The Plants We Need Are There: A Naturopathic Approach to Acute Mountain Sickness

Acetazolamide is already known for its success with treating Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) and helping patients with their transition to higher altitudes, but what other options are available? What about those who don’t want a prescription, that are looking for other alternatives to help them with AMS and being at high altitude?

During my time in Frisco, Colorado (9000’/2743 m) I was fortunate enough to interview two resident Naturopathic Doctors. Mountain River Naturopathic Clinic on Main Street of this little mountain town is a wonderful oasis for anyone in Colorado’s Summit County looking for alternative care and treatment for their mind and body.

Dr. Kimberly Nearpass, ND and Dr. Justin Pollack, ND took the time to educate Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos, my classmate Rachel Mader, and myself about all the naturopathic remedies available for AMS and residents at altitude.

Tell us about Naturopathic medicine and why you picked this path of medicine?

Dr. Kimberly Nearpass: I thought I was going to be an OBGYN and then I did more research. I talked to doctors, midwives and herbalists and found that the Western medicine model didn’t feel right to me. So I thought, “Do I go to medical school and try to operate functionally from the inside or do I find another track?” I did not know about naturopathic medicine until a few years later. I took some time off; I traveled and went to the Peace Corps and then I discovered naturopathic medicine and loved it. I had lived in Ecuador in the rainforest as a naturalist guide so I learned a lot about traditional medicine that way. I learned a lot about traditional medicine when I lived in rural Africa as well. Living in these rural areas and watching the indigenous people — and they certainly use modern medicine — but they did not have a lot of access. Especially in the rainforest, they were using a lot of plants and I was fascinated by that. But I still wanted the medical training. Then I discovered naturopathic school. So, it’s four years of medical school, we get the medical training, but we also have that more holistic, natural, herbal based approach.

What naturopathic remedies are available for acute mountain sickness (AMS)?

Dr. Nearpass: So I will tell you Acli-Mate is our go-to. I’m not tied to this product, a friend of mine, it is her company, she is a naturopathic doctor in Gunnison. She formulated this, she started it out as a high-altitude electrolyte drink. Everybody that comes in our door, we start with this. This stuff works AMAZING. We rarely have to go anywhere else. I think the combination of the electrolytes and that it is hydrating has a great benefit. It helps with the headache and the nausea. For mild to moderate symptoms of AMS it is incredible. What we do is if we have family coming to visit from sea level is we have them start drinking it before they come.

Acli-Mate is found to be highly effective at helping people who are suffering from AMS. The blend includes herbs Ginkgo biloba and Rhodiola, both of which have proven effective in preventing and treating altitude related sickness. Both herbs seem to improve circulation, especially through cerebral vessels, and cellular energy function through improved uptake and utilization of oxygen, reducing toxic brain edema. Ginkgo has also been shown to inhibit platelet clumping, keeping red blood cells evenly dispersed, which improves delivery of oxygen to tissues, while Rhodiola appears to help the body deal with stress.

Nutrients in Acli-Mate: Vitamin C, and many of the B vitamins: thiamin (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothene (B5) and cobolamin (B12).

Acli-Mate in a variety of applications.

Have you noticed that when you have patients drink it before they arrive at high altitude, they have a better outcome?

Dr. Nearpass: Yes. And I have a patient who is 70 now and 5-10 years ago she went with some girlfriend to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. She had all her girlfriends take it and emailed me after saying, “We all did great!” And I don’t want to put all my eggs in one basket but this is almost always all we need.

Dr. Justin Pollack: There is something about that blend of Rhodiola, Ginkgo and the B vitamins that seems to work. We’ve had tons of people use it clinically.

Dr. Nearpass: For other options, I think Rhodiola is a good one. It’s interesting to me because Rhodiola grows in Mongolia, it grows in high altitude. One of the things we talk about in herbal medicine is often the plants we need are there. For example, dandelion root grows everywhere and it is good for liver detox and helps with hepatic function. So, it is interesting to me that dandelion is popping up on the side of the highways and in areas that we could probably use a little cleansing and detoxing.

Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos: What about Coca?

Dr. Nearpass: Oh yes! Coca works amazing. It is a plant that grows in the high altitudes of South America and when I was living in Ecuador the folks that live in the Andes drink coca tea all the time. They also take coca leaves and shove a wad in their mouth like chew. While they are doing work, cardiovascular work, they just put it in their mouth and that is their medicine. It gives them more stamina and reduces fatigue. There is not much research on it because you cannot even get it in the states.

Is there a reason you can’t get it here?

