Medical Herbalism: Clinical Articles and Case Studies

Search entire site by keyword(s)
Free electronic MH newsletter
Information on Distance Learning in Herbalism
Back to articles index page
Back to

Cardiovascular - Herbal prevention of altitude sickness

by Paul Bergner

Medical Herbalism 10(4):11-12

High altitude sickness, also called acute mountain sickness (AMS), is characterized by headache, fatigue, nausea, shortness of breath, sleep disturbance and rapid, strong heartbeat. Only a few of the symptoms may appear, or different symptoms may appear at different times. The condition is aggravates by exertion. It is caused by low atmospheric pressures at high altitudes, giving a sensation of “thin air” — oxygen concentration actually remains constant at altitudes accessible to humans, butlower pressure results in reduced absorption of oxygen. Some symptoms of AMS may occur with sudden travel from sea level to altitudes as low as 4,000 feet, and most individuals who travel to 9,000 feet experience some somptoms. AMS may be prevented by making only gradual ascents to elevations above 8,000 ft.. About 40% of experienced mountain climbers will experience AMS at 15,000 feet, even when ascending gradually. All forms of altitude sickness include some level of edema, and more serious cases include life-threatening pulmonary or cerebral edema.

Ginkgo biloba

Researchers divided a group of mountain climbers into two groups, which received either a total of 160 mg of a concentrated Gingko biloba extract or a placebo in two doses each day while climbing. The group ascended gradually to a base camp at 14, 700 feet and from there made ascents to various higher altitudes. Only 14% of the members of the group taking ginkgo experienced one or more symptoms of altitude sickness, while 82 percent in the placebo group did so. None of the gingko group experienced the full symptoms of AMS, compared to 41% in the placebo group. The gingko group also had fewer instances of cold-related vascular problems.

The symptoms of AMS may be due in part to fluid retention in the cells secondary to deprivation of necessary oxygen to the cellular sodium pump. Fluid retention may be aggravated further in some individual by an increase in secretion of antidiuretic hormone secondary to hypoxia in the brain. Ginkgo may improve or prevent either situation by increasing peripheral circulation and oxygenation.

Researchers used a concentrated commercial ginkgo product standardized to flavone glycosides and terpene lactones, with various toxic substances removed. Note that crude ginkgo powder and tincture products often produce headache and gastrointestinal distress.

Chinese herbal formula

Chinese researchers in 1989 used spirometry and cardiac function tests to measure the changes in cardiopulmonary function of healthy adults living at 7500 feet who traveled to a plateau at 13,420 feet. They then tested two classical Chinese formulas for their ability to prevent the physiological changes measured. One of the formulas, sheng mai yin, according to the abstract of the Chinese language article, “could efficiently protect the villagers from the plateau reaction described above”(Feng et al.). A second formula, danshen-chuanxiong, was ineffective.
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    36


    Medical Herbalism: Clinical Articles and Case Studies    

Sheng mai yin (see sidebar) is a tea form of the classical formula sheng mai san, which first appeared in Chinese medical literature in 1247 A.D. The formula tonifies Qi and Yin, in the terminology of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and its therapeutic action focuses on the Lung — a broader term in TCM than “lung” in the anatomical or physiological terminology of Western biomedicine. In Western terms, the formula would increase adaptation to stress, transformation of nutrients and air into energy, oxygenation of the tissues, and decrease a tendency to dehydration or dryness of the lungs.

Either ginkgo or the sheng mai yin formulas might be indispensable to those traveling to very high elevations. Either treatment might also prevent the discomfort of traveling to much lower elevations as well. Visitors to the Denver area from sea level, for instances, often report shortness of breath, afternoon fatigue, and insomnia at the 5000+ altitude in the area. Acclimatization may take 3-6 weeks. Short-term visitors to such altitudes might obtain relief by taking the herbal preparations.


Bensky D. and Barolet R. Chinese Herbal Medicine: Formulas and Strategies. Seattle,.Washington: Eastland Press, 1990

Feng S.H., Zhang Z.H., Chao Z.K. Effects of shengmaiyin and danshen-chuanxiong decoction on preventing cardiopulmonary changes in adults caused by a high-altitude environment. (Chinese language). Chung Hsi I Chieh Ho Tsa Chih 1989 Nov;9(11):650-2, 643

Roncin J.P., Schwartz F., D’Arbigny P. EGb 761 in control of acute mountain sickness and vascular reactivity to cold exposure. Aviat Space Environ Med 1996 May;67(5):445-52
Copyright 2001 Paul Bergner    37