Saturday, October 23, 2010

High-Altitude Allies: Plants that help prevent and treat high-altitude sickness

"Climb the mountains and get their good tidings." ~John Muir

When I was doing undergrad. research in medical anthropology, my travels took me to far (and high up) places. I spent time not only in the Himalayas, but in the Andes mountains as well. I loved my time in the east, but always felt at home in the Andes. To me, there is nothing else like them. I still long for them, and contemplate often my next journey back to them.

Several of the researchers, from not only the FDA, but also doctoral students from the University of Pennsylvania, crossed our path in Puno, Peru, which is 3,860 m (12,421 ft.) above see level. As we conversed with some of these researchers at a local cafe, it became apparent to me that they had not traveled up to this elevation before. This had me concerned, as some of them were describing onset symptoms of altitude sickness that were beginning to set in amongst the group members. As I inquired more about their research, and where they were headed, it was becoming apparent to me that they were heading up to the altiplano behind us. Our destination research site was at 16,330 ft. I was beginning to feel concerned for their well being.

2 days later, 2 of the FDA researchers had to be life-flighted down to Cuzco. Both of them had severe altitude sickness. Their colleagues had to postpone their time-sensitive research, and fly back to the states.

I wondered, in the back of my mind, since we were studying cultural ethno-botany in Peru, if there was anything that couldv'e assisted or prevented the altitude sickness. Felicia, one of the Uros native yerbarinas (herbalists) said to me that there was. She asked if I would like to go high into the mountains with her the next day to harvest roots that were specific for prevention and treatment of altitude sickness. She also kindly offered to share with me how to prepare them.

Yerbarina, altiplano, 16,330 ft., Peru

2 months later, after having collected all the plant samples and data that we needed to for our anthropology dept., we came back to the U.S. I missed the Andes, the culture, the people, the food, the air. I missed those mountains. I knew I would not only be called back there again (only to return a year later), but also to other high places of the world. From rock faces to mountain passes, my life has been about seeking the high places of the world, where the birds are free, and the quiet is the only "noise" you hear.

The information that I learned, not only in the Himalayas, but in the Andes as well, as to what plants can be used to assist with altitude training and sickness, I now pass on to you.

Quechua native boy, holding a newly harvested Maca root (a botanical "cousin" of the radish), altiplano, 16,330 ft., Peru

The following plants you want to have in your "arsenal" of training supplements/altitude sickness kit*:

-Maca Root
-Yerba Mate
-Suma root
-Ling Zhi mushroom
-Rhodiola root
-Astragalus root
-Adrenal Glandular (org.)
-Kidney Glandular (org.)

Some of the above herbs/roots are considered "adaptogens," or "adrenal tonics." Interestingly enough (and this is a completely separate blog, in and of itself), caffeine, and caffeinated beverages are very helpful in altitude adjustment. Hence the yerba mate included above. Coca leaf is also used in Peru, which is a caffeinated tea leaf. In fact, the coca leaf is what the maker of "Coca-Cola" derived his original recipe from, because it was so highly effective in helping him adjust to altitude during his travels throughout the Andes. I'm not suggesting you use "Coca-Cola." The sugar and carbonation are not a good combo. to assist with the nausea that comes along with altitude sickness. In fact, they will prolong the symptoms.

What I do in the clinic is custom-make "high altitude training formulas" for my traveler patients, and athletes-in-training. They are highly effective, and my patients report wonderful results using them. My suggestion is to seek an acupuncturist to assist you in your area, at least several weeks in advance to your trip, or onset of your training regime, so that you may begin the formula 2-3 weeks before increasing altitude. You'll also need to take the formula consistently while you're there, and for several days after, as you come down in altitude to allow the body to adjust.

I would not suggest going to a health food store and purchasing the above herbs on your own, and beginning to take them without supervision. There are drug-supplement-herb interactions that may occur, if you're already on medication. You will need assistance with dosage per sex, body weight, how many days your there, how hard you're training, etc. This is something that a clinician should assist you with.

When people take either herbs or supplements because they "read about it" somewhere, they usually are not taking a proper dosage and/or they are taking the wrong herbs. Then people say, "Well, they really don't work." They work. They've been tested throughout the centuries to work. They need to be worked with, however, a skilled practitioner and his/her experience.

Tibetan refugee camp, Himalayan foothills, India

In addition, the clinician will recommend a list, based on your particular constitution, of foods that will help to strengthen your immunity, and keep you healthy during your travels and/or training. In eastern medicine, there is no "one size fits all." There is no BMI index or magic "bullet" list of foods for you to eat. Whether you're a female vs. male athlete, where you're at in your life cycle, how much you exercise, and even what time (& season) you're training/traveling, is all taken into account. This is why this list is customized to you and your goals.

Please call your local acupuncturist or Naturopathic physician for further information on high-altitude training formulas. A clinician whose practice is focused in sports medicine, and working with athletes, is your best bet.

*Of course, you'll want to consult your doctor before taking any of the above supplements, in conjunction with exercise or training. For the glandulars, you should get them from a grass-fed, reputable, organic source. Quality counts.