Colorado residents are no strangers to high altitudes. From the Mile High City to Colorado Springs, which sits around 6000′, we tend to be more comfortable when the air is a bit thinner. If you’re visiting our state from a lower altitude, however, you may experience some adverse effects, from nausea to insomnia. Even seasoned Colorado residents can have trouble sleeping at higher altitudes. So if you’re planning a ski or backpacking trip that takes you above 8000′, keep reading to learn how to sleep better at high altitudes.
As Denver-based sleep coaches, we see many tourists and new residents struggle with the altitude. You may not even realize that the change in altitude is causing your insomnia. Luckily, there are steps you can take to help your body acclimate. If insomnia is a consistent struggle for you even after your body adjusts, contact us for a free consultation to get to the root of your sleep problems. In addition, we provide remote sleep coaching to individuals nationwide, so we can help even if you’re not in town for long.
What is Considered High Altitude?
According to the CDC, traveling about 8000′ can put you at risk for altitude sickness. Symptoms can include headache, fatigue, lightheadedness, and trouble sleeping. If you are more sensitive to decreased oxygen levels, you can start experiencing symptoms at 5000 to 7000′ above sea level. For example, pregnancy or a pre-existing heart or lung condition can make you more susceptible. If you have any concerns about your ability to tolerate higher altitudes, check with your doctor before traveling.
In Colorado, the average elevation is 6800′, and we have over 59 peaks above 14,000′, so whether you rent a mountain cabin or plan a backpacking trip, you’ll probably be spending some time at a high altitude.
How Does High Altitude Affect Sleep?
One of the most common effects of altitude on sleep is insomnia. At higher altitudes, your breathing and heart rate increase to get more oxygen to your cells. This can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. You might also experience other effects, such as headaches, nausea, or fatigue, which can contribute to insomnia.
In addition to the physical effects of altitude, there is the psychological effect of a new environment. If you are not used to sleeping in a bed that is not your own, or if you are anxious about the altitude, this can also lead to insomnia.
Symptoms of Altitude Insomnia
If high altitude is causing your sleep problems, you may experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Waking up frequently during the night
- Waking up early in the morning
- Feeling unrested after a full night’s sleep
- Feeling suffocated
- Vivid dreams
Tips to Improve Sleep at High Altitudes
You can do several things to help your body adjust to the altitude and get a better night’s sleep.
1. Drink plenty of fluids.
This will help you stay hydrated, which can help with some of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Stick to water or other non-alcoholic beverages, as alcohol can actually dehydrate you and make symptoms worse. Try to avoid drinking too much right before bed, however, to avoid late night bathroom runs.
2. Avoid strenuous activity.
If you are feeling fatigued, it’s best to rest. Even just breathing at a high altitude can be a lot of work, and strenuous activities can actually prevent your body from adjusting.
3. Eat light meals.
Eating heavy meals before bed can keep you awake since a large portion of your body’s energy goes toward digesting your food. Eat at least 2 hours before you plan to go to bed, and try to eat light meals periodically throughout the day. If you do need to eat before bed, choose a healthy high-protein snack.
4. Get plenty of fresh air.
Spending time outside during the day can help you sleep better at night.
5. Sleep with supplemental oxygen.
If you are really struggling to sleep, consider using supplemental oxygen. Since altitude insomnia is largely caused by disrupted breathing patterns, this can help reduce some of the symptoms of altitude sickness and make it easier to fall asleep. Options for supplemental oxygen include a sleep mask, or if you live at altitude, an in-home oxygenation system. Supplemental oxygen can be expensive, however, and is not always a practical option.
6. Acclimate your body slowly.
If you are coming from a lower altitude, spend a few days at a lower elevation before going to a higher one. This will give your body time to adjust. If you’re planning a hiking trip, spend a few days in a mountain town near where your hike begins to avoid altitude sickness.
7. Choose comfortable bedding.
Just like at home, a comfortable mattress and pillows can make a big difference in how well you sleep. So if you rent a mountain cabin, check to see if the bedding is comfortable before you commit to staying there.
How Long Does it Take to Adjust to Altitude?
It typically takes a few days for your body to adjust to high altitude. Insomnia and other symptoms of altitude sickness should improve within this time frame. The lower your starting altitude, the longer it may take for your body to adjust, but you should notice a marked improvement by your third day. Following the tips outlined above will also help relieve your symptoms and make your trip more enjoyable.
Get Insomnia Sleep Coaching with Sleepably
Insomnia, whether it’s caused by high altitude or anxiety, can prevent you from enjoying life to the fullest. All of our coaches at Sleepably have experienced difficult relationships with sleep at one time or another. Now we are passionate about helping you solve your sleep problems, so you can experience better health, peace of mind, and increased productivity throughout the day. Schedule a free consultation today if you are interested in getting help with your sleep journey.