I wrote about acute mountain sickness (AMS) last week. Here in Colorado, it's a common occurrence, particularly among climbers coming up from lower elevations to climb cliffs and Fourteeners in the high country. How do you combat AMS? The best way is to ascend slowly and to spend enough time, usually several days, acclimating to the thin air.
Besides doing those two things, you can also try ginkgo biloba, an extract from the leaves of the ginkgo biloba tree and a herb used in China for over 4,000 years. Since a 1996 French study showed that it could provide protection for climbers going to altitude, subsequent research was unable to duplicate the amazing French results. So while the jury is still out about the usefulness of ginkgo biloba, it can be used as a possible remedy for climbers going above 8,000 feet.
After reading about the French study, Dr. Peter Hackett, a renowned expert and researcher on altitude sicknesses, did a study with 40 college students on 14,115-foot Pikes Peak. Half the subjects took ginkgo for five days before a quick auto trip up Pikes Peak and half took a placebo. The ginkgo group were 50% less likely to experience AMS as the placebo group. A follow-up study compared ginkgo with acetazolamide, an AMS drug, and found that the ginkgo didn't work as good.
Dr. Hacket still, however, recommends climbers use ginkgo biloba as part of their high-altitude acclimatization regimen. "Clearly it helps some people and it's safe," says Hackett. "It doesn't have as many side effects as Diamox. Since it's not harmful and there are studies showing it works for some people, it's worth a try."
Dr. Hackett advises taking twice-daily doses of 100mg of ginkgo biloba for five days before going up to altitude. Note that gingko is not controlled by the FDA so it can be hard to determine what dosage you're taking and its strength. Gingko also thins your blood so if you have a medical condition, you need to talk to your physician before taking it. A beneficial side effect is that gingko increases peripheral blood flow to your hands and feet, possibly warding off frostbite. Also bear in mind that ginkgo is not a cure for acute mountain sickness, but a possible remedy to prevent it.
Photograph above: Take ginkgo to get acclimated if you're going to climb on the North Face of Pikes Peak. Photograph © Stewart M. Green