Sleep Problems During Vacations in the Mountains

Alexander Golbin, M.D., Ph.D.

Many of us love vacations in the mountains. Clean air, nature, exercise, what could be better? But you have to prepare yourself for such a trip; otherwise you might face the “other side of the mountain,” altitude sickness.

High altitude sickness is a well-known risk for mountain climbers and used to describe multiple brain and lung problems that developed in un-acclimatized people in high altitudes. Because the majority of us are not high altitude mountain climbers, we may not pay attention to the risks associated with this phenomenon. Recently, however, it was discovered that acute mountain sickness may not only be seen in high altitudes but on the level of slopes in Colorado and Utah, which have large populations of skiers and bikers of all ages.

In 1991, for example, in Summit County, Colorado, the incidence of acute mountain sickness was about 22%. Sleep problems are the first worrisome symptoms (sleeping altitude). Risk factors include a previous history of altitude sickness, residency at altitudes below 900 meters (which incidentally include most of the Midwest), preexisting cardiovascular problems, and most importantly vestibular problems. It is interesting to note that people older than 50 years are less susceptible that younger people. According to International Society for Mountain Medicine, physical fitness does not protect one from this disorder. Strangely, Diabetes, pregnancy, and hypertension do not appear to affect the problem. One of every 20 skiers who have vestibular instability might experience mountain sickness such as sleep problems, dizziness, stomachache, headache and fainting sensations.

The best treatment is to go down to the hotel, wait a day or two, and restart climbing slowly. Also, be sure to prepare yourself in terms of vestibular training. Acclimation is best done slowly and most travel agencies or websites can provide you with information on the general elevation of an area. If necessary, consult your doctor on preventative altitude sickness medications.