After an exhausting day of climbing, there’s nothing I look forward to more than getting a night of restful sleep. But sometimes, I end up tossing and turning, wondering why I can’t get to sleep despite the exhaustion, or why I keep waking up repeatedly through the night
So how can we improve sleep at high altitude? Where possible, moving into an environment with a higher concentration of oxygen is the best and quickest way to improve sleep at high altitude. Alternatively, taking medications and drugs such as melatonin, valerian, acetazolamide, and benzodiazepine (temazepam) is often used to improve sleep. We can also take preventive measures to avoid disrupting our sleep such as taking the time to acclimatize, avoiding caffeine, alcohol, huge meals and ensuring we are properly hydrated.
But of course, not all these solutions may apply to every situation. Depending on the cause of the poor sleep, not every method might be suitable as well.
Why Are You Not Getting Proper Sleep At High Altitude?
Many people might think that poor sleep is probably due to the new environment, the uncomfortable sleeping bags or your aching muscles.
But the biggest culprit is actually your own body sabotaging itself. High altitudes cause our normal breathing pattern to be disrupted at night, causing us to suffocate and wake up. How does this happen? Our breathing is regulated by the amount of carbon dioxide in our body. We breathe more when the carbon dioxide level is high, and less when the level is low.
At high altitudes, the amount of oxygen level drops to about 6% to 13%, as compared to the oxygen level at sea level of about 20%. This causes something known as periodic breathing.
This is what happens. The low oxygen levels create a high level of carbon dioxide in our body which causes us to breathe faster and harder. This quickly reduces the level of carbon dioxide in our body, and in turn, our breathing slows or even stop. This then causes carbon dioxide to build up in our body again, and we start breathing hard and fast. This probably already sounds exhausting and you can imagine why your sleep is disrupted throughout the night when you are subconsciously struggling to breathe.
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How To Improve Sleep With Oxygen, Medication And Preventive Measures
Sleep With Supplemental Oxygen
Since the problem is due to a lack of oxygen, the most effective and natural way of improving sleep at high altitude is to increase the oxygen level in your body.
Where possible, try to sleep in rooms with increased oxygen levels that are similar to those at sea level. If you can’t oxygenate a room, consider sleeping with an oxygen cylinder or mask.
Unfortunately, this may not be a feasible arrangement for everyone, and it is usually quite costly.
Take Medications and Drugs
It is crucial to seek the advice of your doctor before taking any medications or drugs at high altitudes as they may affect your breathing patterns.
Below is a list of possible medications that could improve sleep at high altitudes:
- Melatonin is a hormone produced by our body to regulate our sleeping patterns. It is usually produced more at night to help with sleeping and less in the morning when it is time to wake up. It is affected by the amount of sunlight you receive each day and your own body clock.
- Melatonin supplements come in pills or liquid form.
- A study showed that people who took Melatonin felt asleep 20 minutes faster at high altitude than those who did not.
- Valerian is a herb and its roots are used to
- It acts as a sedative on the brain and nervous system.
- Studies show that taking valerian can reduce the amount of time it takes to fall asleep by about 15 to 20 minutes. Valerian also seems to improve sleep quality.
- You can find out more about Valerian here.
- Acetazolamide is a medication that improves sleep at high altitude by decreasing periodic breathing. This in turns increases oxygen levels in your body at night.
- You can read about a study on that here.
- Benzodiazepine is a medication that slows down the body’s central nervous system.
- Temazepam is a benzodiazepine used primarily as a sleeping pill.
Take Preventive Measures
Anything that affects your sleep in an everyday situation will naturally also affect your sleep at higher altitudes. Sometimes on a trip, our routines get disrupted and our diets might have changed without us realizing.
Take Time To Acclimatize
Commonly practiced by climbers scaling high mountains, taking time to acclimatize is a good way to let your body adjust to the new environment. Instead of rushing to climb on the first day, take some time to spend a few days in a nearby town or area with a slightly lower altitude. This also gives you some time to adjust to any time difference or stock up on medication if required.
Alternatively, plan for a slow ascent during your climb. This will give your body time to adjust to the gradually increasing altitude.
Avoid Eating Huge Meals Close To Bedtime
We sometimes take huge meals before a climb to prepare ourselves for the energy that’s going to be spent in the coming days. And at the end of the day, we are starving and end up stuffing ourselves.
