Category Archives: Health

Altitude as Asthma Treatment

Can high altitude climate therapy (HACT) result in long term benefits for adults with severe asthma?

How much do you know about asthma? Have you ever considered that the air we breath every day is often filled with environmental triggers that worsen asthma symptoms making it more difficult for asthmatics to breath? Did you realize that at elevation many of those environmental triggers such as air pollution and pollen are gone? The rumors are true, mountain air really is better and residents at altitude are truly lucky to be breathing in fresh, clean, crisp mountain air on a daily basis. 

Based on data collected by The Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA), as of 2004 it was estimated that 300 million people of all ages worldwide suffer from asthma. That number is projected to increase to 400 million by 2025! In 2010, the CDC documented that 1.8 million people in the US alone visited the emergency department for asthma related care and of that number at least one third of them had to be hospitalized for severe symptoms. 

Asthma is characterized by: 1) Chronic airway inflammation, 2) intermittent and reversible airway obstruction, and 3) bronchial hyper-responsiveness (the tendency of airways to narrow in response to a variety of triggers in the air that have little effect on people without any respiratory disease). Patients with asthma often complain of intermittent cough, shortness of breath (or difficulty breathing), and wheezing. This classic presentation is often worsened by triggers such as allergens, pollutants, tobacco, cockroaches, pollen, mold, stress, upper respiratory infections, weather and/or exercise. Symptoms are alleviated with bronchodilator medications, which act to open the airways making breathing easier. 

Dillon Reservoir, sitting at over 9,000 ft. Visitors from all over the state and world alike come to enjoy Colorado’s reputably pure water and air.

Asthma is conventionally treated in a step-wise fashion, meaning that treatment escalates with increasing severity of symptoms. Patients who suffer from severe asthma on a daily and nightly basis are often on multiple medications in an attempt to control their symptoms. These usually include an inhaled corticosteroid medication, a long-acting beta-2 agonist. Some start oral steroids and some even require biologic or immune modulating agents. Patients that fall into this category often suffer from a decreased quality of life, multiple doctor or emergency room visits and have difficulty controlling their symptoms on a regular basis. 

Recently, researchers have been investigating different avenues to provide relief for patients suffering from severe asthma symptoms. Studies published on high altitude climate therapy (HACT) are showing positive outcomes for adults with severe asthma that are refractory to conventional treatment. 

An article published in 2018 in The European Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology conducted a study to determine if HACT resulted in long term benefits for asthmatics even after returning to sea level. Patients included in this study had to fall into the category of an adult with severe uncontrolled asthma symptoms despite conventional treatment methods. These patients were enrolled in a 12 week multi-disciplinary treatment program with environmental trigger avoidance in an alpine climate at an altitude greater than 1500 m (4921.26 ft). After the conclusion of the program, patients were followed for one year with repeat evaluations every 3 months to assess the long term effects of this therapy on their asthma symptoms.

This is the first study to show a decrease in exacerbations and improvement in asthma control up to 12 months!! This was measured in the number of asthma exacerbations, hospitalizations, and oral corticosteroid use before and after HACT treatment. The study showed a decrease in all three categories, which correlates to a positive outcome following this treatment.

While “trigger avoidance” has always been an important aspect of the conventional asthma treatment regimen, it is amazing to see how patients benefit when this is carried out effectively. It is hypothesized that allergens work to continually stimulate and maintain the airway inflammation in asthmatics. When these triggers are removed for a sufficient amount of time, the bronchioles have a chance to recover and decrease the process of ongoing inflammation.

Another proposed mechanism by which this treatment is effective is the decrease in air viscosity at altitude, which benefits the patient by decreasing the thickness of airway mucosa and may even reverse airway modeling. This makes breathing easier for patients and acts to decrease asthma symptoms. 

So who can benefit from this treatment? Are all asthmatics created equally?

Scientists and clinicians alike have identified three different groups of asthma patients: 1) severe atopic asthma, 2) persistent eosinophilic asthma, and 3) asthma associated with morbid obesity. While classically these different patient populations respond differently to asthma treatments, it has been found in another study, “Predictors of benefit from high altitude climate therapy,” that HACT improves the quality of life and respiratory function in all patients suffering from severe asthma symptoms. This study sought to investigate if different factors such as age, blood eosinophils (a type of white blood cell), and degree of asthma control prior to admission could predict how much a patient would benefit from high-altitude climate therapy. While this study is making steps in the right direction, it was determined that further patient characterization is required to clearly identify which patients will benefit the most from HACT. 

Finally, in a systematic review and meta-analysis on HACT, it was determined that patients experience a statistically significant improvement in lung function following this treatment modality. This review wanted to analyze the quality of research studies completed so far on this topic and also proposed some limitations of the publications so far.

“Shinrinyoku” (森林浴) is the Japanese word for spending time in nature, literally meaning “deep forest bathing”. It is believed the body exchanges and balances its ions with the ions present in the forest.

Some things to consider that are still being evaluated include: What is the optimal altitude and duration of treatment in order to see the most benefit? Which patients will experience the most improvement from this treatment? How does this treatment method compare financially with others considering that it is a resource-intensive intervention? 

Overall, research on HACT is making exciting headway! So far we have learned that adults with severe asthma can benefit from alpine treatment in some way regardless of phenotype. In addition, many patients experienced lasting improvement for up to 12 months. Be on the lookout as more research is published on this topic. As always, if you are patient suffering from asthma, check in with your primary care provider prior to making a trip to altitude to ensure your asthma is well controlled before arrival. While HACT has been shown to decrease asthma symptoms long term, arriving at altitude unprepared with uncontrolled symptoms could put an asthmatic at higher risk for high altitude sickness. As discussed at the beginning of the article, cold air can be a trigger for asthmatics as well and with that in mind it would be best to visit the mountains during the summer months! Lastly, always be prepared and carry your rescue inhaler with you, especially when traveling to altitude.

Author and PA Student Sarah Gordon

Sarah Gordon is currently a Physician Assistant Student at Midwestern University located in Glendale, Arizona. She plans to complete a one year fellowship at Mayo Clinic in otolaryngology/ head and neck surgery after graduation. Throughout her clinical year she has had the opportunity to travel to Denver and Frisco, Colorado, along with completing rotations located throughout the greater Phoenix area in Arizona. When she is not studying, she enjoys cooking new recipes, spending time with friends and staying active through fitness and outdoor adventures. 

References:

“Asthma | CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov/asthma/default.htm.

Fanta, Christopher H. “An Overview of Asthma Management.” UpToDate, Helen Hollingsworth, MD, www-uptodate-com.mwu.idm.oclc.org/contents/an-overview-of-asthma-management?search=asthma adult&source=search_result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type=default&display_rank=1.

Fanta, Christopher H. “Diagnosis of Asthma in Adolescents and Adults.” Www, Helen Hollingsworth, MD, www-uptodate-com.mwu.idm.oclc.org/contents/diagnosis-of-asthma-in-adolescents-and-adults?search=asthma definition§ionRank=1&usage_type=default&anchor=H2&source=machineLearning&selectedTitle=1~150&display_rank=1#H3.

Fieten, Karin B., et al. “Less Exacerbations and Sustained Asthma Control 12 Months after High Altitude Climate Treatment for Severe Asthma.” Allergy, vol. 74, no. 3, 14 Nov. 2018, doi:10.1111/all.13664.

Hashimoto, S., et al. “Predictors of Benefit from High-Altitude Climate Therapy in Adults with Severe Asthma.” The Netherlands Journal of Medicine, vol. 76, no. 5, July 2018, pp. 218–225.

Rijssenbeek-Nouwens, L. H., and E. H. Bel. “High-Altitude Treatment: a Therapeutic Option for Patients with Severe, Refractory Asthma?” Clinical & Experimental Allergy, vol. 41, no. 6, 2011, pp. 775–782., doi:10.1111/j.1365-2222.2011.03733.x.

Seys, Sven F, et al. “Effects of High Altitude and Cold Air Exposure on Airway Inflammation in Patients with Asthma.” Thorax, vol. 68, no. 10, 2013, pp. 906–913., doi:10.1136/thoraxjnl-2013-203280.

Vinnikov, Denis, et al. “High-Altitude Alpine Therapy and Lung Function in Asthma: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” 6.2 Occupational and Environmental Health, 2016, doi:10.1183/13993003.congress-2016.pa4293.

