Altitude and Sleep - What You Need to Know to Get Your ZZZs

Altitude and Sleep - What You Need to Know to Get Your ZZZs

Annie Davis

By Annie Davis \ April 10 2023

Utah’s average elevation is 6,100 feet above sea level. For points of comparison in the state, Salt Lake City is 4,226 feet, and Park City is 7,000 feet above sea level. And just to complete the picture, New York sits just 33 feet above sea level and Los Angeles is 285 feet higher. 

While Utah doesn’t win any records for its elevation, visitors from around the world are often impacted by altitude sickness while they are here. Kelly Baron, PhD. is an associate professor at the University of Utah Health, sleep researcher and clinician in behavioral sleep medicine. She explains that people start to see and feel changes above 5,000 feet, but most altitude studies focus on 8,000 feet or higher. 

When visitors come to Utah for vacation and to enjoy The Greatest Snow on Earth® they (obviously) don’t want to feel bad. The focus is on fun, and a common concern is about how to acclimate to the elevation.

Who is most at risk for altitude sickness?
Baron explains that altitude sickness can impact people of any age, but people who have a heart or lung condition, are overweight or obese, live at low elevation, or have experienced altitude sickness before may be at a higher risk.


Symptoms of altitude sickness
The more common effects of altitude sickness include fatigue, shortness of breath, headache, and nausea. The good news is that these symptoms typically go away on their own after a couple of days. Baron says the impacts of altitude and high elevation should be temporary, with mild discomfort. If anyone experiences more severe symptoms that don’t improve after a couple of days, then it’s best to consult with a doctor.

The cause of these symptoms is due to: Less oxygen in the air, how dry it is and that Utah is one of the sunniest states (more than the national average of sunny days per year). Baron says the trifecta of dryness, higher elevation and ample sunshine makes it easier to get dehydrated, and dehydration can compound symptoms of altitude sickness.

Now that we’ve explained the general impacts of high elevation, what many people may not know is that altitude can affect sleep.


How does elevation affect sleep?
High elevation can decrease the amount of deep sleep, cause more awakenings and restless sleep, apnea, or periodic breathing (abnormal breathing pattern). One of the main reasons has to do with your body’s reaction to the lower oxygen in the air. Baron explains that the chemoreceptors in the brain sense the lower oxygen, which then causes faster breathing, which leads to losing more carbon dioxide. When the brain senses that carbon dioxide is low, that can cause a pause in breathing, which then creates the need for faster breathing…can you see the cycle here?

Sleep apnea can also worsen at high elevations. It is recommended for people who have sleep apnea to bring their CPAP machines when traveling to higher elevations.

Can you reduce the risk of getting altitude sickness?
Yes! Baron says there are things that can be done in your everyday life to help curb or better tolerate the effects of altitude sickness.

· Being generally more healthy and physically fit
· Stay on a regular sleep schedule
· Stay hydrated
· Avoid alcohol


While there are medications and supplements that may help with sleep at high elevations, Baron says they can impact everyone differently. She says studies have shown that acetazolamide (Diamox) improves oxygen levels (helps people acclimate faster) but not people’s perception of their sleep. Another study of melatonin did report perceived improvement in sleep at altitude, but melatonin does have side effects.

At the end of the day (see what I did there?), sleep is a fundamental aspect of health and incredibly important for restoration. When sleep is impacted, even temporarily, it can impact mood, ability to engage in physical activities and cognitive abilities (concentration, problem-solving, etc.) which can negatively effect your skiing/riding!

If sleep is a non-negotiable for your high-altitude adventure, in addition to staying hydrated and avoiding alcohol as mentioned above, Baron says other options can include:

·Arriving a few extra days early to acclimate
· Keeping extreme activities to a minimum – or not at all – for the first day
· Sleep at a lower elevation (for example: stay at a hotel in Salt Lake City and enjoy skiing and snowboarding at a higher altitude during the day)

Here’s to a good night's sleep on your next Utah ski trip!

Content is sponsored by University of Utah Health