Carbs For Altitude Sickness: Do They Work?

Carbs For Altitude Sickness

One altitude sickness remedy that has garnered attention is the consumption of carbs. As a high-altitude based company, we'll delve into the truth if carbs for altitude sickness work and are effective, and everything else you should know.

Carbs For Altitude Sickness

Many trekkers, climbers, and travelers have sought various remedies to combat altitude sickness, one of them being carbs.

Carbohydrates are one of the primary sources of energy for the body, providing glucose. Glucose is converted to energy which then support functions within the body and physical activity.

It's hypothesized that carbs can help physical performance at high altitudes and altitude sickness.

Do Carbs For Altitude Sickness Work?

The short answer is ─ carbs could potentially help with altitude sickness and likely to help physical performance, but there is some conflicting information we found.

It appears to be clear that carbs help prolonged or higher intensity exercise.² Where there's conflicting research is on whether carbs helps altitude sickness specifically. One study out of Seattle found a high carb diet did not change or lessen hypoxia and altitude sickness.¹

You'll have to find out for yourself by testing if carbs for altitude sickness works for you. Read further to know more of the science of why it may help, and other tips for high altitudes.

The Science Behind Carbs For Altitude Sickness

Now for the science of why carbs could work for altitude sickness. There are some specific studies showing carbs to be effective, let's dive in.

There's evidence to show carbs can help with high altitudes by improving physical performance, improving oxygen delivery, and reduce reduced oxygen desaturation.

Here's the benefits behind carbs for altitude sickness:

1. Improve Physical Performance
Supplementing carbs was showed in 2012 research to improve high-altitude physical performance, and completed the time trial 17% faster.³

2. Improve Oxygen Delivery
Fourteen subjects in a study suggested that carbs can improve arterial oxygenation during hypoxia (low oxygen), essentially oxygen delivery.⁴

3. Reduce Reduced Oxygen Desaturation
While no effect was shown at rest, high carb meals were observed in research to lower oxygen desaturation in exercise.⁵ Simply stated, more oxygen in the blood.

In summary on the science, carbs definitely appear to have a positive effects in high altitude conditions, specifically with exercise and activity. Where there's less evidence and conflicting research is it helping altitude sickness and its symptoms ─ it doesn't show effectiveness.

Does Eating Carbs Help With Altitude Sickness?

To summarize these past sections, eating carbs does not show to help with altitude sickness, rather it shows to help support the body in high altitude conditions for exercise, especially prolonged or higher intensity.

Good vs Bad Carbs

The caveat of eating carbs is there are a lot of bad sources people consume.⁶ These bad and unhealthy carbs could potentially have negative effects on your body.

Refined sugars for example are known to cause energy crashes,⁷ which won't be good at high altitudes which is already known to cause fatigue.

Avoid consuming your carbs from sugary foods, processed foods, and refined grains.⁶ Skip the high sugar products like drinks, powders and gels loaded with sugar. Focus on real, whole-food sources of carbs ─ such as bananas, sweet potatoes, select fruit, and yogurt.

Best High Carb Foods For High Altitude Sickness

When dealing with high-altitude and altitude sickness, you'll want to eat only high-quality carbs otherwise you could get counter effects.

We created a list of some of the best and healthiest high-carb foods to consider when traveling to high-altitude destinations. It's best to focus on healthy, whole-food based carbs if consuming for altitude sickness.

Best High Carb Foods:

  • Quinoa
  • Oats
  • Bananas
  • Blueberries 
  • Rasberries
  • Carrot 
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Oranges
  • Grapefruit
  • Apples
  • Yogurt
  • Sweet potatoes


High Carb Foods To Avoid At High Altitude

While carbs can be good for high altitude exercise and a source of energy, not all high-carb foods are ideal for consumption at high elevations.

Here are high-carb foods to be cautious of or avoid when dealing with at high-altitude:

  • Bread and grains
  • Fried foods
  • Cereal
  • Sweetened Yogurt (with added sugar)
  • Juice
  • Chips and crackers
  • Highly processed snacks
  • Cakes and pastries
  • Baked goods
  • Protein bars (with added sugar)
  • Sports drinks (with added sugar)
  • Sports gels and powders (with added sugar)
  • Soft drinks
  • Pasta (made with refined white flour)


Does Drinking Gatorade Help With Altitude Sickness?