Stroke, High Altitude, and EPO

A 2009 study from Switzerland found a 12% decrease in risk of death from stroke at 6430 ft. compared to 850 ft.  This result was more pronounced in men than women.  Since men are more physically active than women in Switzerland, it was thought the exercise at the more hypoxic conditions of higher altitude may benefit them more than for women.  The study also noted that being born at a higher altitude had a protective effect on death from cardiovascular disease1

Strokes occur when blood flow to parts of the brain is cut off causing neurons and other brain cells to die within minutes.  Strokes can either be ischemic or hemorrhagic.  80-87% of strokes are ischemic, which means that blood flow to the brain is cut off from a blood clot or other blockage of a blood vessel going to or in the brain.  Hemorrhagic strokes are caused by bleeding within the brain (intracerebral space) or in the space surrounding the brain filled with cerebrospinal fluid (subarachnoid space).  Risk of stroke is higher in individuals with previous transient ischemic attack (TIA), high blood pressure, previous heart attack, atrial fibrillation, enlarged left atria of the heart, smoking, heavy alcohol use, diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol, and stenosis of the carotid artery2.

Interestingly, on initial exposure to hypoxia at high altitude, blood flow to the brain increases which is split equally between gray and white matter.  After 4 to 5 days, blood flow to the brain decreases but is still 13% greater than at sea level.  The increased blood flow is needed to maintain adequate delivery of oxygen when the oxygen content of the blood is lower during hypoxia, until other acclimation mechanisms take effect3.

As noted in previous blog posts in response to hypoxia, erythropoietin (EPO) is also released, which increases the production of red blood cells to increase the oxygen-carrying capacity of our blood.  Other studies have found that EPO also has a protective effect on neurons.   Cerebrovascular endothelial cells have been found to have receptors for EPO and are thus able respond to EPO.  Other studies have found that EPO is also involved in brain development of a fetus in utero.  Animal studies suggest EPO not only protects neurons from cell death but may enable their regeneration as well.  If this translates into humans, it is an important effect for those at risk for stroke4.

In a small clinical trial, patients with middle cerebral artery stroke received IV EPO daily for 3 days after their stroke.  These patients had better neurological outcomes with increased physical functioning and independence as measured by Barthel index test results.  Following the EPO doses, the size of the cerebral infarct, the damaged area of the brain from blood being cut off during the stroke, was reduced as well4.

Based on this research, Ismailov hypothesized that in the United States, geographic variation in levels of EPO from altitude differences may account for the differences in risk of death from stroke.  He termed it the “stroke belt” in the Southeast, with higher rates of death from stroke compared to the Mountain states.  

The states in the “stroke belt” are Louisiana (LA), Mississippi (MI), South Carolina (SC), Alabama (AL), Georgia (GA), Arkansas (AK), Indiana (IN), North Carolina (NC), Kentucky (KY), Tennessee (TN), and Virginia (VA), and all are at lower altitude.  The mountain states have higher altitude and are North Dakota (ND), Kansas (KS), Nebraska (NE), Arizona (AZ), New Mexico (NM), Wyoming (WY), and Colorado (CO).   

Louisiana and Mississippi’s average altitudes are 100 and 300 ft. compared to Colorado and Wyoming with average altitudes of 6800 and 6700 ft4.  Since there is increased EPO released in individuals living at higher altitudes, perhaps there is more of a neuroprotective effect at higher altitudes, contributing to the observed lower risk of death from stroke seen in the Swiss study.  

Symptoms of Stroke5

Think F.A.S.T

Other signs are sudden

  • Numbness of face, arm, or leg and particularly numbness on one side of body
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty seeing out of one or both eyes
  • Difficulty walking
  • Feeling of dizziness, loss of balance, or coordination
  • Severe headache with no identified cause

For more information: https://familydoctor.org/condition/stroke/

o en Español: https://es.familydoctor.org/condicion/accidente-cerebrovascular/

Author and PA student, Stephanie Schick

Stephanie Schick is a Physician Assistant student at Rocky Vista University in Parker, CO.  She is born and raised in Fort Collins, CO.  She started off her clinical year working in pediatrics with Dr. Chris at Ebert Family Clinic.  The remainder of her clinical year will be spent closer to home in northern Colorado.   In her free time she enjoys spending time with her husband, friends, and family in the beautiful Colorado sunshine.

Spring Recap 2019

We’ve learned a lot in the high country this season! For example, it isn’t too late or too warm for a snowstorm. We’ve conducted several interviews with professional, high-altitude athletes, athletic and tourism organizations in Summit County, physicians, podcasters, interns, and a local brewer. They’ve shed so much light on fitness, health, child growth & development, and acclimation at elevation, it warrants a re-cap:

  1. 8,000 ft. seems to be the pivotal elevation at which the body starts to experience a significant deficit in the oxygen and water it needs to function, affecting everything from sleep to metabolism.
  2. A plant-based lifestyle has benefitted athletes under extreme training and competitive conditions at altitude.
  3. Training at altitude significantly reduces your ability to reach cardiovascular and strength goals, even while preparing your respiratory and circulatory systems for the severe decrease in oxygen. “Live High, Train Low” is an effective strategy more and more athletes are advocating for.
  4. Preparation for backcountry excursions is as much mental as physical.
  5. Foods high in nitrates (like red beets, red bell peppers and arugula) can facilitate acclimation and recovery.
  6. Oily foods may inhibit your body’s ability to cope with a significant increase in altitude.
  7. We metabolize and experience the effects of alcohol differently at altitude.
  8. Current research suggests some people suffering from Parkinsons disease may experience some relieve from symptoms at higher elevation.
  9. Increased muscle mass requires increased oxygen. Being an athlete does not necessarily mean you will have an easier time acclimating.
  10. As always, the best way to facilitate acclimation and deal with symptoms of altitude sickness is to drink plenty of water, allow yourself ample rest, and monitor your blood oxygen saturation levels with a pulse oximeter.

Be sure to subscribe to keep up with what this summer has in store for your elevated experiences at altitude! And if you have any questions or are eager to read more about a particular topic, let us know in a comment!

Beneficial Effects of Chronic Hypoxia

Living in Summit County, Colorado has its perks – residents are within a 20 to 40 minute drive to five world class ski resorts, and some of the most beautiful Rocky Mountain trail systems are accessible right out our back door. With the endless opportunities drawing residents outdoors to partake in physical activity, it comes as no surprise that Summit County is considered one of the healthiest communities in the country. However, there may be more than meets the eye when it comes to explaining this, as it also has something to do with the thin air.

As a Summit County native, you have likely heard the term “hypoxia” or “hypoxemia” mentioned a time or two. So what does this mean? Simply put, these words describe the physiological condition that occurs when there is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen in the blood, resulting in decreased oxygen supply to the body’s tissues. When this occurs in the acute setting, it may result in symptoms such as headache, fatigue, nausea, and vomiting. These are common symptoms experienced by those with altitude illness, also known as acute mountain sickness. While these symptoms can cause extreme discomfort and may put a huge damper on a mountain vacation, they are not usually life threatening. However, in a small number of people, development of more serious conditions such as a high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE) can occur. The treatment for all conditions related to altitude illness is oxygen, whether via return to lower elevations or by a portable oxygen concentrator that allows you to stay where you are. While altitude illness generally affects those who rapidly travel from sea level to our elevation, it has also been known to affect residents returning home to altitude, usually after a period of two or more weeks away. In a very small subset it can occur after a period of only a day or two. This generally occurs in those with a preexisting illness, where altitude exacerbates the condition.

While the acute effects of altitude can clearly have detrimental effects on one’s physical well-being, there is emerging research demonstrating that chronic hypoxia may actually come with several health benefits. Long time Summit County business owner and community pediatrician, Dr. Chris Ebert-Santos of Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, has spent quite some time studying the effects of chronic high-altitude exposure, and recently attended and presented at the Chronic Hypoxia Symposium in La Paz, Bolivia, the highest capital city in the world.

It is important to first understand the adaptations that occur in our bodies as a result of long-term hypoxia. The ability to maintain oxygen balance is essential to our survival.

So how do those of us living in a place where each breath we take contains about ⅓ fewer oxygen molecules survive?

Simply put, we beef up our ability to transport oxygen throughout our body. To do this, our bodies, specifically the kidneys, lungs and brain increase their production of a hormone called erythropoietin, commonly known as EPO. This hormone signals the body to increase its production of red blood cells in the bone marrow. Red blood cells contain oxygen binding hemoglobin proteins that deliver oxygen to the body’s tissues. Thus, more red blood cells equal more oxygen-carrying capacity. In addition to increasing the ability to carry oxygen, our bodies also adapt on a cellular level by increasing the efficiency of energy-producing biochemical pathways, and by decreasing the use of oxygen consuming processes2. Furthermore, the response to chronic hypoxia stimulates the production of growth factors in the body that work to improve vascularization2, thus, increased ability for oxygenated blood to reach its destination. 

So, how can these things offer health benefit?

To start, it appears that adaptation to continuous hypoxia has cardio-protective effects, conferring defense against lethal myocardial injury caused by acute ischemia (lack of blood flow) and the subsequent injury caused by return of blood to the affected area3. The exact mechanism of how this occurs is not well understood, but it seems that heart tissue adapts to be better able to tolerate episodes of ischemia, making it more resistant to damage that could otherwise be done by decreased blood flow that occurs during what is commonly known as a heart attack. This same principle applied to ischemic brain damage when tested in rat subjects. Compared to their normoxic counterparts, rats pre-conditioned with hypoxia sustained less ischemic brain changes when subjected to carotid artery occlusion, suggesting neuroprotective effects of chronic hypoxia exposure4.

