La Paz, Bolivia. Lhasa, Tibet. Cusco, Peru. These cities are high on many travelers’ lists of dream destinations—and they’re also high in altitude. If you’re planning to journey to these spots or another high-elevation environment, be prepared to make a few adjustments in your daily routine, as even the most experienced travelers are susceptible to altitude sickness. Also known as mountain sickness, altitude sickness doesn’t just make you dizzy and nauseous—it may negatively affect your sleep. Learn ways to feel better on your next vacation.
Less Oxygen, Lower Sleep Quality
The reduced oxygen experienced at higher elevations can cause breathing troubles at night, which may disrupt sleep. The result is that people visiting high altitudes can experience less sleep overall, trouble falling asleep, and frequent awakenings throughout the night, leading to next-day fatigue.
People with sleep apnea should be especially cautious, since their breathing troubles may only worsen in high-altitude locations. It’s important for those with the condition to pack and use their CPAP machine when traveling.
Even the fittest people are not immune to the challenges of sleeping at altitude: Research has found that professional athletes experience shorter, poorer quality sleep at higher elevations.
How to Sleep Better
Many of the steps that people take to prevent altitude sickness can also improve sleep quality. This includes ascending a mountain slowly: It’s best to start below 10,000 feet and then walk to the higher elevation instead of driving or flying, giving your body time to adapt to the decrease in oxygen. If you are hiking, climb no more than 1,000 vertical feet per day after you reach 10,000 feet and backtrack a hundred meters or so to set up sleep camp for the night. (Follow the motto “climb high, sleep low.”)
It’s also important to stay hydrated by drinking at least three to four quarts of water a day, eat a diet that includes more than 70 percent carbohydrates (the most easily accessed form of energy for your body), and avoid tobacco and alcohol.
It may also help to take melatonin. In one study, when climbers took melatonin at a high altitude, it took them 20 minutes to fall asleep as opposed to 44 minutes when taking a placebo.