Adjusting to High Altitudes

You don’t have to climb Mt. McKinley to experience altitude sickness. Even a change in altitude of a few thousand feet can result in headaches, shortness of breath, vomiting, and other symptoms. Here are five tips to help you adjust to higher altitudes.

Although I live at a measly 700 feet above sea level here in Kansas City, I often travel to high altitude locations west of here to visit family or for work.  Altitude sickness doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, fitness level, or prior exposure to high altitudes.

Here are five tips to help you adjust to high altitudes:

1. Let Your Water Cup Runneth Over

As you acclimate to higher altitudes and a more arid environment, your body loses water which can quickly lead to dehydration. Therefore, drinking plenty of water is one of the most important ways to help your body adjust to higher altitudes. As a general rule, you want to drink about twice as much water at high altitudes than you do at home.

Drink Plenty of Water to adjust to high altitudes

Pro Tip:  Run a humidifier to help combat dehydration and dry skin.  Most hotels in high altitude locations have them available at no extra charge if you inquire at the desk.


2. Hold My Beer. And My Latte.

High altitudes and lower humidity require you to add more water to your body, not deplete it, so cut back on diuretics like alcoholic and caffeinated beverages.

Reduce Caffeine Intake to Adjust to Higher Altitudes



3. Differentiate Your Diet

At higher altitudes, your body needs a diet that may be quite different than what you eat at home.

Complex Carbohydrates.  Foods that are high in complex carbohydrates will help maintain your energy level and improve your body’s ability to absorb oxygen at higher elevations. Unlike simple carbohydrates like white bread, white rice, and baked goods, complex carbohydrates are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Select foods like oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes, squash, and beans.

High Potassium.  Foods that are rich in potassium will help you replenish your electrolytes by balancing salt intake, so slice a banana into your oatmeal at breakfast, select a side of broccoli instead of fries at lunch, and add avocado to your bean burrito at dinner.

Pro Tip:  A condition called hyponatremia can occur when you’ve had too much water without replenishing electrolytes or eating salts. If you’ve had plenty of water but begin experiencing nausea, muscle cramps, or disorientation, especially while exercising, have a salty snack like trail mix with nuts and dried fruits like raisins which are also high in iron.

Increase your Iron.  Iron is needed to create hemoglobin, the protein used by red blood cells to deliver oxygen to your body. When traveling to high altitudes, increase your iron intake with supplements or iron-rich foods like red meat, beans, peas, and dark, leafy greens like Swiss chard, spinach, and kale.

Eat Bananas to Adjust to High Altitudes


4. Ease on Down the Road

There’s a reason Olympic athletes train at higher altitudes, where their hearts and lungs are working much harder than closer to sea level. Give yourself time to adjust to the higher altitudes by easing into physical activity. Whether you walk, run, hike, climb, or ski, cut your physical activity to about 50-75% of what you normally do for the first few days you are at a higher altitude.

Ease into Exercise to Adjust to High Altitudes


5. Throw Some Shade

For every 1,000 feet you climb above sea level, there is an estimated 10% increase in harmful sun rays. No matter the season, no matter the cloud cover, be prepared to protect yourself with a hat, sunscreen, glasses, and chapstick.

Use Sunscreen to adjust to high altitudes

What do you think?  Do you have another tip to share about adjusting to high altitudes?  Share your thoughts in the comments section below.


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