Additionally, it appears that altitude-adapted individuals may be better equipped to combat a pathological process known as endothelial dysfunction5. This process is a driving force in the development of atherosclerotic, coronary, and cerebrovascular artery disease. Altitude induces relative vasodilation of the body’s blood vessels compared to lowlanders2. A relaxing molecule known as nitric oxide, or NO, assists with causing this dilation, and in turn the resultant dilated blood vessels produce more of this compound5. The molecule has protective effects on the inner linings of blood vessels and helps to decrease the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines that damage the endothelium5. This damage is what kickstarts the cascade that leads to atherosclerosis in our arteries. Thus, a constant state of hypoxia-induced vasodilation may in fact decrease one’s risk of developing occlusive vascular disease. 

The topics mentioned above highlight a few of the proposed mechanisms by which chronic hypoxia may be beneficial to our health. However, do keep in mind that there are potential detrimental effects, including an increased incidence of pulmonary hypertension as well as exacerbation of preexisting conditions such as COPD, structural heart defects and sleep apnea, to name a few6. Research regarding the effects of chronic hypoxia on the human body is ongoing, and given its significance to those of us living at elevations of 9,000 feet and above, it is important to be aware of the impact our physical environment has on our health. Dr. Ebert-Santos is avidly involved in organizations dedicated to better understanding the health impacts of chronic hypoxia, and has several current research projects of her own that may help us to further understand the underlying science.

Kayla Gray is a medical student at Rocky Vista University in Parker, CO. She grew up in Breckenridge, CO, and spent her third year pediatric clinical rotation with Dr. Chris at Ebert Family Clinic. She plans to specialize in emergency medicine, and hopes to one day end up practicing again in a mountain community. She is an avid skier, backpacker, and traveler, and plans to incorporate global medicine into her future practice.

Citations

  1. Theodore, A. (2018). Oxygenation and mechanisms for hypoxemia. In G. Finlay (Ed.), UpToDate. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from https://www-uptodate-com.proxy.rvu.edu/ contents/oxygenation-and-mechanisms-of-hypoxemia?search=hypoxia&source=search_ result&selectedTitle=1~150&usage_type= default&display_rank=1#H467959
  2. Michiels C. (2004). Physiological and pathological responses to hypoxia. The American journal of pathology, 164(6), 1875–1882. doi:10.1016/S0002-9440(10)63747-9. Retrieved May 2, 2019. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1615763/ 
  3. Kolar, F. (2019). Molecular mechanism underlying the cardioprotective effects conferred by adaptation to chronic continuous and intermittent hypoxia. 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium Abstracts. pg 4. Retrieved May 2, 2019. http://zuniv.net/symposium7/Abstracts7CHS.pdf
  4. Das, K., Biradar, M. (2019). Unilateral common carotid artery occlusion and brain histopathology in rats pre-conditioned with sub chronic hypoxia. 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium Abstracts. pg 5. Retrieved May 2, 2019. http://zuniv.net/symposium7/Abstracts7CHS.pdf
  5. Gerstein, W. (2019). Endothelial dysfunction at high altitude. 7th Chronic Hypoxia Symposium Abstracts. pg 11. Retrieved May 7, 2019. http://zuniv.net/symposium7/Abstracts7CHS.pdf
  6. Hypoxemia. Cleveland Clinic. Updated March 7, 2018. Retrieved May 9, 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/17727-hypoxemia

Portrait of a High-Altitude Athlete: The Ultra Mountain Athlete

Yuki Ikeda has been a professional cyclist for the past 10 years. He’s won titles in both Japan and the US. Interestingly enough, however, he come to Colorado to study at Metro State in Denver in order to play pro basketball. He is now known as an Ultra Mountain Athlete, not only biking, but running races up to 100 miles at altitudes over 10,000 ft. Over some decaf coffee on a warm Sunday afternoon at Gonzo’s in Frisco, he tells me he tried out every semester for the college team and failed. He had never really explored outdoor recreation growing up in Japan, because he had been so focused on a career in basketball.

He started taking some classes on outdoor sports while he was in Colorado, at Metro and then at Red Rocks Community College: rock climbing, cycling, backpacking, kayaking … He ended up staying in Colorado after graduating from Metro. “At that time, I was so into mountain biking,” he says. “I decided to pursue my career in mountain biking.”

He started racing in 2002. It took him five years to accumulate sponsors and become a full-on pro. “After every season, I sent my resume — racing results and what I do — to so many teams [to see if] they [would] accept me or not.”

Ultra Mountain Athlete Yuki Ikeda

But he started to get burned out. While he was still improving his stats, he was noticing that he couldn’t maintain the lead against some up-and-coming younger racers. “I was mentally very tired the last couple of years. I was kind of frustrated. Last year, after the season, I was so bummed out, I didn’t want to ride my bike, and I didn’t feel like starting training for the next year, so I stayed away from biking. I didn’t even touch my bike for a month.”

“But I still wanted to do some exercise. I just followed my wife, running, then I kind of joined the local trail running community. They showed me where to go and where to run, and I just loved it. I was so into mountain biking only, I thought doing other sports might cause injuries and effect my career. But it was the opposite.”

His new love for running turned his career around. “Physically, I don’t know [if it has improved my biking] yet, but mentally it helped. Now, my training is still 60 – 70% cycling, but not all the time. When I get on the bike, my brain is still fresh. Before, I rode my bike every day, pushing hard every day. It burned me out.”

Last month, he ran his first ultra running race, 50K. “Last October, I got sore from just running only 5K. Now I an run 50K, so that’s awesome.” He won.

Ultra Training at Altitude

I ask him how he trains for these races. Every summer, he comes to Colorado, staying in Frisco or Breckenridge to train in preparation for a series of races at altitude. It usually takes him 10 days to almost 3 weeks before he can do the same workouts he does at sea level in Tokyo.

Threshold power key. Threshold power is the maximum power you can sustain for about 60 minutes. He has a power meter on his bike that measures the power he exerts in watts. Recently, he has also been wearing a similar device on his shoe for when he runs.

“In Tokyo, my number is 310 watts, but here, it’s almost 270 to 280. I just did a threshold test last week. So that’s almost 10 to 12% lower. But still, if it’s within 10 to 15%, that’s very good for this altitude. But I usually take the test after a week or 10 days after I get here. I cannot push myself hard enough [before that]. Even [if] you’ve adjusted to this altitude, your power number is still lower than at sea level. I feel like I’m weak, but you have to accept it. That’s just how it is.”

His next race is part of the Leadman series, consisting of 5 mountain biking and trail running races in Leadville, Colorado. This next one is 42 km. Originally, the trail takes the runners over Mosquito Pass, which is at over 13,000 ft. But this year, there is still so much snow that the trail has been re-routed, so the runners aren’t sure what to expect. But the race starts at over 10,000 ft.

To train for this, he’s been running and biking six days a week. Every morning, he measures his blood oxygen saturation using a pulse oximeter. The first morning he arrived in Frisco, it was at 92. After a couple weeks of acclimation and training, it’s pretty reliably at 96 every morning.

Pacing

Yuki claims the most difficult part about running these long races is pacing. His coach encouraged him to run “negative splits”, increasing his speed toward the end of the race. “At my first 50 km race, even though I won it, I could have paced myself better. I just went too hard at the beginning [to] take the lead and paid for it later in the race. I was so trashed after the race, I couldn’t even stand and walk.”

“My coach is saying to be careful about [hitting the wall] at altitude. It’s so hard to recover. It takes almost five times longer than at sea level. I need to pace myself, especially for running 100 miles,” Yuki says, referencing the Leadville Trail Run in August he is also preparing for: 100 miles at altitude. “I’m so excited, but at the same time, I’m so nervous. Even finishing is questionable at this point.”

Acclimation

His secret to acclimating comfortably and quickly is actually movement. He says he feels the affects of the elevation more when he’s sedentary. In order to get more oxygen to his body, he has to get his circulation going. “The first week, I feel better when I exercise than when I just sit [around]. “

Also, beets. And red bell pepper. And arugula.

He eats a limited portion of these every day he’s at altitude. These vegetables provide a lot of nitrates, which your body processes into nitric oxide, facilitating blood circulation. At altitudes over 8000 ft., where you have access to about a third of the oxygen available in the air at sea level, the key to supplementing the oxygen your body requires is increased blood flow. After a certain amount of time, your body starts creating more oxygen-carrying red blood cells to counter the deficit, so getting the blood moving is literally vital.

According to high-altitude growth and development expert Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos, nitric oxide is often the way newborn babies with complications at altitude are treated. Hypoxia (the state of receiving less oxygen than is normal at sea level) causes pulmonary vessels (in the lungs) to constrict. Putting these infants on nitric oxide gas dilates the pulmonary arteries and improves some types of respiratory distress.

