Altitude Insomnia

When I visited Peru, I went to Machu Pichu, one of the most beautiful places on earth. However, I had to pay a little price. At our stay in the nearest city Cusco, the altitude was quite elevated but we needed to get acclimated. I got altitude sickness with headaches, nausea, poor digestion and achy, not to mention walking around short of breath. I also developed insomnia and had difficulty falling asleep and woke up frequently at night. I had a great time at Machu Pichu because it was lower elevation (thanks God).

A mild form of altitudinal insomnia happens to people in a couple of common scenarios

  1. Long flights in the airplane
  2. Reaching high altitude. Example is going to a sky resort or rapid mountain climb.

When an individual tries to sleep at night in these high altitudes they can experience a host of sleep difficulties including insomnia. Difficulty falling asleep and interrupted sleep are common. Sleep quality becomes poor. Altitude can also cause fatigue, poor appetite, malaise, diarrhea and headaches.

The cause for this insomnia has to do with a combination of factors:

  1. Dehydration: due to more rapid breathing which causes the loss of water through the lungs.
  2. A change in breathing physiology: breathing worsens at night when you try to sleep. This is due to changes in oxygen and CO2 (carbon dioxide) levels.

Acute mountain sickness is more serious; it occurs at exposure to high altitude and can cause a constellation of symptoms such as headaches and flu-like feelings. If it worsens, it can lead to pulmonary edema (fluid in lungs) and cerebral edema (fluid in brain). Both can cause death.

Treatment

  • Diamox (acetozolamide) is a medication that is used to combat altitude sickness. It may potentially improve insomnia. It acts sort of like a stimulant to breathing and therefore gets more oxygen in the blood. A dose of 125 mg at bedtime can be helpful. Talk to your doctor if you think you can benefit from Diomox. Diamox has sulfa in it- so if you are allergic to sulfa you should not take it.
  • Stay hydrated- very important
  • If you are traveling to a high altitude, the best way is to ascend slowly. Give yourself time to acclimate. If you are going to a typical US city resort, you might want to spend a day mid-way to acclimate before ascending further.