If you've ever experienced altitude sickness, you know how debilitating it can be. Being based out of Colorado with high altitudes, we share our research with you whether or not do electrolytes help with altitude sickness.
There's a debate amongst experts, do electrolytes help with altitude sickness? Our research reveals two noteworthy pieces of information to conclude if electrolytes do in fact help.
Research out of Colorado reveals that electrolyte levels can decrease at high altitudes.¹ However, no statistically significant study shows improvement in altitude sickness from taking electrolytes.
In conclusion, while electrolytes may not stop altitude sickness, past research does suggest that adequate hydration may decrease altitude sickness severity and incidence.² And if you're drinking large amounts of water because of high altitude then you should aim at minimum to maintain healthy sodium levels, which is an essential electrolyte.
Read below for our deep dive into the details and research to support our conclusion.
Electrolytes are minerals in your blood and cells that help maintain electrical activity and fluid balance in your body. They also help regulate the acidity (pH) of your blood and tissues.
Electrolyte imbalances can cause a variety of symptoms, including muscle weakness or cramps, confusion and restlessness.
Dehydration related to an electrolyte imbalance can be serious, and there's evidence to suggest that high altitudes can decrease electrolyte levels.¹
Altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness, happens when a person climbs too high or gets to high altitudes without giving the body time to adjust. The human body needs time to adjust to changes in altitude because air pressure and oxygen levels are lower at higher elevations.
Altitude sickness affects millions of people every year who travel to mountain regions. It can happen at any altitude as low as 4,900 feet but it is most common above 8,000 feet.⁴
Symptoms of altitude sickness include:
While a lack of electrolytes do not cause altitude sickness, read below to see the research on high altitudes decreasing electrolyte levels and aiding hydration.
A 1970 altitude study was done on 8 women at Pikes Peak, a few electrolytes showed decreases over the timespan of a week. Those electrolyte minerals included levels of sodium, potassium, magnesium.¹
While this evidence doesn't necessarily correlate that electrolytes will help altitude sickness, it proves that electrolyte levels can be negatively effected by high altitudes.
Many altitude sickness experts may emphasize drinking a lot of water, but is too much water at high altitudes bad? Surprisingly yes.
Although it's not common, Dr. Peter Hackett warns that drinking too much water to avoid altitude sickness can cause hyponatremia, which is a lack of sodium levels to balance the body. Symptoms of hyponatremia can actually similar to altitude sickness, including headache, nausea, fatigue, weakness and confusion.³
So when hydrating at high altitudes with extra water, make sure to not excessively overdue it. WebMD says to drink between half an ounce and an ounce of water for each pound of body weight.⁷
If exceeding those water guidelines or if not maintaining a healthy diet, then you should look to supplement electrolytes, specifically sodium to avoid hyponatremia.
Keep in mind that the anecdotal evidence in Colorado we see most is that most people don't drink enough water, versus drinking too much.
TIP: You can easily add sea salt to your food or water to increase your sodium levels.
Dr. Peter Hackett suggests that monitoring urine can help to detect dehydration at high altitude.⁵
Clear urine is a sign of being well hydrated, and to not drink too much more water. Dark urine is a sign of dehydration and to drink more water.⁵
As explained above, hyponatremia is caused specifically from lack of sodium balance, not related to other electrolytes such as magnesium or potassium. Which is why we believe sodium is the important electrolyte, including when using for altitude sickness.
Sodium is considered a critical part of human physiology.⁶ Which is why when you're low in sodium you may feel symptoms including cramps, weakness, low energy, headache and nausea.
If you're considering supplementing electrolytes at high altitudes in conjunction with drinking more water, sodium is vital.
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1. Alterations in the serum electrolyte levels of women during high altitude (4,300 m) acclimatization
2. Acute mountain sickness: influence of fluid intake
4. Effects of high altitude on humans
5. Altitude Myths
6. Does Sugar Dehydrate You Or Help With Hydration?
7. Water and Your Diet: Staying Slim and Regular With H2O