There are powders marketed to aid the food version of this nutrition, including BeetElite, Yuki’s product of choice, which he’ll add to his sports drinks in addition to consuming about an ounce of roasted beets. But portion control is also important, as too much nitrate can also have a negative effect on the body.

Running Recovery

Yuki is learning that he has to deal with an interesting phenomenon when it comes to his ultra running races: it’s tough on his guts. When it comes to his diet, he doesn’t typically change anything for recovery after a long event. “But I think my guts are more tired, because your body is bouncing so much from running.”

When running these incredible distances, he fuels his body with an energy gel every 20 to 30 minutes while running. “It usually has about 100 to 120 calories. It’s a dense energy. Then you take them for five hours, continuously, so it also tires out your guts. During the race. You have to maintain your blood sugar and keep your muscles moving. My muscles are tired, but also, my intestine and stomach are tired.”

“Even water is hard on my stomach [after running a race]. I’m kinda worried about running 50 and 100 miles. I’m not only worried about my legs, but even my stomach. I’m not used to [consuming] energy for 20 hours, eating and running at the same time.”

In Japan, hot springs and bathing are also a huge, sacred part of the recovery and health ritual. He takes a hot bath almost every day, “especially in winter,” he says. “It helps me to sleep at night.”

Sleep

The first week he spends at altitude in Colorado, he finds it harder to fall asleep. “I used to take one or two melatonin capsules every night, but it’s hard to tell if it helped. I just go to bed early, like 8 or 9, even if I cannot fall asleep. I just take the time to lay down and recover. [I try to sleep] at least 7 to 8 hours a night, but sometimes it’s hard. If I can’t get that amount of sleep, I usually take a nap after training.”

This may sound obvious, but sleep is when your body does most of its recovery, both mentally and physically. Sleep experts and studies have proven that the body and brain visibly deteriorate after so much sleep deprivation. And at altitude, with less oxygen available to supply a body in constant motion, sleep may be more important than ever.

Plant-based Nutrition

Yuki isn’t the first high-altitude athlete I’ve spoken to who advocates for a plant-based lifestyle. In a recent blog, skier and duathlete Cierra Sullivan also tells us about how a plant-based diet seems to make a big difference.

“When I used to like and eat animal products a lot, my recovery time was slower than now. It was hard to digest animal fats. I believed that they had a lot of good protein, but it was so hard on your body and digestive system,” Yuki says. “It took time to change my diet, but I now feel more comfortable with my plant-based diet, physically and mentally.”

Live High Train Low

Another recurring theme among high-altitude athletes.

“One of my sponsors has an altitude tent. They leased it to me before the competition, so I used it about a month. I slept in the tent, set at about 3000 m, then I train at sea level. I think it helped a bit, but it might be too short to tell. It tired me [out], though. I think I needed to do it longer before the competition, like, two or three months. I couldn’t train well, because I felt tired all the time. But I think for altitude training, I think this elevation is almost too high. Because you cannot push to your maximum potential. For example, for cycling, I can push up to 1000 – 1200 watts at sea level, but I cannot hit that number here, so I cannot train in that range here. I can lose that high power if I stay longer here. But it depends on your [goal]. My [goal] is winning the Leadman series, that’s why I’ve come here to train.”

This is partly why Yuki will lift weights once a week when training at altitude, “to maintain my high power.” With such limited access to oxygen, athletes up here can’t reach the same “punching power” that they can at lower elevations, so lifting may help maintain that power. “Very short, maybe 45 minutes, once a week, just to maintain. Weightlifting is still supplemental for your specific sport, so I don’t want it to affect my training on my bike or running. For race week, I don’t lift weights, because lifting weights takes time to recover.”

Keeping It Fun

“My trick to keep going — the best way to improve yourself,” Yuki adds, in a final reflection, “is to keep it fun. If you’re not having fun, I think that’s not good. Last year, I almost lost my motivation as an athlete. I almost thought about quitting racing, but I still love the sport. Trail running helped me mentally and physically, and my motivation came back, even for cycling. Having fun is the key to keep going.”

Ultra mountain athlete Yuki Ikeda with high-altitude researcher and writer Roberto Santos at Gonzo’s Coffee in Frisco after an insightful afternoon interview.

Thank you, Yuki. I completely agree. And best of luck with that 100-mile trail run at 13,000 ft.! Keep track of Yuki’s race schedule, social media and stats at http://yukiikeda.net/

robert-ebert-santos
Roberto Santos on an epic powder day at the opening of The Beavers lift at Arapahoe Basin ski area.

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

Nocturnal Pulse Oximeter Study

    “I’ve never had a patient with a normal overnight pulse oximetry study,” said Tara Taylor, Family Nurse Practitioner at Ebert Family Clinic. She has been a provider there for a year, after 14 years working as a nurse in the intensive care unit at Swedish Hospital. Of course, the study that tracks oxygen and heart rate during sleep is usually performed on patients with symptoms such as snoring, fatigue, poor-quality sleep, attention deficit, depression, or high blood pressure.

    What is normal for healthy adults at altitude? When would sleeping on oxygen help cure or prevent some of these symptoms? Do we even notice when we’re being deprived of oxygen while we sleep?

These are the questions addressed in a new investigator-initiated research trial at Ebert Family Clinic. The catalyst for the study was a conversation between Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos and Annette Blakeslee FNP at the 7th World congress of Chronic Hypoxia in La Paz, Bolivia in February. Annette is the provider for the US Embassy staff at 12,000 ft elevation. State department officials spend months or years on assignment there, and Annette wanted to know when she should be concerned. Local residents living at altitude for generations are adapted, while people living in La Paz and Summit County for months or years are acclimatized but still at risk for conditions caused by the low-oxygen environment.

    The study, called “Overnight Pulse Oximeter Study at Three Altitude Sites”, will recruit healthy adults ages 20 to 65 years. Participants will fill out a health questionnaire, take home a simple monitor worn on the finger and wrist to wear during sleep, and return the monitor the next day. Ebert Family Clinic staff will download the data for further analysis. Participants will be notified by a provider regarding the results of their study. De-identified data will be transferred to Excel spreadsheets from which graphs and charts can be generated.

    Besides dividing participants into three different altitude ranges between 7,000 and 12,000 feet, data will be analyzed by age groups and symptoms. “Everyone responds to altitude differently,” states Dr. Ebert-Santos. “There are hundreds of chromosomes that affect our ability to adapt. Many studies show the benefits of living in a low-oxygen environment, but a small percent of us will do better sleeping on oxygen. We are hoping this study will establish normal values and suggest who should be evaluated further.” — Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos

For more information, or to become a participant in this sleep study, residents of altitudes 7,000 ft. or above in Colorado for at least 6 months and between the ages of 20 and 65 years old should call Ebert Family Clinic at (970) 668-1616.

Metabolism at Altitude : Preventing Acute Mountain Illness through Strategic Nutrition

Last September, my friend and I decided to go camping. We chose an area close to Silverthorne, Colorado (9,035 ft.) and decided to camp above tree line at around 11,000 feet. Both of us were endurance athletes and had done camping trips at altitude many times without complications. We considered ourselves in great shape and ready for any adventure. 

We departed from our home in Fort Collins (5,003 ft.) in the morning and arrived at the trailhead before noon. We were well prepared and had plenty of nutrition in our 40+ lb.-backpacks. The start of the trailhead was at 9,035 ft and we had to hike 7 miles to our destination at 11,000 ft. We were well hydrated, built our camp and went to bed. Both of us had mild edema to our extremities, but nothing that we were worried about as we had experienced these symptoms on multiple hikes to higher elevations in the past. 

We spent the next day hiking above tree line, staying hydrated and fueling with high-quality calories. We have learned from personal experience to eat even when we do not feel like it. We both have experienced weight loss of about 5-10 lbs. per week when camping and hiking above 10,000 ft. 

We did a 7-mile exploratory hike along the ridge line at 11,000 ft. the next day, again, staying hydrated and consuming plenty of calories. We returned to camp when my partner first mentioned a mild pounding headache. He drank more fluids, had dinner and went to bed. 

Rewarding views, in a tent at altitude!

I woke up at around midnight due to my partner running out of the tent. He vomited once and returned to the tent. Something else seemed off. He did not zip the tent door shut when he returned. He mumbled that his head was hurting and kept his head elevated as it relieved the pain to some degree. A few hours later, he vomited again. 

The next morning I proposed that we should pack up camp and hike down the mountain, as he continued to complain of a pounding headache. He refused and wanted to go hike some more. I left the tent site first, walked a few steps and turned around: he was sitting down, staring at the ground. Now I started to really get worried as he was an amazing endurance athlete with a never-ending hunger for adventure. This was not like him. 

I decided to pack up the tent, whether he liked it or not. We needed to get off the mountain before his condition worsened. 

