Protect Yourself from Altitude

Health Alert 166

Headaches, thirst, dizziness, weakness, heart palpitations and shortness of breath are just a few of the effects of high altitude on the human body.

In recent years, mountain climbing has become popular. The experience of climbing to great heights is challenging and life altering. Yet, the effects of altitude sickness may impede the enjoyment of the climb.

Today you will learn about a naturally herb that reduces the dangerous affects of high altitude on your health.

Why Does High Altitude Cause Illness?

Oxygen deprivation causes Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). At 8,000 feet, the atmosphere contains half of the oxygen of the air at sea level. If you have lots of time and climb slowly, the decreased oxygen probably won’t affect you negatively because your body has the time to adjust. However, most climbers don’t have the benefit of unlimited time and thus their bodies become deprived of oxygen as they ascend too quickly.

Another problem associated with AMS is dehydration. At high elevations, fluid moves out of the blood and into body tissues to counteract the lower oxygen content of the air. As the blood thickens, the lack of water in the body interferes with efficient distribution of nutrients and oxygen and impedes the elimination of toxic wastes. The result is the headache, fatigue and malaise of altitude sickness, as well as extreme thirst1.

Studies show that about 25% of travelers who venture from sea level to elevations between 2000 and 3000 meters will experience some form of altitude sickness. At elevations above 3000 meters, over 50% of people will become ill2.

Ancient Remedies Test Better than Drugs

Many travelers take Diamox prior to mountaineering. You should be aware that Diamox causes some people to feel nauseated and can cause flushing, rashes, thirst, or drowsiness. Another drug, dexamethasone, has also been used to prevent AMS, but the results have been mixed, and its side effects include ulcers, cataracts, and depression. 2

A better solution is an herb, Gingko biloba. You’ve probably heard of gingko for its use in improving memory. It’s a tree used by the Chinese for thousands of years. Gingko improves blood circulation and allows the brain to tolerate low oxygen levels.4 Two major studies show that Ginkgo has powerful affects for climbers.

The Pike’s Pike study involved 40 men who previously had experienced AMS. The men were taken rapidly from 4,957 feet to 14,110 feet. Five days earlier, half of the men took a placebo and the other half took gingko. The subjects who took gingko had half the incidence of AMS symptoms. Additionally, the subjects who took ginkgo and still experienced AMS had far milder symptoms then that of the placebo group.5

Another study done in Hawaii in 2002 was the first to show that 1 day of pretreatment with 60mg of gingko significantly reduced the severity of AMS prior to a rapid ascent from sea level to 4205m. In this double blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial, 26 participants who resided at sea level took gingko (60 mg TID) or a placebo 24 hours before ascending Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Subjects were transported from sea level to the summit (4205 m) in 3 hours. Their symptoms were significantly less intense then those taking the placebo.6 It is noteworthy to point out that most climbers would never ascend as quickly as these subjects did.

Gingko Enhances Mountaineering

I recently avoided those problems by taking the herb Ginkgo on a climbing trip in the Andes Mountains. I was the only person in my party to take Ginkgo. As we reached nearly two miles above sea level, everyone else in my party got a bad bout of altitude sickness. I felt exhilarated and I owe it all to Ginkgo.

I recommend that climbers take gingko supplements before going on a climbing expedition. Taking120 mg twice daily for five days prior to ascending is a wise move. Make sure you buy a reputable brand. You can consult for recommended brands.

Al Sears, MD

1. The Green Phramacy Herbal Handbook. High Altitude.

2. Weiss EA. Medical considerations for wilderness and adventure travel. Med Clin N Amer 1999;83(4):885-902.

3. The UIAA Mountain Medicine Center. Mountain Sickness, Oedemas, & Travel to High Altitudes. 2002 by Dr Charles Clarke FRCP

4. Blumenthal, Busse, Goldberg, et al. The Complete German Commission E Monographs. The American Botanical Council, Austin, Texas, 1998.

5Ginkgo Biloba, Altitude and Acute Mountain Sickness 2003