18 JUN 2019: I have a confession. When I get sick, it goes full-blown man cold. The world has officially stopped turning and the earth is crumbling from beneath my feet. I wave the white flag. But you know what’s even worse? Being sick on vacation. The itinerary is set, outfits meticulously planned, heights to be climbed and new sights to be seen. Besides, I’ve paid a lot of money and my expectations have run too high to be levelled by altitude sickness.

You know those Olympic long distance runners that train at high altitudes to be naturally super charged on race day with the oxygen rich air at sea level? Well, you can imagine the opposite to be a total drain. Going from oxygen rich air to then climbing the heights of Matchu Picchu is physically demanding on its own, never mind in the oxygen thin air.

Altitude sickness is like being hit over the head by that first hangover that reminded you that you’re not in your twenties anymore.

You’ve heard the stories, you know they’re true, yet still you never think it could happen to you.

It doesn’t matter if you’re young or wise, fit or fluffy; heck even getting off scot free in the past doesn’t guarantee immunity. There’s no telling when altitude sickness will strike! Though they do say 1 in 4 people experience symptoms at 8,000 ft (Mexico City is about 7,300 ft) and 1 in 2 over 10,000 feet. And it turns out men are more likely to experience this than women (girl power!).

Typically 6-12 hours after adventuring high above sea level is when the headache, nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath and trouble sleeping kicks in.

Here’s how to keep your head on straight as you conquer the heights of the earth!

When vacation time is precious, and a grand hiking experience awaits, give yourself a couple of days in your new destination to acclimatize, and plan to ascend about 1,000 feet per day.

Fuel properly!

This means lots of water and carbs. That high up in the air, humidity levels are lower which means you lose more water than usual. You don’t realize how much you’re actually losing because your sweat is evaporating off of your skin much faster, and you’d be surprised how much moisture is lost in your breath. This means drinking an extra litre of water than you normally do at sea level (and planning out your washroom spots along the way). Also, carbs are more easily digested and metabolized in the absence of oxygen than are fats and protein. So eat more carb dominant foods. Thankfully bananas are plentiful in Peru!

Ginko Biloba

A classically popular supplement touted for its brain health benefits, Ginko Biloba, can also help to prevent altitude sickness by thinning the blood and increasing circulation and oxygen delivery.  It’s best to get ahead of things as much as possible and start taking Ginko (approx 100mg) both morning and evening for about 4 or 5 days before your trip. Be aware that Ginko is not recommended for people on blood thinning medications so as always, be sure to talk to your trusted health care provider!

If you’re up at high altitude, symptoms are really severe and you find yourself turning a lovely shade of blue due to a lack of oxygen, or coughing due to fluid in the lungs, Gingko is not your miracle worker and you need medical attention stat!

If despite your best efforts you still find yourself fighting these crazy altitude symptoms, give your body some time to adjust. If after 12 hours your symptoms don’t improve, descend 1,000 feet and reassess after another 12 hours. Some say chewing cocoa leaves with the locals helps too. Though apparently there is some byproduct of their digestion that flags for cocaine on a drug test, so be mindful of that. Health experts swear cocoa leaves are totally natural and not psychoactive, they just produce those feel good endorphins.

Getting high with the locals in Peru could go one of two ways, just make sure you enjoy the experience free from altitude hangovers. The rest is up to you.

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Sabrina Santer

Sabrina Santer uses her academic and holistic nutrition background to share insight and inform readers on travel wellness tips and healthy eating around the world. A witty sense of humour sprinkles her work as proof that healthy need not be boring. 

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