Dr. Nearpass: Because it’s the same plant as cocaine. We used to have a homeopathic version of it. Do you know what homeopathic medicine is? You take a remedy and you dilute it until you don’t have any molecules of the original substance but you basically are getting an energetic imprint. For example, Rhus tox, poison ivy, the homeopathic rhus tox is used to treat red itchy inflamed poison ivy type symptoms. But with coca, even homeopathically, the herb is used in concentrated doses to treat high altitude sickness and increase energy and stamina. But because there is such a control over coca, we can’t even get the homeopathic version, which is ridiculous because there is not a single molecule of the plant in the remedy.

Dr. Pollack: When Kim and I were on our honeymoon, we passed through Bolivia and Peru. In Bolivia in la Paz there was a coca museum. It was really fascinating because something around 1,000lbs of coca leaves must be distilled down into 1 gram to make cocaine. When you make tea out of the raw leaves it seems to have the subtle effect of suppressing appetite and allowing people to do better at altitude. Marijuana has a whole stigma around it, even though it has been legalized, and so the research and researchers are stigmatized, yet there are a lot of useful compound coming out of the plant. So, I’m sure that coca is the same, and hopefully somewhere down the line we will be able to use coca leaf for altitude.

Dr. Nearpass: And certainly, coca is the number one herb in the Andes that people use. You can get it everywhere, it’s like black tea down there.

So because coca is not available for your patients, and if you found Acli-Mate was not successful, what would you recommend?

Dr. Nearpass, a woman in a white hoodie, long brunette hair, and a maroon mask, stands in front of a wall of shelves of naturopathic medicine in brown glass jars with black lids at the Backcountry Apothecary in Frisco, CO.
Dr. Kimberly Nearpass

Dr. Nearpass: This is the thing about naturopathic doctors, we look at each individual. If it’s a resident, per se, we are going to draw blood work. We are going to try to figure out what’s going on, what is the underlying issue. Do you have relative anemia? We will run iron but also ferritin. They may have normal blood cells, normal H&H but their ferritin is a 2. One of the things that is tricky about being a naturopathic doctor is, we will be at a party and someone will ask, “Well what do you do for hypertension?” or “What do you do for digestive issues?” We always say we don’t treat symptoms; we don’t treat disease, we treat people. If someone is having recurrent altitude sickness, we are going to look at the individual and look at what is going on. What’s their diet? Are they hydrated enough? Are they drinking too much alcohol? Do they have subclinical hypothyroidism that might affect their metabolism and their ability to adapt when they get here? Might their ferritin levels be really low? And then we would sit down with the patient and say, “Well what are your symptoms? Is nausea the main symptom? Is headache the main symptom?”  And then, what other factors could be contributing to these symptoms? If it’s headache then CoQ10 would be what I would go to.

Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos: And what do you look for on physical exams on residents that are having trouble with altitude?

Dr. Nearpass: On physical exams we are doing the standard physical that you would do but we are also looking at the tongue. I am not a Chinese Medicine doctor but the tongue does give you some insight on what is going on in the digestive tract. If we are seeing inflammation or glossitis or geographic tongue, we are thinking, “Oh, this person may have some underlying digestive issue.” We might look at Arroyo’s sign, it’s a traditional sign when you shine a light on someone’s pupil and most of the time their pupil will constrict, but Arroyo’s sign is both pupils will stay dilated. This is a red light for adrenal issues, for hyper cortisol output or adrenaline output. If someone is in a chronically stressed state, their pupils are going to be dilated all the time. If it looks like someone has chronic stress, it takes you out of the parasympathetic, and so their digestion is going to be weaker. The way we look at it is the body has to prioritize, and there is only so much that one body can do. And I suspect that living at high altitude puts chronic stress on the body. I see this huge lack of libido in the women. I see women in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s. But it kind of makes sense right? If the body is chronically stressed, having a baby is a huge energy output for a woman. So, I think we may see the chronic stress impacts of living at high altitude.

Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos: So what do you do for the libido?

Dr. Nearpass: That is one that if I could invent one pill, it would be that one. Libido is really hard, especially in women. Unfortunately, what I see is its one of the first things to go in women and it’s one of the last things to respond. So, my suspicion is that this altitude is another physical stress on our bodies. I think we can see multiple systems being affected by it, maybe not severely but still.

Rachel Mader PA-S: Is there anything for sleep at altitude? I know a lot of people struggle with that.

