Natural Medicines for Altitude Adaptation

by Dr. Jason Barker October 09, 2015

Natural Medicines for Altitude Adaptation

In our last few blogs we’ve talked about how to adapt to altitude for winter sports, and the best foods to eat for acclimatization. Today we’ll cover a couple of natural medicines that have proven benefits in helping the body acclimate.

But before we go there, I want to stress the importance of doing the necessary ‘base’ work, before just taking a natural medicine. Adaptation to altitude is like many other aspects of sports performance - you’ve got to have the basics covered before you can expect to use any type of natural performance booster.

Then, once your bases are covered, you can use these natural medicines as icing on the cake, so to speak.

Rhodiola Rosea

Rhodiola Rosea is an herbal medicine native to mountainous regions of Asia. Rhodiola isn’t a stimulant, but classified instead as an adaptogen. Adaptogens are defined as substances that assist the body in adapting to stress.

Rhodiola is a popular herb with many studies showing it’s benefits. It can improve the body’s ability to cope with internal and external stress factors, which include exposure to altitude. Rhodiola’s benefits that can help athletes include:

  • Enhances endurance
  • Improves Max Vo2, or the body’s ability to utilize oxygen during exercise
  • Improved muscle strength, speed and reaction times
  • Increases the blood supply to the brain, also protecting it in situations of low oxygen availability (mountaineering) and keeping the brain alert.
  • Reduces general fatigue

Side effects are extremely rare; the only side effects noted in Rhodiola studies are vivid dreams!

Cordyceps Sinesis

Cordyceps sinensis is a traditional Chinese medicinal herb used for promotion of health, longevity and athletic power. Historically it’s been used by Himalayan mountain people to enhance strength and endurance.

Studies of Cordyceps have shown:

  • Improved exercise endurance capacity
  • Increased oxygen uptake, boosting exercise performance
  • Antioxidant effect on skeletal muscle

Similar to Rhodiola, side effects from Cordyceps are minimal.

Ginkgo Biloba

Ginkgo biloba is a popular herbal medicine that has been extensively studied. Ginkgo works by improving blood flow to the brain. It’s most famous for helping with brain function, but has been studied as a treatment to prevent Acute Mountain Sickness, an extreme form of altitude illness.

Gingko can be used as soon as 24 hours prior to ascending to altitude for the prevention of altitude illness. It can be taken as a short term boost to help you perform better at altitude and not feel so draggy.

Additionally, both Rhodiola and Cordyceps have been studied together for improving performance at altitude. You could try each herb individually, but using them together may produce more noticeable results. Both Rhodiola and Cordyceps need to be taken a few weeks prior to going to altitude, but as we mentioned before Ginkgo can be used on more short notice.

Don’t forget though the basics of performance at altitude - making sure you have adequate nutrition so your blood sugar is stable, and staying well hydrated.

See you on the slopes!

Dr. Jason Barker
Dr. Jason Barker


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