Colorado adventures offer the unique opportunity to explore high altitude terrain. The expansive beauty is compelling to all of the senses. The trails beckon us to seek further into their mystery and the changing alpine seasons activate our inspiration.
Our bodies are acclimated to the environment where we spend the majority of the time. Every 60 days our blood cells regenerate making adaptations to how much oxygen and nutrients we need to carry based on the body and environment demand. The lower oxygen level at high altitude presents a unique experience for our health. Depending on what amount of oxygen our bodies are used to in their typical environment, the thinner air in the mountains can quickly create a situation of oxygen deprivation in the body.
Factors that increase the body’s challenge to adjust to high altitude:
– Poor circulation
– Heart disease
– Lung disease
– Pregnancy and breast-feeding
– Routine smoking
– Acute illness/fever
A person’s overall health status may or may not have any impact on how well they adapt to altitude. There are so many factors involved, that just because someone can run a 10k race at a lower elevation doesn’t mean they will adapt easily to altitude. Vice versa, having a heart condition does not mean a person will struggle at altitude.
Support for optimal altitude adjustment:
– Hydrate extra well three days prior to the trip. The typical body requires half of its body weight in fluid ounces of water daily. Increase this by 50% for three days before travel. For example, a 150 lb. person will typically need 75 ounces to sustain health. To prepare for a trip to high altitude, consume about 113 ounces per day.
– Utilize electrolytes liberally – vitamin waters with extra vitamin C, calcium, magnesium, selenium and more are great to support cellular health & fluid metabolism. Be careful to avoid sugar, colors and other ingredients beside vitamins in the products on the market. An ideal form is “Catalyte” powder by Thorne. You can make at home an electrolyte drink with lemon, sea salt, honey or stevia, which can help as well.
– Use altitude adjusting herbs and nutrients. Support optimal circulation with gingko biloba, enhance vascular health with hibiscus flower and spearmint leaf, while tonifying the body with licorice root. Together, this delicious tea helps encourage hydration and supports the body’s oxygen utilization. Avoid large quantities of this tea with hypertension.
– Chlorella and spirulina are magnificent superfoods to aid the health of the blood for oxygen transport. They can be used liberally by most people to foster optimal health overall.
– Attend to your essential nutrients. Vitamin B12 and folate are common nutrient deficiencies that play a big part in the blood cells ability to transport oxygen. Either too much iron or too little interferes in the oxygen capacity of the blood.
– Any obstacle to neurological or cardiovascular processing can result in greater challenges with altitude. COQ10, ribose, L-carnitine and other amino acids can help a great deal with the underlying organ function that sets us up for health in with any challenges.
Arriving to high altitude
– Arrive early in the day. Give yourself as much waking time for the first 12 hours as possible.
– Take it very easy for the first 24 hours. Do not endeavor to push your muscles by climbing a high mountain right away. Rather, give yourself a relaxing day to allow the body’s oxygen use to be prioritized for organ function.
– Pranayama – breathing with movement in the tradition of yoga practices or other breath awareness tools can engage the diaphragm to help your body adjust.
– Observe others. An early sign of low oxygen is fatigue and confusion. If you notice someone in your group, especially a child with any odd behavior, assume it’s the altitude and make adjustments, such as retreating to a lower elevation.
– Avoid alcohol, smoking or mind-altering substances until you are confident you are acclimated.
At the first sign of high-altitude sickness symptoms
If you’re feeling light-headed, get a headache, start feeling any confusion or fatigue, check your blood oxygen level. Just like monitoring a fever with a thermometer, a pulse oximeter is an easy at home tool to check the oxygen level in the blood.
The body should always be above 90 with the finger reading of the pulse oximeter. If the body is reading below 90, first check for interfering factors; such as: If the hands are cold, if there is nail polish blocking the reading or if the sensor is not in the center of the finger-tip the reading will be inaccurate. It is natural for the body to breath less thoroughly when sleeping, so ensure your pulse ox is well above 90 before bed. The ideal pulse ox level is 98-100.
Take more electrolytes and herbs in water at the first sign of symptoms. Utilize breathing practices and relaxation to improve symptoms as well. If these interventions do not eliminate symptoms, it is important to descend to lower elevation to allow the body more time to adjust. Whatever you do, DO NOT go to sleep. Unlike most headaches, an altitude sickness headache will get worse when asleep. Due to the body’s natural diminishment in lung activity when we sleep, the body will have less oxygen distributed within if we are already having issues when we are awake. Once sleeping, it is much harder to feel the symptoms of altitude sickness, and so it will progress and likely be much worse upon waking.
Along with avoiding falling asleep, it is important to avoid NSAID drugs (Tylenol, Advil, Ibuprofen, Motrin) to reduce an altitude headache. Dulling the sensation of the pain interferes in the ability to determine if adequate changes have been made for the body’s oxygen needs. This can block the self-awareness and allow the issue to get worse before we recognize it.
Just reducing altitude by 500 feet can make a big difference and allow the body time to adjust. For however long it takes, descend to a lower altitude until the symptoms to away. Sometimes it is necessary to stay the night at an in-between altitude place so the oxygenation during sleep is less impacted. Avoid increasing altitude until symptoms pass completely.
Altitude sickness caught early can be easily remedied but requires patient adjustment to the body’s individual needs. If it is not taken seriously, hypoxia can have negative impacts all the vital organs of the body and can become a medical emergency. If going to a lower altitude does not relieve symptoms, or if a person loses consciousness, or cannot regain their mental status, or if their lips or extremities turn blue, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room right away.
Benefits of high altitude living
There may be nothing more magical than viewing the landscape from a mountain peak. The majestic nature of the alpine landscape has a pristine quality that is felt by all. Experiencing this feeling that nature provides reminds us to honor the beauty in all life.
The wisdom of the Native American traditions regarded the mountains as the great-great-grandfathers and great-great-grandmothers. They have much to teach and should be honored for their wisdom and vantage point of great perspective. Treating the alpine landscape with great respect and deep listening can be a life transforming experience. Go slow, go easy, and savor the moments in life.
Safe travels and may nature inspire you always.
====The information provided in this article is not intended and should not be construed as medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. ====