There's two ways Gatorade might help with altitude sickness ─ via carbs and electrolytes. A bottle of Gatorade contains 36 grams of carbs, a mix of electrolytes, and 34 grams of sugar.

As stated above, carbs can help with exercise at high altitudes. Electrolytes have been shown to decease in high altitude conditions, including sodium, potassium, and magnesium.⁸ 

While Gatorade could help with these two factors, more specifically with high altitude exercise and not altitude sickness, the downside is it's made with synthetic electrolytes and refined sugars for carbs. We do not believe Gatorade is a good, healthy option for high altitude trips, activities, races, or adventures. Gatorade would also fall into the category of a unhealthy carb as a sugar loaded sports drink.

5 Tips To Avoid Altitude Sickness In Addition To Carbs

Altitude sickness can be a challenging setback when traveling to high-altitude destinations. As a high-altitude based company, we'll share our best tips based on experience in Colorado.

While considering the potential benefits of carbs for high altiutdes, here are five additional tips to help you avoid altitude sickness effectively.

Here's 5 Tips To Avoid Altitude Sickness In Addition To Carbs:

1. Gradual Ascent

Your body needs time to acclimate to the decreasing oxygen levels as you ascend, and by avoiding rapid changes you can minimize the toll your body takes. 
It's recommended to gradually ascent, and even spend a day or two at intermediate altitudes before reaching your high elevation destination.

2. Stay Hydrated

The dry air and increased respiration rate can lead to rapid fluid loss, estimated to happen twice as fast than at sea level.¹⁰ Avoid dehydration, proper hydration is paramount. Experts recommend drinking half your body weight in ounces of water per day.

TIP: To enhance hydration, add sea salt (naturally containing electrolytes) to your food/drink, and take Zaca's hydration tablet to aid in water absorption.

3. Adequate Rest & Sleep

Ensure you get sufficient rest and sleep during your journey. Sleep has been found to not only aid recovery, it can also increase blood flow and oxygen in your body.¹¹

Aim for at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night.

4. Limit Alcohol Consumption

Those drinks at your high-altitude destination are tempting, but can significantly set you back! Alcohol not only exacerbates dehydration, it can cause fatigue, headaches, and lower sleep quality.¹²

Wait until you feel acclimated before having alcohol, this can take a few days on average.

5. Get Antioxidant Support

Oxidative stress is shown to increase in high altitudes,¹³ so much that glutathione (a master antioxidant) has shown to deplete almost in half in a study.¹⁴

You can get antioxidant support by taking supplements with ingredients like glutathione.

By following these tips in addition to considering carbs, you can help make a better high-altitude experience ─ which includes gradually ascending, staying hydrated, getting adequate rest and sleep, limiting alcohol consumption, and getting antioxidant support.

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1. Acute mountain sickness is not altered by a high carbohydrate diet nor associated with elevated circulating cytokines
2. Benefits Of Carbohydrates For High Altitude Trekking
3. Carbohydrate supplementation and exercise performance at high altitude
4. Carbohydrate ingestion improves oxygen delivery in acute hypoxia
5. Effects of a high-carbohydrate versus high-protein meal on acute responses to hypoxia at rest and exercise
6. Food to Eat At Altitude
7. Sugar Impacts Your Workout
8. Alterations in the serum electrolyte levels of women during high altitude (4,300 m) acclimatization
9. Gatorade Thirst Quencher, Fierce Variety Pack 2.0, 20 Fl Oz (Pack of 12)
10. Why Do You Need to Drink a Lot of Water at a High Altitude?
11. Sleep: The Secret Ingredient of Injury Recovery
12. Effects of Alcohol
13. High altitude and oxidative stress
14. Oxidative Stress and Diseases Associated with High-Altitude Exposure
15. Effect of high altitude (7,620 m) exposure on glutathione
16. 14 Foods to Avoid (or Limit) on a Low-Carb Diet