisco or Dillon, and then go higher. 
2.  Drink plenty of fluids, avoid caffeine and alcohol which can dehydrate you or cause their own version of headaches.
3.  Take it easy the first few days.  Go shopping or visit tourist sites before skiing or climbing  a mountain.
4.  Exercise regularly to keep your red blood cell count up.  While it's not a sure thing, being a regular exerciser can increase your oxygen carrying capacity and reduce altitude sickness symptoms.
5.  Make sure you're not low in iron.  Iron is essential for hemoglobin, the protein in red blood cells that binds oxygen, to work correctly.  If your wife has low iron, this could be part of her troubles. She should get checked for chronic anemia.
5.  If you have recurrent, severe symptoms, consider asking your doctor for a prescription drug called Diamox  (Acetazolamide).  This drug causes the blood to become slightly more acidic and your respiration rate to increase, increasing oxygenation of the blood.  It can have upleasant side effects though, so use this only if you really need to.  I have friends who tried this drug and they experienced numbness of the feet, hands, and lips.  Not everyone has side effects though.
6.  Act like a tourist and try one of the oxygen bars.  Estes Park, Breckenridge, Vail, Aspen, and other touristy towns often have several oxygen bars where you can hang out and oxygenate your blood with fellow altitude sickness sufferers.  This is not a long-term solution though!

I checked out your herbal supplment, ChorOxygen. The active ingredient is chlorophyll, the pigment which gives plants their green color and enables them to produce oxygen from carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, you are not a plant.  Chlorophyll is not going to work the same in a human as it does in the leaves and needles of plants.  We don't have the right biochemistry or physiology to make chorophyll work for us.  If we did, we could just eat lettuce and dandelion leaves (yes, just eat the plants - those contain lots of chorophyll) and go sit outside in the sun and stop breathing.  Sorry, I doubt that herbal supplement does anything better than a big green salad.

Hope this helps.  Happy travels.


1 comment:

  1. I personally have found Chloroxygen to be quite helpful for people trying to acclimate.