After many attempts, I was finally able to convince him to come with me, and we started our descent. Between 11,000 ft. and 9,000 ft. we walked slow, as his coordination was slightly limited. As soon as we reached 9,000 ft., he started to improve: he started to walk faster, was more coordinated, and communicated more. By the time we got back to our car, he was back to his normal self, however he still had a lingering headache. 

The effects of altitude on his body were very surprising. He demonstrated some classic symptoms of what the high altitude medical community refer to as “HACE”, High Altitude Cerebral Edema: headache, vomiting, confusion, and ataxia (a loss of control of body movement). The experience was unexpected and scary. Cell phone reception is very limited in the backcountry and if his condition would have worsened, this trip could have ended in a very bad situation. 

Summit County, Colorado is a beautiful place to explore the outdoors, hiking and camping. I recently had a conversation with an avid outdoorsman who calls Fort Collins (4,982 ft.) his home and enjoys hiking and camping in Summit County at elevations ranging from 9,000 ft – 12,000 ft. He stated that he consistently experiences unwanted weight reduction of around 5-10 lbs. in body weight per week when living in the backcountry at elevations above 9,000 ft.

Is this weight loss related to increased activity without adjusting calorie intake? Could this weight loss be related to exposure to higher elevation and possible changes in metabolism? How can one keep track of calorie-cost and anticipate the inevitable stress on the body at altitude?

Compare your activity level

A GPS or even a pedometer can help measure and compare activity. An increase in miles or steps compared to baseline may require caloric adjustment in order to prevent weight loss. Calorie input should equal calorie expenditure in order to prevent weight loss. It is important to take into consideration that hiking in the mountains usually requires a high level of physical performance due to elevation gain and loss as well as walking on uneven surfaces which result in increased muscle recruitment.

Increased basal metabolic rate (BMR)

According to Dünnwald et al. (2019), exposure to higher altitude increases BMR initially as the body is adapting to the hypoxic environment. The study concluded that increased sympathetic activity and hypoxia may be responsible for the increase in BMR. Due to more extreme exposure to elements such as cold, wind, rain and snow, involuntary shivering may also contribute to an increase in calorie expenditure and should be considered when preparing for the backcountry.

Decrease in appetite

Another factor contributing to possible weight loss may be related to a lack in appetite. Research on the cause of high altitude anorexia is ongoing, however some researchers believe there may be a correlation between a change in appetite-stimulating hormones at altitude. A study by Shukla et al. (2005) found a decrease in total levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, peptide YY, glucagon-like peptide-1, and leptin at initial exposure to altitude. Pre-packaging and scheduling meals while hiking at altitude may aide in the prevention of weight loss during backcountry activities.

Muscle atrophy

Chaudhary et al. (2012) propose that changes in protein turnover in hypoxic environments may be related to muscle wasting, including a decrease in protein synthesis and an increase in protein degradation. To minimize muscle atrophy, it is important to consume high protein foods frequently. Amino acids may also aide in protein synthesis. Packing snacks with high nutritional value can prevent weight loss. Nutrition labels on food items are a great way to identify optimal snacks.  

Hiking in the backcountry on a multi-day trip requires preparation. I choose high-calorie foods that taste good, are light to pack, and have minimal waste. I make breakfast and dehydrated meals at home and put them into individual bags that only require me to add water. Making your own dehydrated meals allows you to avoid unnecessary additives. I supplement throughout the day with high calorie snacks. If I have room in my pack, I also add what I call “novelty” backcountry foods, such as cheese and wine – it is important to splurge every once in a while, even if you live in a tent. 

Great foods for the back country:

  • Butter or Coconut Oil coffee: many companies make pre-packaged individual coffee. One cup of butter coffee is around 200 calories.
  • Perfect Bars: 1 Bar has around 300 calories and 17 grams of protein. 
  • Pro Bars: 1 Bar has 390 calories, they are light to pack and taste great.
  • Nuts and seeds: easy to pack, great source of healthy fats, calories and protein
  • Jerky: we make our own elk jerky. It is a great snack throughout the day with healthy protein and added salt. 
  • Apples: It is difficult to get fresh fruit in the back country. Apples are easy to pack, last for a long time and allow you to get vitamins and fiber. 
  • Dehydrated fruits and vegetables: great addition to oatmeal in the morning and your dinner at night. Dehydrated fruits and vegetables are easy to make at home, very light to pack, and you can rehydrate them in the backcountry. 
  • Oatmeal with protein powder: we pre-package oatmeal with dehydrated fruit and a scoop of our favorite protein powder in individual bags. Just add water and you have a fantastic-tasting and calorie-rich breakfast. 

Every backcountry excursion should be well planned and it is always better to be over-prepared. It is crucial to be knowledgeable about what foods need to be consumed and when, in order to prevent negative outcomes. Know the distance and elevation changes on your trip, prepare for changes in weather, plan your calories out for every meal on every day, and make a schedule to prevent complications related to nutrition. 

Most importantly: enjoy the beauty of the high-elevation backcountry!

Angi Axmann Grabinger is Nurse Practitioner student at the University of Northern Colorado. Angi’s passion in healthcare involves disease prevention and integrative medicine. If Angi is not studying, working or gardening, you can find her exploring the mountains running or hiking. 

References

Chaudhary, P., Suryakumar, G., Prasad, R., Singh, S.N., Ali, S., Ilavazhagan, G. (2012). 

Chronic hypobaric hypoxia mediated skeletal muscle atrophy: role of ubiquitin–proteasome pathway and calpains. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11010-011-1210-x

Dünnwald, T., Gatterer, H., Faulhaber, M., Arvandi, M., Schobersberger, W. (2019). Body 

Composition and Body Weight Changes at Different Altitude Levels: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Retrieved from:https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2019.00430/full

Shukla, V., Singh, S.N., Vats P., Singh, V.K. , Singh, S.B., Banerjee, P.K. (2005).  Ghrelin and 

leptin levels of sojourners and acclimatized lowlanders at high altitude. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16117183

Portrait of a High-Altitude Athlete: a Medical Student’s Philosophy of Training and Preparedness

When I first met Cierra Sullivan, I had been preparing for a year abroad in Japan to continue my Japanese language studies, and she was working on her Bachelor’s in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We didn’t have much of a chance to connect before I left the country, but through social media, we were able to follow each other’s passion for extreme sports and the remote outdoors. I ended up in Japan for several years while Cierra graduated from CU, finished a Master’s in Nutrition and Metabolism at Boston University School of Medicine, grew a career as a competitive athlete and high country adventurer, and found a deeper path into Naturopathic and Chinese medicines, in which she is completing a Doctorate and Master’s respectively.

Her resume is an impressive timeline of contributions to every aspect of her academic experience, and studies and volunteering have taken her from both US coasts, South America, Africa and back, working with underprivileged communities in several languages, providing aid, health care, and opportunities for children of underrepresented demographics, just to name a few of the projects on the long list.

itu-world-championships
Cierra Sullivan (center) at the Duathlon ITU World Championships, July 2018 in Odense, Denmark, with teammates Emily Allred (left) and Alex Veenker (right).

Now that we’re both back in the continental US, we’ve had more opportunities to share about our mutual passions, and I was finally able to get some time with her over the phone to really talk about her philosophy of health care and how she represents that in her active outdoor life. In addition to her experience playing basketball, rugby and golf, she continues to compete nationally for Team USA as a duathlete, and is currently seeing her fourth consecutive year of having skied every single month.

Why Naturopathic and Chinese Medicine?

Her background in Western medicine made her aware of the lack of focus on nutrition in the United States, which she believes is essential not only to healing, but more importantly to disease prevention. Naturopathic medicine “is a focus on healing from the inside out,” she tells me. “I really value the patient-physician relationship,” she continues. The ever-looming presence and power of insurance companies means the interaction between physicians and their patients is constantly restricted by time and money.

She says her experience in Naturopathy and Chinese medicine has put more emphasis on the mind-body experience, first doing no harm, and the importance of doctor-as-teacher philosophy. When it comes to health, there are some fundamental similarities; Western and Eastern medical practitioners both recommend exercise and drinking plenty of water. The main difference, she speculates, may be in the definition: “What is it to ‘eat healthy’ and ‘stay hydrated’?”

The essence of her philosophy of nutrition is simple. Even in preparation for the many physically strenuous expeditions she trains for, she tries to maintain a minimally-processed, plant-based lifestyle. Even the companies that sponsor her as an athlete create products that adhere to her strategy of nutrition. Being so particular about the products, both what she puts on her body and in it, she looks for products that value the same things that she does, products that are more beneficial to the body, with no extra colors, preservatives or fillers. Ultimately, she wants to be able to reduce recovery time and enhance performance.

The Mental Game

trail-running-with-doggo
Trail running in Forrest Park out in PDX.

