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Preventing Altitude Sickness

andes mountain range
Andes Mountain Range in Ecuador

Hiking at mile high altitudes?

The air is thinner at higher altitudes because the atmospheric pressure is lower. Your body will initially have difficulty getting the amount of oxygen it needs and your performance will suffer. This lack of oxygen can cause unacclimated hikers to lose up to 50% of their normal physical efficiency at altitudes over 6,000 feet.

Hiking at 8,000 feet or higher may cause altitude sickness. Symptoms of altitude sickness include a throbbing headache, fatigue, nausea, loss of appetite, weakness, dizziness, and an inability to sleep.

Without a doubt, it is difficult to appreciate the incredible high altitude scenery when you are feeling miserable.

How to acclimate to higher altitude:

1. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water (3+ quarts per day), even if you do not feel thirsty. The reason for this is because water evaporates faster when the air pressure is lower, leading to dehydration.

2. Eat foods high in carbohydrates, even if you are not hungry. This is important because when there is less oxygen, our bodies use up glycolysis (carbohydrate storage) for energy at a faster rate. When you deplete those stores, you will have less energy and move slowly. Scrap the protein because a high-carb diet also requires less oxygen for metabolism and digestion. Whole grain pasta, brown rice, cereal, and bread are all excellent sources of high carbohydrate food.

3. Above 8,000 feet, ascend no faster than your ability to acclimate. This should be about 1,000 feet per 24 hours.

4. Practice the “Climb high, sleep low” philosophy. Sleep no more than 1,000 feet higher than your elevation from the night before. For instance, if you are trekking 10,000 feet during the day, sleep at 9,000 feet or lower altitudes at night.

5. Make sure you are getting enough iron, especially for female herbivores. The body compensates for less oxygen by making more red blood cells to carry oxygen more efficiently. Low iron levels reduce the number of red blood cells, making oxygen less available in your blood and possibly worsening the symptoms of altitude sickness. Iron rich plant-based foods include soy, lentils, spinach, quinoa, and beans. *Note:  If you eat a varied diet with plenty of dark greens, low iron (unless you are anemic) should never be a concern. Source:

6. Get adequate sleep. Your body makes more red-blood cells to carry oxygen into the body that it is not able to get extract from the lungs, and most of this cell-building happens when you are sleeping.

7. Breathe deeply. Practice your pranayama if you are a yogi. You want to deepen your inhale and prolong your exhale as much as possible. The method of deep breathing involves taking slow and long, deep diaphragmatic breaths through the nostrils until your stomach or diaphragm expands. Lengthen the inhalation and exhalation as much as possible without creating tension. Inhale and exhale through the nose. Instructions for various types of Pranayama breathing.

8. Consider taking the prescription medication acetazolamide (Diamox). This helps prevent mild altitude illness. This drug working by making your blood more acidic (as altitude causes blood alkalinity to rise). The acidity stimulates hyperventilation, which balances blood pH by allowing your body to take in more oxygen. Ask your doctor for the prescription.

Don’t want to rely on synthetic drugs for high altitude hiking?

Is there a natural alternative? Yes, there is!  One natural alternative is to drink tea made from the leaves of the Coca plant, but it is illegal here in the U.S. and many other countries.  The alternative is the supplement Ginkgo Biloba. The herb is from the leaves of the Ginkgo tree and has been used for thousands of years to treat a range of illnesses. Other practices include drinking garlic-rich soup.

Ginkgo to prevent altitude sickness

Start taking Ginkgo Biloba 4 – 5 days before hiking, and for the duration of your hike (at altitude). The recommended dose is 80 mg twice a day–morning and evening. Gingko extract will work even faster than the capsules.

Ginkgo works because it thins the blood, improving blood circulation and its ability to allow the brain to tolerate low oxygen levels. As with any supplement, talk with your physician before taking it.

What to do if you get altitude sickness

Do not go any higher until the symptoms go away. If your symptoms remain after 1 – 2 days (or worsen), get down to a lower altitude immediately. If you do not acclimate properly, you may develop a severe form of altitude-induced condition such as HACE (High Altitude Cerebral Edema) (swelling of the brain) and HAPE (High Altitude Pulmonary Edema) (fluid in the lungs), both of which can be fatal within 24 hours.

Symptoms of life threatening altitude conditions include a dry cough, unsteady gait, blueness of the fingers, shortness of breath, fever, nausea, and a headache that will not go away.

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3 thoughts on “Preventing Altitude Sickness”

  • Update on Ginkgo: Outdoor Herbivore took a backpacking trip to the San Juan Wilderness in Colorado in the fall. We started taking Ginkgo as mentioned 4 days before our hike to help acclimate to the elevation. We had no issues with the altitude, but did spend a few days in areas between 5 – 8K ft before hitting the 10K+ elevations. So, it is hard to say if we can give Ginkgo full credit. It seems promising though and we’ll definitely experiment more with it. Anyone else try Ginkgo? What was your experience with it?

  • Have been taking Gingko now for three months leading up to our Everest Base Camp Trek in October this year. Also have taken for forever B12, VitaminE and upped our dose of Q10 too 300mg per day. Can never be over prepared for what lies ahead. My husband and I are 63 and sooo looking forward to our return after 18years 📿

  • Just got back from backpacking the Colorado trail and some of our party felt the altitude. We are all over 65 years of age. I wondered what natural plants grow there to combat altitude sickness.

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