What we may not realize is the effort that our bodies need to put into digesting the huge portion of food we have consumed. If these meals are eaten close to our bedtimes, our bodies are still putting in energy for digestion. This keeps us awake as our body is still active.
To avoid this problem, try eating small meals throughout the day instead of stuffing yourself with one big meal. And try to finish eating at least 2 hours before your bedtime to allow the food to be digested.
Caffeine and poor sleep are often caught in a vicious cycle. Getting poor sleep means we will end up reaching for caffeine, possibly even in the afternoon when we struggle to keep our eyes open. But caffeine takes 4 to 6 hours to get removed from our system. So if we take that afternoon cuppa, guess what’s keeping us up when it’s time for bed?
Keeping away from caffeine after lunch time is the safest way to go.
Though alcohol might seem like a good way to get yourself to fall asleep easily, it might actually affect the quality of your sleep. Alcohol affects the production of chemicals on our body that helps us to stay asleep, blocks REM sleep and may worsen breathing problems
Alcohol may also make you more dehydrated, so stay away from it when climbing!
Ensure Proper Hydration
At high altitude, the air is often colder and dryer, causing dry mouths and throats. And even when you are not sweating, a lot of water is lost when we are climbing. It’s also easy to forget proper hydration during the climb. Your sleep might be disrupted when you get woken up by dry, tickly throats, hacking and coughing.
Ensure you stay hydrated throughout the day. On the flip side, do not start drinking huge amounts of water in the evenings or you end up disturbing your sleep without numerous runs to the bathroom.
How Do I Know If My Sleep Is Affected?
Your sleep is probably affected when you:
- Wake up repeatedly throughout the night, even for brief moments
- Feel suffocated during your sleep
- Have vivid dreams or nightmares
- Wake up exhausted in the morning even after 5 to 6 hours of sleep
What Is Considered High Altitude?
Your sleep is likely to be affected at these altitudes:
- High altitude: 8,000 — 12,000 feet (2,500 meters to 3,500 meters) above sea level
- Very high altitude: 12,000 — 18,000 feet (3,500 meters to 5,500 meters) above sea level
- Extremely high altitude: above 18,000 feet (5,500 meters)
Is Difficulty In Sleeping A Sign Of Altitude Sickness?
If you are not suffering from jet lag, have not been consuming huge meals or caffeine, and still find yourself struggling to sleep, it is likely that you are suffering from altitude sickness.
Not getting proper sleep may also lead to other symptoms of altitude sickness such as headaches. Altitude sickness can range from mild to severe, so do look out for the following signs:
Mild altitude sickness
- Symptoms include a headache, difficulty sleeping, nausea, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, sleep problems and a general loss of energy.
- Symptoms usually begin within 12 to 24 hours of arriving at a high altitude.
- Mild forms of altitude sickness can often go away with rest within a day or two as you get used to the altitude, so it’s doubly important that you give yourself time to acclimatize before a climb and access your own body conditions.
Moderate altitude sickness
- Symptoms are more intense and are not relieved by over-the-counter medicines.
- Fatigue, weakness, and shortness of breath worsen instead of improving over time.
- Confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty walking, worsening headache that is not relieved by medicines, nausea, and vomiting, and tightness in the chest. Normal activity is difficult, although you may still be able to walk on your own (you might be staggering).
Severe altitude sickness
- Symptoms include shortness of breath at rest, inability to walk, confusion and fluid buildup in the lungs or brain, extreme fatigue.
- Coughing, noisy breathing (gurgling or rattling sounds) and a gray, pale or bluish skin tone, lips or fingernails.
- Severe altitude sickness is an emergency situation, and you must be brought to a lower altitude immediately.
Are there benefits to sleeping at high altitude? When exposed to a lower oxygen environment for a longer duration, our body compensates for the low oxygen levels by producing more red blood cells to carry oxygen to your body. Endurance athletes sometimes train at high altitude environment to take advantage of this change which makes exercise easier and more efficient when they return to lower altitudes. Some studies have also associated this change with weight loss and reduced risk of heart disease. Read more about that here.
Why is breathing harder at high altitudes? It’s easy to breathe at sea level as the air pressure around us is higher than the pressure inside our lungs. As we get to higher altitude, the air pressure decreases and becomes lower than the pressure inside our lungs. This makes it more difficult to draw in each breath.