Cierra tells me she wasn’t always so passionate about the outdoors, having been more immersed in playing basketball when she was younger. But she had always been competitive, and playing sports her whole life, gradually shifted from traditional indoor sports to the wild outdoors. She started climbing and cycling when she was in Boulder, then did a duathlon (running and cycling). “You do a few races, then you get hooked. You see results on the board and it motivates you.”

Her growing experience being an athlete in the outdoor arena fostered the idea of being present in any moment, whether it’s inside, or out with nature. “Ultimately, you learn to set boundaries and cut out all the noises and distractions of social media.” Now, after a brief hiatus from all of that, she has a renewed relationship with her online presence, motivated by the opportunity to share her lifestyle and philosophy and stay in touch with friends and family, which she says is better portrayed in photos than in words.

But her mental strategy remains a strong part of her training, preparation, and execution when it comes to the outdoors and altitude.

“For high altitude excursions, decision-making and mind set are always going to be the challenge. Knowing when to turn around when conditions aren’t right, constantly watching the weather, [being aware] if someone’s not keeping up.” She tells me this is the most difficult aspect of her career right now. And I completely appreciate it. For all the trekking our research team does at altitude, I agree every time she says “you’re only as strong as your weakest team member,” an old proverb we’ve both learned to live by. Although when it comes to the high altitude excursions we’re talking about, I don’t think either of us would use “weak” to describe any member of our team.

She tells me she’s bailed on plans to ascend Mt. Hood for not having fallen asleep by the time their alarms went off before 3 am. “[You] can’t let your ego supersede the safety of everybody in the group. You have to push yourself outside your comfort zones, but you have to do it smart. Even expert backcountry rescuers get stuck.” And it’s not because they’re inexperienced. It’s because conditions outdoors can easily overwhelm even the most experienced bodies.

The Physical Game

Staying active, consistently challenging her body, and consistency are large parts of her strategy when it comes to optimizing her condition at altitude. She says she pays more attention to self-care and exercise than some of her more stressed colleagues in her Naturopathic and Chinese medicine programs, which, for her, looks like a lot of time outside over weekends and breaks.

“Live high and train low might be best for the access to oxygen,” she recommends. I’ve heard the phrase before, but honestly, I’d never really put much thought into it. I’d just always assumed it was most efficient to live and train at altitude. But the way she puts it, having more access to oxygen at lower elevations allows you to train longer and harder, so you’re more physically prepared for long treks at higher elevations. Combine that with the oxygen deficit during recovery and you have a recipe for hard training and increased red blood cell production to maximize performance. And I do admit, training at 9,000 ft. in Summit County is grueling, even for a resident, and I can definitely go longer and harder when I’m at a lower altitude, especially sea level.

She ski tours for hours to train for cycling and running events, saying, “if you can sustain a low Zone 2 workout for 5 or 6 hours [at altitude], you’re set at sea level,” referring to the heart rate zones. (I’ve found a great description of the five zones on Pivotal Fitness’s website.)

The hardest part of acclimation for Cierra, she says, is “being patient for your body to catch up.” She’s really conscious about continuous snacking and water. “I sweat easily, so I switched to Merino wools, adjust layers, and avoid being soaked and getting cold.”

high-altitude-family
Cierra with the family, Olli and Jackie Shea, out for daily exercise at Mary Jane in June 2018

When she prepares for the monthly ski trips, she carb loads, increases fats, does lots of endurance training, stays hydrated and nourished, and makes sure she gets enough quality sleep.

The Gear Game

I ask her what tools or resources she most consistently relies on. I’m expecting some top trade secrets, but, luckily for us, they’re pretty standard and more or less obvious:

“When it comes to winter-time skiing, definitely get to know your [local] avalanche forecasters; avalanche reports are key. Apps like Gaia and Caltopo are great for route planning, but having a GPS spot and being competent with a compass and a map are way undervalued in our tech-loaded society. Of course a good dose of common sense goes a long way, even if the avy report is green, make sure you have your avalanche gear, headlamps, and enough water. Extra high-fat bars that can get you through a 24-hour emergency, confidence in who you’re going to be out with. Layer appropriately. Don’t go above the skill of your weakest member. Food is my comfort thing. Snacks.”

We’re hoping to get some of her time and expertise in the Ebert Family Clinic and on the high altitude research team next summer, but in the meantime, you can follow Cierra’s minimally-processed, plant-based, outdoor adventures on Instagram.

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

Kidney Function at Altitude: An Interview with Nephrologist Dr. Andrew Brookens

How much do you know about the role your kidneys play? Does elevation affect their function? How do your kidneys help you adjust to high altitude environments?

The remote mountain communities have a new hero. Altitude Kidney Health just opened their practice at Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, Summit County, Colorado this week. Dr. Andrew Brookens, a native Coloradan, grew up in the Denver suburb of Englewood, and spent years living at twice the altitude in Bolivia with the Peace Corps before dedicating his career to bringing his current legacy of accessible kidney health care back to Colorado. His passion for providing service to the Colorado high country and beyond and his appreciation for his cross-cultural heritage is powerful in a recent talk between patients and publicizing.

What do you want people to know about you and your background?

I was born in Englewood, Colorado, and I knew pretty early on that I wanted to be helping people, in health care. But the first job I took was as a waiter. I thought that was just great.

God bless you! I know just how valuable that is.

But it’s funny, because I don’t consider serving patients too much different than waiting tables and serving clients there. So, what I did was I had to sort out whether I truly wanted it. And I went to college out East, and I decided to do the coursework for medicine and medical school. But I decided at the end of medical school, I think there’s more to life than just going straight through and being a science junkie. So I got a degree in Public Policy and Spanish, and I lived in South America and did the Peace Corps for two and a half year.

I went to Cherry Creek High School in Englewood. I went to Duke University in North Carolina. I went to Bolivia [for the Peace Corps], which was great, because a second goal was to learn Spanish fluently. My grandfather is from Puerto Rico, my grandmother’s from Dominican Republic, and a lot of family speaks Spanish only, and I decided, you know what, I could just go straight on through and be a science junkie, or I can learn a little bit about the world, you know, some of this cross-cultural reality that is in my family. And I decided I just need to figure some stuff out for myself first.

And I’ve heard Bolivia is another undiscovered gem in South America.

Yeah, exactly. Bolivia is one of two landlocked countries in South America. And it has three main areas from the high plains — they call it the altiplano — but it’s up at about 12,000 – 14,000 ft. It’s intense. And it’s totally flat land, as you look out across the landscape. It’s like the Great Plains of the States, but flatter. And then there’s the mountain valleys and then there’s the Lowlands, which are tropical. And so I lived in the mountain valleys at 10,000 ft. And it’s beautiful, and I of course went there to learn Spanish, and I got placed in a village where Spanish was the second language. The first language was Quechua, so I had to learn Quechua to survive!

I did two and half years there doing youth education and local economic development. I worked with women weavers to help them sell their weavings, and market it in the cities. And I worked with the tourism committee to help bring more tourists to their lands, because agriculture was a declining economy, and we wanted to help them develop ways to generate income in their own villages.

I loved the service work abroad, but wanted to anchor myself to somewhere closer to Colorado. Back at home, my brother helped reopen my eyes to considering the long-term career I’d once dreamt about as a child: medicine. And so while working as a consultant and waiter again, I applied and was accepted to medical school at CU in Denver, and we were the first class to transfer out from the Denver campus to Aurora. It was a wonderful experience: the peer group, as well as experiencing the new campus and all of the things they had to offer afforded a variety of learning opportunities.

During that experience, I got to travel to the mountains of Colorado and do a clinical rotation in Steamboat [Springs], which was fascinating for me. Because it was about seeing the community and not just seeing the next test and my studies. And as a guy who’s from CO, going out there and seeing what the mountains were like and what the needs were like … one of the docs who I worked with, who’s still in practice there, is this fascinating doctor who trained himself to do some specialty procedures because otherwise he had to send patients down for these procedures who couldn’t afford to spend the night in the city, and it was just complex. And he has pioneered the offering of some specialty services in addition to his general medical practice in that part of the state. It just opened my mind to this reality of what the need is in parts of Colorado and in many states, frankly, that don’t have access or aren’t right next door to a major medical center.

Was he a nephrologist as well?

No, he was a general internist, and he was doing gastrointestinal procedures: colonoscopies and things like that. So that kinda sparked a flame, and I decided to follow my soon-to-be-wife to Seattle where I finished my training. I did Internal Medicine residency, and then kidney, or nephrology, fellowship in Seattle, Washington. And at the end of five years there, my wife, who’s also from Colorado, and I had made a decision … we decided to go back to Colorado. And so we moved back to Colorado in 2016, I took a job with a large Nephrology practice in West Denver. I loved my job, it was a great group of colleagues, and yet I still felt like there was more to pursue, going back to that same experience that I mentioned, which is we could be doing more for our patients who live in the far flung areas of the state.

