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Altitude Insomnia: The Trouble With Sleep

Traveling to high altitudes can be fun, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. The most common and well-known problems that people experience when traveling to higher altitudes are altitude sickness and dehydration.

But you might be surprised to learn that your sleeping patterns can also be affected when you travel to higher elevations.

What is Altitude Insomnia?

The medical term for altitude insomnia is acute mountain sickness (AMS), and it is a condition that occurs when people travel quickly from lower elevations to high altitudes. AMS is associated with rapid ascents above 8,200 feet (2,500 meters).

Usually, the symptoms of AMS are mild, but they can become more severe if the ascent rate is too fast or if a person travels too high too quickly. Because many popular destinations have high elevation ranges, it’s important to know what steps to take in order to avoid altitude sickness.

What are the Symptoms of Altitude Insomnia?

Altitude insomnia sleep disorder affects people who have recently traveled to areas with higher altitudes. It is associated with an inability to get enough restful sleep while at high altitudes and typically occurs in people who are not accustomed to sleeping at altitudes of 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) or more.

(AMS) can be a serious condition, although most people are able to adapt to the altitude after a few days.

Symptoms of altitude insomnia usually develop within three to eight hours of arriving at an elevated location. They may include:

  • Headache
  • Feeling tired and sleepy
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Insomnia or sleep disturbance
  • A general feeling of being unwell

What is the Solution for Altitude Insomnia?

This is a very common problem when you first travel to high altitudes, usually above 10,000 feet. The air becomes thinner and there is less oxygen in the atmosphere. The pressure of the oxygen drops as you go higher and higher.

This can cause a number of problems, including sleep disturbances.

The solution is very simple: Drink lots of water. Not juice or alcohol but plain old H2O. This will help you adjust much more quickly than just sleeping tablets or other medications. If you are still having trouble sleeping after drinking plenty of water then taking sleeping pills might be necessary until your body adjusts but make sure that your doctor has prescribed them before traveling.

The most important treatment is to go down. If you can’t do that, the next best thing is acetazolamide (Diamox) which is a drug for glaucoma that has the side effect of speeding acclimatization. 200 mg twice a day starting the day before ascent seems to be as effective as using it longer. Acetazolamide speeds acclimatization by making you hyperventilate, which has the effect of blowing off CO2, reducing the blood’s tendency to thicken and thus increasing oxygen delivery. It also makes you piss more, which means you are losing water and should drink more to prevent dehydration.

Several studies have shown dexamethasone (Decadron) to be useful in treating altitude insomnia. The usual dose is 4 mg at bedtime on the first night of ascent (higher doses have been used but are not necessary). If you are taking acetazolamide too, take it in the morning since it will keep you up at night.

Oxygen is also effective for treating altitude insomnia, and if you really value your sleep it may be worth carrying an oxygen bottle with a mask or cannula up the mountain with you (or hiring a porter to carry it for you).

How to Avoid Altitude Insomnia

The best way to avoid altitude insomnia is to spend as little time as possible at high altitudes. The more nights you sleep above 10,000 feet, the more likely you are to develop it. If you can’t stay below 10,000 feet, try to at least stay below 12,000 feet.

If you’re already prone to altitude insomnia and want to reduce your risk of developing acute mountain sickness (AMS), We would suggest sleeping no higher than 11,000 feet on the first night, then staying below 12,000 feet until you acclimatize.

For those who have already developed AMS and want to get over it quickly without descending too much, sleeping no higher than 11,000 feet will help. You may still wake up a few times during the night with symptoms of AMS in this case. If so, taking acetazolamide (Diamox) before going to sleep will help reduce your symptoms.

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