A veteran high alpine ultra-marathoner, Dr. Pushpa Chandra is no stranger to acclimating to extreme heights—the headaches, insomnia, shortness of breath, nausea, disorientation and swelling of the extremities. While acute high altitude sickness can vary from mild to debilitating, uncomfortable to in some cases fatal, the symptoms can affect each person differently at a variety of heights. We asked Dr. Chandra her advice for rising above its effects.
By Brian Peech
When preparing for a trip into high altitude, Dr. Chandra’s diet advice is pretty simple: Eat what the locals eat.
“Coca leaves and coca tea, used by the mountain people that live in high altitudes, is better than any drug out there to help combat the symptoms of acute altitude sickness,” she says. “Garlic soup is another one. During the acclimation process, you end up with a lot of free radicals in your system, and your body is under a lot of stress,” she explains. “About six weeks before the trip, I start giving my body a lot of high-density nutrition and antioxidants.”
Dr. Chandra also suggests supplementing anything that can help circulation, like Gingko Biloba, and adaptogens like Rhodiola (some high-altitude regulars even swear by Viagra). Always talk to your family physician before taking any supplements or medication.
Another tip: Lay off the red meat. “Red meats are very acidic,” says Dr. Chandra. “When we are at these high altitudes, the body is making a lot of carbon dioxide, which is also very acidic. I switch to more alkaline-based foods, complex carbohydrates and no red meat at all.”
Humans lose about 700 ml of water a day by just breathing, talking and sweating, according to Dr. Chandra. At high altitude, with organs revving in high gear and breathing rates tripling, that fluid loss can easily jump to about three litres—without any physical activity involved. At high altitude, water is your friend.
Dr. Chandra suggests starting to increase water intake to at least three litres a day, a good six weeks before your trip to allow your kidneys and other organs to adapt to the change.
During the acclimation period, the body is constantly reacting in a fight or flight manner. Shocking it further with a sudden change in water intake can further exacerbate the problem.
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Dr. Pushpa Chandra is a 58-year-old Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and extreme ultra-marathoner who was born in Fiji to Indo-Nepalese parents. To celebrate her 50th birthday in 2008, she commemorated by running marathons and ultra-marathons on all seven continents—including the Mount Everest Marathon, the Amsterdam 100, the Antarctica 100 and the Geographic North Pole Marathon at temperature below -40 degrees…. Read more
A less talked about danger of high altitude is sun exposure.
“The closer you are to the equator and the higher up you are, the more intense the sun’s UV rays,” says Dr. Chandra. “UV rays increase by 10 percent every 3,200 feet. So, in Colorado you’re going to be adding about 25 percent.”
While a goggle tan might be the ultimate spring skiing souvenir, be cautious of sunstroke, apply sunscreen, and protect your eyes at all times.
“While acute high altitude sickness can vary from mild to debilitating, uncomfortable to in some cases fatal, the symptoms can affect each person differently at a variety of heights.”
Ask anyone who’s traveled to high altitudes and they’ll tell you about the insomnia. Oh, the wretched insomnia.
“When you’re at higher altitude, your body is always looking out for you and your brain is on high alert,” says Dr. Chandra. “Your body’s efforts to sustain the function of vital organs—basically hyperventilating—increases carbon dioxide, elevates the heart rate, and that can make it difficult to sleep.”
Dr. Chandra again stresses preparation. Make sure you are well rested going into your trip so you’re not already in sleep debt when you arrive. Accepting that you may not be able to sleep well for the first couple days, and minimizing how a poor night’s rest makes you feel is your best solution.
Mindful breathing exercises, meditation, and avoiding stimulants and alcohol are also important to feeling rested when you hit the slopes in the morning.
In an ideal world, a traveler would slowly increase altitude every couple days, gradually adjusting to the change. But most resort vacationers shoot up to altitude in one day. A bit of planning beforehand goes a long way.
If possible, don’t schedule that heli day or backcountry adventure for the day after you arrive. Slowly start increasing the intensity of your activities, and during the first 48 hours, pay attention to your breathing.
“Take what I like to call ‘HiIlary Steps’,” says Dr. Chandra. “Take a few steps, stop, catch your breath. Pace yourself. You don’t want to have shortness of breath, because that means your lungs are constricting and creating inflammation.”
If you are feeling the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, what should you do? According to Dr. Chandra, descend, descend, descend.
This could be as simple as heading down the hill for lunch. Remember, acute high altitude sickness can be fatal if fluid starts to build up in your brain and lungs. Pay attention to your symptoms, and if they aren’t dissipating within 48 hours, seek medical help.
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