Dr. Nearpass: Yes, again for us there is no magic bullet. Melatonin is very well known and that can be very helpful for some people, but it sure doesn’t work for everybody.  When patients come in and say, “What do you use for sleep?” I want to take every person back and have a conversation with them. Ask, “Are you having a hard time falling asleep? Are you having a hard time staying asleep? Are you waking up to go to the bathroom?” Right? So, there isn’t a magic bullet that will work for everyone. Breaking it down, I think you could have 50 people with altitude sickness and we’re going to do 50 different things. I mean, I would start with Acli-Mate, but every patient will be different.

Do you think there’s benefit to adding Acli-Mate in combination with an Acetazolamide prescription?

Dr. Nearpass: As far as I know, there’s no issue combining the two. Most people that come to us are usually trying to avoid medication, but what I always say to them in that situation is, “Try this other stuff to see if it helps.” But if it’s someone who had trouble in the past with AMS, I’ll say go to your medical doctor and get the prescription so that you have it if you need it. I think another issue is that people fly here right from Texas. They fly to Denver, they get right on the shuttle, and they drive right up here. If they’ve had trouble in the past, they should drive here and take their time. Spend a couple days in Denver if they have to. That does seem to help people.

Thank you so much Dr. Nearpass. Is there anything else about naturopathic medicine and high altitude you would like to share with us?

Dr. Nearpass: I guess I would say again that from a naturopathic perspective it is really about looking at the individual.

Is there anything that could specifically help with nausea symptoms of AMS?

Dr. Nearpass: Ipecacuanha! Ipecac syrup — which in full doses will make you throw up, so the homeopathic Ipecacuanha we use for nausea — that is one I have actually used quite a bit for people who have that aspect of AMS. It is really good for nausea and pregnancy too.

PA student Hannah Addison with Dr. Pollock, Dr. Nearpass and Dr. Chris in front of the Naturopathic clinic and apothecary in Frisco, CO.

The way I see Healthcare is a full spectrum, and on one end you have the brain surgeons and on the other end you have the Reiki energy healers. Then you have everything in between. I see us sitting in the middle. For patients, the best thing is to be aware of where they belong on that spectrum. I’m not going to replace a brain surgeon, but sometimes a little bit of massage and energy can do the trick. It is so great for us as practitioners to be able to talk and converse with the medical doctors. We’ve been really lucky in this community.

Visit Mountain River Naturopathic Clinic’s website or stop by their shop and clinic: http://www.mountainriverclinic.com

Available research articles on Naturopathic Remedies and AMS:

Zhang DX, Zhang YK, Nie HJ, Zhang RJ, Cui JH, Cheng Y, Wang YH, Xiao ZH, Liu JY, Wang H. [Protective effects of new compound codonopsis tablets against acute mountain sickness]. Zhongguo Ying Yong Sheng Li Xue Za Zhi. 2010 May;26(2):148-52. Chinese. PMID: 20684264.

Tsai TY, Wang SH, Lee YK, Su YC. Ginkgo biloba extract for prevention of acute mountain sickness: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. BMJ Open. 2018;8(8):e022005. Published 2018 Aug 17. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-022005

Gertsch JH, Basnyat B, Johnson EW, Onopa J, Holck PS. Randomised, double blind, placebo-controlled comparison of ginkgo biloba and acetazolamide for prevention of acute mountain sickness among Himalayan trekkers: the prevention of high-altitude illness trial (PHAIT). BMJ. 2004;328(7443):797. doi:10.1136/bmj.38043.501690.7C

Ke T, Wang J, Swenson ER, et al. Effect of acetazolamide and gingko biloba on the human pulmonary vascular response to an acute altitude ascent. High Alt Med Biol. 2013;14(2):162-167. doi:10.1089/ham.2012.1099

Wang J, Xiong X, Xing Y, et al. Chinese herbal medicine for acute mountain sickness: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:732562. doi:10.1155/2013/732562

Lee SY, Li MH, Shi LS, Chu H, Ho CW, Chang TC. Rhodiola crenulata Extract Alleviates Hypoxic Pulmonary Edema in Rats. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:718739. doi:10.1155/2013/718739

Hannah Addison, PA-S

Hannah Addison (she, her, hers) is a second-year physician assistant student at Red Rocks Community College Physician Assistant Program in Arvada Colorado. Hannah was born and raised in the South Denver area of Colorado. She spent four years getting her bachelor’s in biomedical science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO where she decided her life career goal was to become a PA. After graduating and while applying for PA programs, Hannah worked at Littleton Adventist Hospital of Centura as a CNA, Telemetry Technician and Unit Clerk. In her free time, Hannah enjoys hiking and discovering all the delicious food and drink Colorado has to offer.

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