A hiking, biking or ski trip to the mountains may sound like a vacation from heaven, but a bout of altitude sickness can cause a rapid descent into the depths of Hades. The reduced atmospheric pressures at high-altitude locations creates thinner air, which in turn reduces the oxygen available for breathing. Dietary adjustment might provide a viable form of prevention, but research studies on the subject show contradictory findings.
Defining High Altitude
Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. Paul Anderson defines high altitude as 4,921 to 11,483 feet, very high altitude as 11,483 to 18,045 feet and extreme altitude as over 18,045 feet. Your probability of experiencing altitude sickness depends on the height of your ascent, your overall health and the altitude to which you are already acclimated. A person living at 5,000 feet in Denver may not require acclimatization to the 9,000-foot resorts in Summit County, but someone living at sea level in South Florida may experience altitude sickness upon her arrival at the Denver airport. Your preventive dietary plan depends on your current state of health, the height of your climb and your need for acclimation.
Types of Altitude Illness
People experiencing mild altitude sickness symptoms report insomnia, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite and fatigue. Moderate altitude sickness adds vomiting and poor coordination to the symptom list. Tightness in your chest, coughing up a frothy fluid, confused, irrational behavior and shortness of breath when at rest characterize severe altitude sickness, usually called high-altitude pulmonary edema. Descending to a lower altitude might alleviate the symptoms of mild and moderate altitude illness, but high altitude pulmonary edema requires descent and immediate transport to a local emergency clinic. While preventive dietary management make you less susceptible to mild or moderate altitude sickness, it is ineffective for sea level visitors who attempt activities at 18,000 feet during the first or second day in the high country.
Dehydration impedes your ability to acclimatize to a high-alpine environment. Long airport flights increase the possibility of dehydration. Excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption, which often accompanies a long flight, further contributes to overall dehydration and should be avoided before and on the first few days of your trip. Alcohol in your bloodstream impedes normal use of oxygen by your body's tissues. One alcoholic drink at altitude equals three at sea level, according to specialists at Florida University's Flight performance school. Mayo Clinic researchers suggest drinking at least 1 to 2 L of water each day at a high altitude environment.
Carbohydrate consumption for altitude illness prevention is a highly controversial subject. Proponents, such as specialists at the Nepal International Clinic, assert that carbohydrate consumption increases carbon dioxide production, which in turn increases your breathing rate. Charles S. Houston, David E. Harris and E.J. Zeman, authors of "Going Higher: Oxygen Man and Mountains," argue that other studies show that a high-carbohydrate diet has little or no effect on altitude sickness. They suggest eating small meals and carbohydrate snacks throughout the day, and consuming protein in the evening. While there is no conclusive proof that a diet rich in antioxidants or taking antioxidant supplements prevents altitude sickness, a diet rich in vitamin C and vitamin E may support your overall health and make you less susceptible to colds, flu and viruses. Citrus fruits contain large amounts of vitamin C, and wheat germ and almonds have high doses of vitamin E.