Coca Tea for High Altitude Sickness – Does it Work?
If you travel to high altitude destinations in South America, such as Cusco, Peru, or La Paz, Bolivia, you will likely come across coca leaves, coca tea, or other coca-derived products promoted to prevent and treat high altitude sickness.
While your may hear from locals and fellow travellers of the benefits of coca tea for altitude sickness, it has not been scientifically studied. This means that there is no scientific evidence to medically recommend coca products to prevent or treat altitude sickness. In a review of prevention and treatment of altitude sickness by the Wilderness Medical Society it’s stated that the use of coca to prevent or treat altitude sickness should not be substituted for other proven preventative measures that have been established. Below we’ll outline things to know about coca for high altitude if you come across this on your travels.
What is high altitude sickness?
High altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness (AMS)can occur at high altitudes where there is less oxygen available. AMS can begin at sleeping altitudes over 2,500m (8,000ft), but is more likely to occur at altitudes over 3,000m (10,000ft), especially when ascending rapidly. Day hikes to high altitudes are less likely to result in AMS as there is less stress put on the body.
AMS varies from person to person and is not dependent on age or a person’s degree of physical fitness. The only predictor of AMS is how you reacted on a previous trip to high altitude – if there were previous problems at high altitude then these are likely to return the next time.
Altitude sickness symptoms may be mild and include headache, fatigue, lack of appetite, nausea, insomnia, dizziness, and general malaise. A small number of people can develop more severe symptoms of High Altitude Pulmonary Edema (HAPE) or High Altitude Cerebral Edema (HACE). Symptoms of HAPE include a dry cough and shortness of breath at rest, when “it becomes impossible to finish a sentence without gasping for breath.” In addition to AMS symptoms, HACE causes profound lethargy, drowsiness, confusion, slurring of speech, and difficulty walking in a straight line. If symptoms of HACE or HAPE appear a person requires immediate descent and medical attention. Both HACE and HAPE can be fatal if a person does not descend to a lower altitude.
What is coca and what does it do?
Coca is the whole plant from which cocaine is derived. There are several other components that are derived from the coca plant with cocaine being the only psychoactive component. There are different species of coca plants that are indigenous to South America, Mexico, Indonesia, and the West Indies. The species of coca plant most cultivated contains about 0.6% cocaine in its dried leaves (range between 0.1% and 0.9%). Coca tea bags have been found to contain 4.86-5.11mg of cocaine per tea bag (for comparison a “line” of cocaine bought on the street contains about 20-50mg of cocaine).
Coca leaves have been used in South America’s Andean culture for thousands of years as a native tradition and for medicinal use to treat fatigue, mood, sexual vigor, gastrointestinal symptoms, hunger, and altitude sickness. The coca leaves’ main function seems to be its energizing effects due to the plant’s stimulant properties. Coca leaves also contain calories, carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins which can also be a source of energy.
Coca and high altitude sickness
There is no scientific evidence to support that ingesting coca leaves can prevent or treat high altitude sickness. However, there have been some theories about how coca leaves might work to reduce altitude sickness.
It has been estimated that 75% of Bolivians living at altitudes 4,000m and above chew coca leaves, while only 20% of those living at 2,400m chew it, and only 3% of those at sea level chew it. People who chew coca leaves have reported less pain and dizziness while working at high altitudes. One theory is that coca leaves are used as a general stimulant, rather than a specific treatment for high altitude sickness. Another hypothesis is that coca leaves can lessen the effects of hypoxia (a deficiency of oxygen in the blood reaching the tissues) experienced at high altitude. This could occur because the components of the coca leaves may stop an increase in red blood cell production that is caused by hypoxia, which decreases the symptoms of high altitude sickness and alters how the body adjusts to high altitudes. But it’s important to remember this is only a theory and because of the lack of scientific research the exact mechanism of how coca leaves can affect high altitude sickness remains unknown.
Are there risks?
The health risks and potential side effects of ingesting coca have not been studied. Ingesting coca leaves is quite different than using pure cocaine. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that habitual use of coca leads to toxicity, addiction, or withdrawal. However, it’s important to know that ingesting coca leaves results in a positive urine assay for cocaine metabolites. So, if you are a professional athlete or require drug testing for other reasons then you should not consume any type of coca product on your travels!
Possession of coca is illegal in many countries, and coca has been banned in all countries except for Peru and Bolivia. Is it not recommend that you cross any borders with any type of coca products purchased on your travels.
What else can be done to prevent high altitude sickness?
Proven measures to prevent high altitude sickness include:
- Ascending slowly
Allowing more time to acclimatize will reduce the chance of experiencing high altitude sickness. Once at an altitude over 2,750m (9,000ft), sleeping altitudes should increase no more than 500m (1,600ft) per day. Plan an extra acclimatization day every 1,000m.
- Climbing high and sleeping low
During the day climb higher than your sleeping altitude to encourage acclimatization.
- Altitude sickness medications
- Consider taking Diamox (acetazolamide) to speed acclimatization, starting two days before ascending and continuing until reaching your maximum sleeping altitude.
- Bring ibuprofen or acetaminophen to treat headache caused by AMS.
- Bring an antiemetic to treat nausea/vomiting caused by AMS. Ginger is a natural alternative to anti-nausea medications that may cause drowsiness.
- Avoid alcohol and sleeping pills.
- Staying hydrated!
Drink 2-3 L of water per day. Urine should remain clear and hydration is absolutely necessary even if you do not feel thirsty (fluid loss from breathing greatly increases at high altitude).
- Recognizing the symptoms AMS and knowing your limits!
People with mild symptoms of AMS can safely remain at high altitude and treat headache and nausea. If symptoms continue to worsen while resting at the same altitudethen you must descend at least 300m.