High Altitude Sickness and the Vegan Diet
Vegan Hiking, High Altitude Sickness
I just got back from a gorgeous trip to Colorado. We went up the longest cog railroad to the top of Pike's Peak, hiked some glacial lakes in Rocky Mountain National Park, hiked up a grassy black diamond in Vail, and finished the weekend in Denver.
Basically from the minute you land at a high elevation destination, people start telling you to be on the lookout for high altitude sickness. When your body isn't used to high elevations, you can develop nausea, headaches, dizziness, fatigue, rapid pulse, confusion, and it can become very serious and life threatening. It doesn't matter what kind of shape you're actually in, you can still be struck by altitude sickness. We got a lot of warnings about high altitude acclimatization and to drink plenty of water, avoid alcohol, walk slowly and take our time, rest, and descend immediately if we started feeling sick.
But, we never started feeling sick. We went from our normal sea level home to the top of a 14,000ft+ peak over the course of a few hours, and we felt totally fine. A couple we met remarked that we were handling the altitude very well. We passed lots of people in our hikes, and we had to stop far less than most people, even on one of the hardest hikes we'd ever done. My assumption was just that we weren't in the percentage of people who are prone to altitude sickness.
After a few days of reading about the sickness in every hotel brochure, trail map, and any other tourist information, I read something interesting. Our Vail hotel brochure had an extra bit of information in their description of altitude sickness that said something like this, "studies show that avoiding meats and sticking to a vegetarian diet can alleviate or prevent the symptoms of altitude sickness."
A little google search gave me more details. I'm not sure this is entirely scientific, but I found multiple sources that said eating vegetarian could prevent altitude sickness or at least help you to acclimatization to high altitude faster.
The body has to work harder to digest animal protein, so that probably contributes. When going to high altitudes, you want your body to have the easiest possible time digesting and using the nutrients in your body. High carbohydrate, low sodium foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables are absolutely perfect for quick and efficient absorption of nutrients.
The one warning I did find about vegetarian hiking and vegan hiking through mountains is to make sure to get plenty of iron. Iron deficiency anemia can be exacerbated by high altitude, and if you have anemia, you are much more likely to feel the affects of the altitude. You should add iron-packed foods like figs, dates, raisins, spinach, asparagus, kale, broccoli, beans, peas, and dark leafy greens into every meal you eat before and during your time at high altitude.
When we travel, we love to visit every vegan restaurant we can, and sometimes we find ourselves eating tons of mock meats and desserts, just because we can and it's interesting. In Colorado, we actually spent a lot of time at grocery stores filling up salad containers with many of the above iron-rich foods, and we ate much more normal, real food. So, we accidentally did ourselves a huge favor, and I'm sure that worked in our benefit as well.
It was a spectacular trip that I recommend for everyone!