Without a doubt, one of the most significant barriers to successful treks and climbs at altitude is remaining healthy throughout the trip. Aside from weather, the primary determining factor of success in the mountains comes down to the physical health of the individual. And the greatest factor with which we can control our health is what we put into our bodies.
What I aim to achieve with this post, is to not provide a ‘one size fits all’ solution for achieving and maintaining perfect health at altitude, but to share some things that I have learned, both from my own research, and also the trial and error of experienced and successful high altitude climbers.
So what are the foods that can help with altitude?
A few years back, before attempting Ama Dablam, I compiled a list of my top foods to help me acclimatise and stay healthy at altitude. Some are whole foods, others are supplements, herb blends or vitamins, but all have either scientific evidence or long standing colloquial reputations that make them the Top 10 Foods for acclimatisation and staying healthy at altitude.
Where better to begin than actual whole foods? The body recognises it instantly, and thrives off it. Here are my top whole foods for avoiding altitude sickness.
Garlic is widely used for its medicinal properties and readily available in many mountainous environments such as Nepal. I’m so confident in it’s effectiveness that I actually eat a clove of raw garlic each day when I travel and when I’m feeling run down. There are countless times, both in travel and in daily life, where I have successfully fought off the initial symptoms of cold before they have had a chance to set in. Call it a wives tale, call it snake oil if you want, but it’s food and I know it works for me. I thoroughly recommend it. It’s not so tasty to eat raw, but this is essential – so I chop it up into little pieces and wash it down with something nice. I find orange juice complements it well.
Again, you’ll have to bear with me on this one, because many people won’t be willing to deal with the unpleasant taste of eating raw onion – however, it pays dividends. Would you rather deal with a few moments of displeasing taste in your mouth, or sit around, sick in bed, whilst everyone else is reaching Everest Base Camp, or even better, standing on the summit? As well as having antibiotic, anti-inflammatory, and antiseptic properties, onions contain a high content of quercetin, which is a strong immune booster. A very important point is that it is also eaten raw and fresh. Never eat a half onion from yesterday, as it has a penchant for absorbing germs, even when left contained and refrigerated. Peal it, then eat it like an apple – and perhaps share it with your tent mate so you’re both equally to blame.
In 2015, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology released the results of a study that suggested that drinking “nitrate rich beet juice helps improve blood vessel function at altitude by giving the body alternative building blocks to make nitrous oxide.” Successful acclimatisation requires the blood vessels to deliver sufficient oxygen through the body as you ascend, and this study suggests that beetroot aids that process with measurable results. Upon discovering this, I had beetroot juice a few times a week for about 8 weeks leading up to a climb of Ama Dablam, the result being that I acclimatised very well, with only the smallest symptoms of altitude sickness. It could be a placebo, but I don’t see a downside to an active person eating this beautiful, raw, wholefood!
Vitamins are polarising – some climbers pass them off as pointless and expensive. Others swear by them as a way of boosting immunity in challenging environments to maintain health. I’m one of the latter, here are my top 2.
This is a crucial vitamin for me at altitude, primarily due to its proficiency in warding off colds and flu, which can easily put an end to a trek or climb. Moreover, vitamin C is not stored in the body, it’s necessary to consume it on a daily basis for maintaining a healthy, functioning body – just ask the scurvy sea dogs! But since fresh fruits and vegetables are not readily available at altitude (or at sea) I always supplement vitamin C to ensure I’m giving my immune system an even playing field to fight colds and flu.
I use vitamin E in both the preparation phase and whilst at altitude. In training, it’s been shown to increase energy, improve strength and reduce the levels of oxidative stress on muscles. I also take vitamin E when I’m climbing in winter conditions, as it has been shown to reduce fatigue and also promote blood circulation. Climbing becomes extraordinarily difficult when you can’t feel your hands and feet. For confirmation on that, you can consult the many mountaineers that now have neither fingers or toes – if vitamin E has even the slightest chance of saving my fingers, I’m going to take that chance.
The next three foods I consider to be supplements or herbal blends – I tend to have them in capsule form.
Horseradish (and Garlic)
The everyday benefits of this supplement are both varied and impressive, but it’s particular use in the mountains comes from its ability to assist the respiratory system. Horseradish contains antibacterial substances that have mucus clearing properties which may account for its use in easing throat and upper respiratory infections. It’s traditional use as a mucus dissolver makes it a must have for me when heading into the regions like the Khumbu, particularly well known for causing respiratory infections. See the Khumbu Cough.
Promoters of echinacea claim a myriad of possible uses from rattlesnake bites to genital herpes, but what we’re most concerned about here is general immunity – fighting off the flu and colds that often become trip enders. Rather than being a single plant, echinacea is a complex mix of herbs, which unfortunately leads it open to all kinds of alteration. There’s a number of conflicting studies and its effectiveness is contentious. Perhaps some blends are effective, and some aren’t, but in my mind, good quality mixes wont do any harm and if it has a chance of helping, it’s probably worth it.
Reishi and Cordyceps
Reishi and Cordyceps I’ll combine here together, as these are two new players in the world of athletic performance that are beginning to become commonplace in highly aerobic disciplines such as cycling and swimming. Rather than doping to improve endurance and reduce recovery times, some athletes have been experimenting with these fungal varieties with excellent results. One study even claims an almost unbelievable 80% increase in the endurance of it’s test subject (rats) without the application of any exercise at all! Personally, I’m just beginning to experiment with these supplements, but given the results from the scientific and athletic communities, I’m confident that they’ll be widely used in the future by those involved in high output activities like alpine climbing and high altitude mountaineering, including myself.
I’m saving the best until last here, because who doesn’t love learning about the benefits of coffee? For years I told my clients to abstain from drinking coffee on, or even before their treks, due to its effect as a diuretic which causes dehydration, especially at altitude. Much to the approval of many people at Base Camp, I came across a number of studies that suggested that coffee, along with adequate hydration, can actually improve ones performance at altitude. So, when firing up your Jet Boil to make your morning coffee, keep this in mind – for every cup of coffee you drink at altitude, have three cups of water. I like to have one before, during and after – a 3:1 ratio will be enough to fend off the possibility of dehydration.
Remaining healthy at altitude is a challenge in itself, and it starts at home, in your training. Building a strong immune system takes time, it takes routine, and discipline. It also requires some trial and error, and as you begin to discover what works for you, as you become a more experienced adventurer you’ll come to know what provides your body with equilibrium, a shield of immunity and a buffer for those worst case scenarios.