To ask a patient to come in, driving six hours or five hours from Craig, for a 15 minute visit with me, it felt like the greatest disservice. Why would a patient conceivably wanna lose a day or two, trek all the way down here, pay me to see me, and then maybe return home, maybe not necessarily better off. I just didn’t feel like that was making sense. I don’t wanna be naive about it, but it was my deep-seated belief that we could do more to bring health care to Coloradans everywhere, no matter where they are. And that’s why I decided this is the time. So in late 2018, I decided to resign my position and set out to make this company, which is Altitude Kidney Health. This is the dream that I’ve had all the way back to the days when I thought I wanted to just help people and started waiting tables. I felt like creating a practice that delivers health care to Coloradans like I can no matter where the Coloradans are is … I feel like the luckiest guy in the world.

So as I go through the community evangelizing our new Nephrologist, a lot of people don’t know the term “Nephrology”. What are some things about Nephrology that affect more people than they realize?

I love that. It’s a great question because a lot of providers don’t know some of the things that are most intimately related to Nephrology, too. The kidneys have their hands in tons of pots in the body. Not only do the kidneys clean your blood — so when you pee, that is a fluid that’s made by your kidneys and stored in your bladder until you pee it out. And what it does is it gets rid of waste products and toxins, everything from the breakfast burrito you had to the glass of wine you’ll have tonight.

But in the same way that it cleans toxins out of your body, it’s finely tuning electrolytes. If you watch the Gatorade commercials about electrolytes and things, the kidney has the job of balancing those electrolytes so finely that they really shouldn’t vary more than a couple iotas off normal, and that’s thanks to the kidney. Everything from potassium to acid levels in your blood, sodium levels and the amount of water that’s in your body.

When you feel thirsty, because you haven’t drunk, or because you just had this delicious, massive pizza, or you’re working out, that is your kidney in that signaling process. Kidneys help you understand that you’re thirsty and it’s time to drink.

In addition, kidneys control many functions. Up here at altitude, we know that patients make more blood cells. The kidneys are one of the first steps in the creation of blood cells, which are made inside your bone marrow. The kidneys signal that. We see patients with kidney disease not only suffer from imbalances of electrolytes and a build up of toxins as kidney disease progresses, along the lines of those two main functions I mentioned, when your kidney disease progresses, I see patients start to lose blood cells. They make less and less, and that’s because signals weaken coming from the kidney in patients who have kidney disease. I also see patients develop weaker bone structure or musculoskeletal disease from kidney disease, and that’s something that’s intimately regulated by the kidney because it helps to balance minerals like magnesium and phosphorus and calcium in your body.

And in addition, I think the kidney has its hand in a really key element that most providers are aware of but maybe patients not: blood pressure. Your blood pressure’s regulated in a tight range, and the kidney allows that; it’s the one that determines how long that leash is. How long can it go, how high can it go? Outside of that range, there may be other factors. If you’re truly dehydrated, maybe your blood pressure drops. Or there are other things that can cause your blood pressure to elevate, including aging, and this stiffening of your arteries. But even so, despite all these other processes, the kidney is the main determinant of your body’s blood pressure.

One of the key features I ask all of my patients is about blood pressure. It’s also one of the things we discovered we can do better for patients with because many times we’d ask patients to check their blood pressure, but they either didn’t know how to, didn’t have the system, or didn’t have the time to send the data back to us in the clinic. So that’s one of the things that we’re also [doing], in addition to trying to reach more patients: using a clinic in the mountains and Telehealth, so that we can see any patient any day. We also have a blood pressure recording system, so that way, patients who get one of these kits from us can simply step on a scale or record their blood pressure, and instantaneously, that data point is sent by bluetooth to our clinic.

I think that’s something, because what I’ll find is patients who don’t necessarily have known kidney disease, but they’ve maybe dealt with blood pressure for years, and they’ve found it harder and harder to deal with or control over the years. Those are patients who would greatly benefit from a kidney analysis or kidney care and blood pressure management. That’s what we can do.

Good segue: I wanted to ask you more about the tools that you use as a Nephrologist that might be distinct to your practice. Up in the mountains, we’re obsessed with pulse oximeters, because we’re constantly watching blood oxygen saturation. Is there anything else that you use specific to your practice?

The pulse oximeter is something we use also, especially because it relates to the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood or how much blood you have. And it also relates to how the kidneys are balancing and helping manage what your respiratory status is. So we look at that.

The blood pressure is the most important vital sign for me. Weight is the second most important vital sign for me. The reason that’s second most important is because many patients who get blood pressure or have heart disease, and patients who have certain types of kidney disease, will get swelling. I’ll sometimes see my patients gain 5 lbs. in a day or two, and that’s all from salt in the diet and swelling. So weight and measuring your weight, especially if you’re a person who’s swelling, is a big deal because these are patients who — we especially see it after a big barbecue or holiday meals, where food is delicious and salty — those are the patients who are most vulnerable. We’ll see those patients have a much higher risk of having blood pressure changes and even becoming sicker to where they are hospitalized. With close monitoring of their blood pressures at home, we can often take patients who’ve been in and out of the hospital once, twice, or even ten times in a year, and we can help them stay out of the hospital, just through close monitoring and prevention.

So what we do is our nurse at the clinic will often be in touch with the patients, monitoring their blood pressures and weights, and if the patients don’t notice it, she may notice and … reach out to [them] and tell them, “I’m concerned about the 5 lb. weight gain you’ve had in the past few days,” and then talk through it. If a medicine change is needed, we can make it there on the spot, or whatever else.

In addition, communication and close contact to patients. The Telehealth system we use allows patients to take a kidney appointment from the comfort of their living room couch or office. Or they could go to their local doctor where they live and get on the computer screen with them and have what is a video visit, kinda like FaceTime, and they can dial right into our clinic and access us. And that tool isn’t a clinical tool, but it is an access tool. Access is maybe half the battle. Using that and the remote vitals monitoring collapses the distances between us and our patients to minimal or no barrier.

Is there anything distinctive about how high altitude changes the physiology when the kidneys are concerned?

Love it. So, the kidneys balance acid in the blood. Many patients up at high altitude not only have lower oxygen levels, they may have higher blood counts in order to improve their oxygen-carrying capacity. Especially your typical person who comes up for a ski trip and they’re not used to the altitude. It takes a few weeks for your body to make the blood cells to compensate for that. So those people especially may struggle to survive or breathe up here at altitude. And so the pulse oximeter is helpful.

What happens is when the body breathes faster to get more oxygen, the kidneys compensate. So what you end up doing is … breathing more quickly to get more oxygen, and it also lowers the carbon dioxide and the acid levels in your body, so we end up often seeing that the kidneys … adjust the level of bicarbonate. And bicarbonate is simply baking soda, dissolved in your blood. That’s a kidney response. As you breathe more quickly, you get rid of acid, and then the kidneys will adjust by peeing out some of the bicarbonate or the baking soda.

When you breathe out acid, which is carbon dioxide in your breath, your body becomes more basic. Your body becomes more full of baking soda.

In addition, we also see the kidneys responding through blood pressure changes. I think blood pressure will often fluctuate. It’s probably varying by individual, but we see many patients’ blood pressure increase at altitude. And the kidneys are constantly adjusting and titrating that, too.

So, that being said, what do you advise in general to maintain kidney health?

A lot of patients who don’t have advanced kidney disease are advised, appropriately so, to hydrate well. Many patients might be told to drink more water, and I think, in general, that’s a great recommendation. Many patients who are constantly light-headed or dizzy or dehydrated or don’t drink enough water, they could know it because they’re feeling [that way], or even had an episode where they blacked out or passed out and fell down. These are patients where a little bit more water — I’d even add that saltwater, so broth or a soup — is a great way to treat that, by giving yourself more salt and water, which helps to elevate your blood pressure.

Now, the caveat is patients who have swelling and heart problems would be well-served to avoid extra salt. If it gets more tricky, and patients are thinking, “… this is really too confusing,” that’s where we often recommend having a chat with your regular doctor, and if need be, with a kidney doctor to sort out a personalized recommendation.

The converse recommendation is also true. In patients with advancing kidney disease, hydration is good, but minimizing salt is the most important thing you can do. For patients who have known kidney disease that’s moderate to severe, minimizing salt intake is the number one recommendation.

The number two recommendation for patients with known kidney disease, as well as for patients generally, is “less is more”. I have a number of patients that come into the office who take two Advil or two Aleve, … and maybe they take it two times a day or four times a day. And unbeknownst to them, they’re scarring their kidneys down. Just from taking regular over-the-counter pain relievers. Tylenol has its own risks, but it is far safer as a pain reliever than Advil, Ibuprofen, Neproxin, Aleve, and Motrin and things like that.

