Altitude With An Attitude

Living the High Life

The Heber Valley Sits Comfortably At Just Over 5,500 Feet Above Sea Level. If You’re Coming From A Lower Elevation, There Are Steps You Can Take To Ease The Transition To A Higher Altitude.


A few years ago, my husband and I spent a week in Newport Beach, California, and needed to be in Aspen, Colorado the next day. As we raced through the states, we hardly noticed the uphill drive. Arriving in Aspen, we settled in. However, we soon noticed headaches, dizziness, and nausea. It took a day before we realized what was happening. We were suffering from our first real bout of altitude sickness.

Growing up in Utah, I barely noticed altitude changes. We lived at a moderately high altitude and drove up and down canyons all the time. But this extreme change, from sea level to over 8,000 feet in a day, gave me a new respect for the ways that high altitude affects us.


The Downside of the Upside

Major high-altitude sickness occurs mostly at elevations of 8,000 feet above sea level. But mild symptoms can occur at lower altitudes as well. Heber City, for example, rests at about 5,600 ft, while neighboring Park City lies at 7,000 ft. According to Harvard Health Publishing, altitudes of 5,000 to 8,000 feet are considered moderately high. And even moderately high levels can produce multiple health effects, including lower oxygen levels, higher UV radiation, and dehydration.

Research is also being conducted on possible connections to mental health. A study done in 1963 suggested that higher altitudes could lead to depression, irritability, anxiety, and apathy. Most research done in this area has been focused on hypoxia. This means that blood oxygen levels are lower in higher elevations, which could negatively affect the brain and psychological responses.

Dr. Kelley H. Woodward, Medical Director of the Live Well Center in Park City, shared that “While most people adjust very well to living at higher elevations on the Wasatch Back, there are several health effects we need to be aware of.”

He noted that when people first move to higher altitudes, there is an adaptation period that usually lasts three to four months. “Before they have fully adapted, they will have noticeably lower exercise tolerance and even find they get winded more easily with simple activities like climbing a flight of stairs,” he explained.

In some cases, high altitude also affects sleep quality. “With the lower oxygen pressure at higher elevation, sleep is more disrupted for some,” Dr. Woodward said. Sleep apnea is also a more pronounced issue and could be a long-term problem. In addition, those with lung disease, anemia, and heart disease might have a longer adaptation period and “may not be able to maintain adequate oxygenation even after prolonged living at higher elevations.” Quickly going from low altitude to high can cause other symptoms such as headache, confusion, shortness of breath, and dizziness.


So, You Want to Live in the Mountains…

While multiple challenges come with high altitude, some basic precautions can prevent most problems. Staying hydrated is a must. According to Harvard Health Publishing, “you will lose lots of water through your lungs, even if you don’t perspire.” Dr. Woodward adds that “addressing dehydration risk is simple: Carry and drink water frequently during all physical activities. Get that reusable water bottle, decorate it to your liking…then use it!” Hydration also helps protect against nosebleeds, another common ailment at higher elevations. However, even without internal dehydration, nosebleeds can occur because of the dry mountain air.

Low humidity dries the nasal membranes, making them more brittle. If necessary, a saline nose spray can help hydrate nasal passages, having a humidifier in the home helps too, especially in the winter months.

The drier air can also make skin dry, itchy, and cracked. Chapped lips are common. Using a good moisturizer for the body is essential. When exercising, it’s important to remember that the lower oxygen levels of the thinner air make it more strenuous for the body. It is much easier to exercise closer to sea level than it is in the Heber Valley. Jonelle Fitzgerald, Health Director for Wasatch County Health Department, explained, “We recognize that exercise is a little bit harder. It’s still definitely so important, and as you acclimatize, it gets easier.” She reminded people to recognize the altitude so that they will be more accommodating. “Just be aware; watch yourself,” she said. “If you’re getting super winded, sit down and rest. Recognize that the air is different here.” Dr. Woodward suggested that people gradually increase to their usual intensity and duration. “Don’t risk injury by overdoing it,” he warned.

Another major issue at high altitudes is greater exposure to UV rays. This is not caused by being closer to the sun, but rather because the atmosphere is thinner, and the sun can travel through it more readily. Snow blindness, although temporary, can occur from higher UV rays reflecting off of the snow. Cold temperatures and dryness, common at higher elevations, can make it even worse. According to “When too much UV light hits the transparent outer layer of your eyes, called the cornea, it essentially gives your cornea a sunburn.” Sunglasses and sunscreen can help, and both should be used when outside.

Sleep issues can be lessened by getting a medical evaluation for chronic problems. “Don’t ignore persistent sleep problems,” suggested Dr. Woodward. “There are ways to overcome the effects lower oxygen levels have on sleep.”


The Upside of the Upside

It’s a trade-off. Mountain living offers many opportunities to enjoy nature and breathe fresh air. Exercising at higher altitudes can actually strengthen the heart.  Post Independent News writes that “people living at higher altitudes tend to be healthier … They weigh less, have less cardiovascular disease and some types of cancer, and live longer.” High-altitude training is often used in sports to increase endurance. And even though the increase of sun exposure can escalate some risks, it also increases Vitamin D, which may give extra protection to the body.

Research is continuing to discover links between health and altitude. Dr. Woodward gives this great advice: “Acknowledge and respect that the elevation changes challenge our bodies and require adjustments.” In general, drinking lots of water, using a good moisturizer and chapstick, remembering sunscreen and sunglasses, and resting when necessary, will help overcome most issues.


Stay hydrated with Redmond’s Re-Lyte Electrolyte mix. Bonus! It’s local! Available online at Redmond.Life or at Redmond Heritage Farm Store: 475 W 910 S, Heber City.