Along those lines, many patients will come into my office and I ask them all to bring pills that they take. They may come in with a grocery bag full of twenty supplements, because they go to a naturopath … not to knock on naturopaths. I’m a person who deeply believes in the value of some of these alternative therapies and non-Western therapies. But at the same time, I often see patients in my clinic who, by the time they’re taking more than a couple supplements, are putting themselves at big risk of the two supplements or multiple supplements interacting with each other, or interacting with their life-saving vital medicines that they take, prescribed by a provider. The more pills you take, the more chance there is for a bad reaction. So in general, I find that [with] patients who come to me with kidney disease, I often find myself recommending that they reduce or eliminate supplements. Because some of these supplements are known toxins to the body or kidneys, even though they may help you with cholesterol or libido or something like that. But most supplements are not proven, not tested, and they’re definitely not signed off by the FDA. And that is risky to patients.

Speaking of medications, we often advocate for people who are prone to altitude sickness to be on Diamox pretty regularly. As far as we know, it’s very low-risk as far as side effects go. Does it pose any particular risk when it’s taken often?

The two things Diamox does, that I understand, to help you with altitude sickness is it gets rid of fluid — it’s a diarrhetic — and it also gets rid of bicarbonate, the baking soda in the body. It actually helps that process of adjusting the body in response to going up to altitude. For patients who hydrate well and don’t have that risk of falling down from low volume or depletion, commonly known as dehydration, Diamox should be fairly safely tolerated There are not a lot of known allergies.

Recently, I’ve come to know a couple people who have lost or donated a kidney. Have you ever encountered patients with “phantom pains” where a kidney used to be?

That’s a great questions for a couple reasons. Phantom pains occur. There are some rare cases where patients who get phantom pains from surgical removal of an organ would be well-served to return to the surgeon, or a provider that they trust, and discuss about whether they would benefit from repeat imaging.

It’s possible that a fluid bubble, what’s called a seroma, or a complication, like an infection … could arise in that space. Most of the time, phantom pains are things we don’t have a good response for. Again, I think a “less is more” approach is good. And that’s actually why I recommend complementary therapy. In addition to taking the Tylenol, I have many patients that find their pains relieved by acupuncture or massage or other things that don’t put yet another pill in their body.

But it brings up another important topic: patients who progress along the spectrum of kidney disease to more severe kidney disease, where their kidneys start to shut down and are no longer working enough to support them, need some sort of advance therapy known as dialysis to treat them. And not everybody wants or needs dialysis, but for those who do, transplant is a great option. So we often refer patients promptly for transplant evaluation, because the waiting list for transplant is often many years. Standard around the country would be in the order of 3 – 6 years, and in some states, it’s going to be closer to 10 years.

But live donation of an organ, a kidney, is one of the future visions I see for patients with kidney disease. Dialysis is a therapy that is truly invasive: timewise, personally, personal space, blood … it’s really hard on patients, but it’s something that like any skill you learn, like riding a bike, can be learned. I can imagine a world … [where] most of us will be able to donate a kidney and will never know we lost a kidney. We won’t feel it. We won’t suffer the medical consequences of it. And the national transplant registries have changed the order of prioritization of organs such that if you are a person who donates a kidney, in the future, if you suffer a kidney failure yourself, you have a higher priority level for receiving a transplant, because of the gift you gave earlier in life. And that’s really important because a patient who’s facing years of dialysis on that wait list for a transplant, if they ask their friends and family members whether they’d consider being tested to see if they’re a candidate to donate their kidney, I imagine a future world in which few or no patients are on dialysis. The moment a patient is seen to be heading toward needing dialysis, they are prepared for a live kidney transplant, and then they get paired up with somebody across the country or even somebody in their own backyard … who can donate. Once you get a transplanted kidney, you have to be on medicines that control the immune system, but you never have to spend a day thereafter in a kidney dialysis center. And that’s a really useful thing, because many patients don’t have the time, or they risk losing jobs or spending time with their loved ones because of the amount of time they spend on dialysis.

So, the kidney phantom pains are an issue, but truly patients who donate organs are patients who have given the gift of life, and most of the time don’t suffer a single side effect or consequence of that donation. And they should feel like they have the right to follow up with the surgeon or the team that helped them facilitate that to get their needs met or their questions answered, including phantom pains. Because often, that’s something worth looking at.

What do you enjoy doing in your freetime?

I am father of a four-and-a-half year old, so there’s nothing better than spending time with my wife and my son, who I’m now trying to teach to play tennis and ski, because those are my two favorite activities.

Last question: do you have a favorite ski hill?

I don’t. I used to. I grew up skiing Vail and Beaver Creek, but these days, we do everything we can to avoid the I-70 ski traffic on ski weekends. And if that means going to a Front Range ski area, or a ski area off the beaten path, we love exploring the deep reaches of the state. Any day I’m not on my skis or with a tennis racket, you can find me on a road cycle if I’m not at work.

We’re excited to be here. We’re a growing company and have hired another Nephrologist in our practice (Dr. Eileen Fish), so we are always looking to see how we can help communities solve their needs for kidney health.

Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.

Alcohol at Altitude

What causes alcohol to have more influence on you at altitude? Is it the lack of oxygen, the inability of your body to adapt quickly, or is it just a perceived feeling? 

I received my undergraduate degree at the University of Wyoming, found at an elevation of 7,200 ft. Our school always said any opponent who chooses to take us on at 7,200 ft. would surely lose because of the altitude. The same was said for drinking. We would challenge our “sea level friends” to drinking games where they repeatedly lost because of our alcohol tolerance at altitude. 

After several years of living at sea level, I am back at an elevation of 9,000 ft, studying pediatric medicine in Frisco, CO. On the weekends I enjoy having a drink with new friends and coworkers to wash away the weekly stress. As the drinks start flowing, I find myself thrust back into my undergraduate days, but this time I feel like the opponent where a single beer gets me tipsy and I am unable to keep up. 

Beer and Backcountry: Best Friends Forever?

This got me thinking. 

In a study done by Harold S. Ballard, MD, he states “Alcohol has numerous adverse effects on the various types of blood cells and their functions. For example, heavy alcohol consumption can cause generalized suppression of blood cell production and the production of structurally abnormal blood cell precursors that cannot mature into functional cells. Alcoholics frequently have defective red blood cells that are destroyed prematurely, possibly resulting in anemia” (Harold S. Ballard).

Red blood cells (RBC) are responsible for carrying oxygen throughout your body. Anemia is a decrease in RBCs, and this condition can have several symptoms like fatigue, lightheadedness, pallor, and headaches. At high altitudes there is less oxygen, so your body goes into overdrive to produce more red blood cells to compensate. Alcohol interferes with RBC production and thus your body’s ability to carry oxygen to the brain. Is it possible that because of this process you are more affected by alcohol at high altitude? Possibly, but the effects of alcohol on RBCs usually occur with heavy alcohol consumption or chronic alcoholism; rarely does this occur with the occasional beer. 

It has been argued that the effect of alcohol at altitude is more of a perceived feeling of drunkenness rather than a true physiologic affect. Ray Isle, Food & Wine Executive Editor, says that you are not actually getting drunker, but “what does happen is because you’re at altitude – even if you don’t get altitude sickness – you’re still not getting as much oxygen, so you often feel a little lightheaded and dizzy. Combine that with alcohol and you start to feel more messed up than you normally would” (Speigel, 2018). To reduce this combined effect and the feeling of being drunker at altitude, alcohol.org recommends waiting 48 hours after you ascend to start drinking (Staff, 2019).

To further substantiate these findings, a highly acclaimed study completed in 1987 measured the blood alcohol level of individuals at 12,500 feet and those at sea level. When consuming the same amount of alcohol the study found that there was no difference in blood alcohol levels between the two groups (Collins, Mertens, & Higgins, 1987). This suggests that despite the perceived feeling, physiologically, there is no difference when drinking at altitude versus sea level. 

Snacking on the deck of one of Colorado’s backcountry cabins after a mild hike in at over 10,000 ft.

As I sit here completing my single beer that feels like three, I am surprised to know that this feeling has relatively little physiological merit to it. However, I still don’t think I would challenge a high altitude native to a drinking game!

Katherine Peter is currently a Physician Assistant student at Des Moines University. She hopes to work in Orthopedics in Houston, TX following graduation. Throughout her clinical year, she has traveled around the U.S. to several states including Florida, Iowa, Colorado, and Nebraska. She enjoys meeting new people and is always up for a new adventure. 

References

  1. Collins, W., Mertens, H., & Higgins, E. (1987). Some effects of alcohol and simulated altitude on complex performance scores and breathalyzer readings. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 328-332.
  2. Harold S. Ballard, M. (n.d.). The Hematologic Complications of Alcohol. National Institute of Health .
  3. Speigel, A. (2018, June 13). How to Drink at Altitude . Retrieved from Food & Wine: https://www.foodandwine.com/news/how-to-drink-high-altitude
  4. Staff, E. (2019, January). Is Altitude Sickness Worse When Consuming Alcohol? Retrieved from Alcohol.org: https://www.alcohol.org/effects/altitude-sickness/