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Is high altitude to blame for your insomnia?

We just finished reading an interesting article over at Summit Daily News about a potential link between high altitude and sleeping problems.

Apparently, sleeping at high altitudes of around 8,000 - 10,000 feet (where there is less oxygen) can exacerbate sleeplessness.

We've not heard of altitude or low oxygen levels being mentioned as a potential insomnia cause before. We'd be interested in hearing your thoughts on this one - have you any experience of altitude affecting your sleep? Our comments form is below, as usual.

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Last updated: June 16, 2010

This Article Was Written By

Martin Reed

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  • Kathy
    June 7, 2017, 9:25 am

    Barbara…Unfortunately oxygen concentrators are not exactly easy to transport. They are the type of machine that you see people who have lung issues carting around (some more portable than others) with the nose cannula. The concentrated oxygen goes into your system through your nose. A medical supply place might rent you one
    if your vacation spot is close by. The kind you can carry on your back (portable) are very expensive.

  • Kathy
    June 6, 2017, 6:39 pm

    I commented on high altitude insomnia a few years ago, on this blog, but haven’t followed the replies since. We have a mt. cabin at 7000 ft. and had become so discouraged about my insomnia as the only way I could sleep was to take Lunesta…not recommended for my age group. It only takes 1 hr. and 15 min. to go from 300′ (home in Fresno) to 7000′ (Huntington Lake) so no chance to acclimate. Tried everything: acetazolamide, melatonin, Advil p.m. to no avail. along with sleep studies at home and at altitude which showed no sleep apnea and a slight drop in oxygen at night. It was not enough for insurance to pay for an oxygen concentrator but I rented one anyway on the advice of Dr. Peter Hackett at the Institute for High Altitude Illness clinic in Telluride, Colorado. According to Dr. Hackett, it is not uncommon to experience sleeplessness even at 7000′ for some people. He recommended setting the concentrator at 2.0 which we did. Bingo! It solved my problem so we bought one. I still experience a bit of sleeplessness on the first night, but pretty sure that’s due to all the work we do when we get there, not enough water, and the celebratory glass of wine or 2. After that…I am good.
    Can’t tell you how it has changed my life for the better. Visiting the North Rim of Grand Canyon this month so we are driving there to take “O2D2”..that’s what we call my oxygen buddy. By the way…I feel totally fine and energized during the day…but at night when all systems slow down (including respiration) is when I am affected. Hope this helps someone out there struggling with the same issue.

    • Martin Reed
      June 6, 2017, 6:42 pm

      That’s fantastic news! Thank you so much for the update and for sharing your experience.

    • Barbara Farrell
      June 7, 2017, 7:12 am

      Wow, haven’t heard of these oxygen concentrators. Is that the official name of them? Do you wear them like a c-pap or just let it run in your room? I had virtually no sleep on a 5 day trip to Santa Fe a few years back, and have been afraid of traveling to high elevations ever since.

    • Jody
      December 25, 2017, 12:24 pm

      Thanks so much for the info Kathy. We have a 2nd home at 8100 feet in Montana and I have Never been able to sleep well here. It is so frustrating because I love it here, but it is maddening when everyone else is fast asleep and I am dead tired and yet lay away all night. I am ordering an oxygen concentrator to rent for the remainder of our visit on this trip. Fingers crossed and thank you for sharing your experience!

  • Linda
    February 24, 2014, 10:05 pm

    Well I am very interested in this subject and here is why. I have hypersomnia and I am tired all the time and it does not matter how much sleep I get I never feel rested. I have to take meds to stay awake and function. About a year ago we went on vacation to Las Cruces, Alberqurque, Sante Fe NM and traveled around. For the first time in my life I did not want to sleep all the time and I felt great. We now are planning to move. I am very interesting in more research. I have been living in the wrong area all my life with doctors who do not know what it is caused from so they call it Idiopathic hypersomnia?

  • Bernard
    January 12, 2014, 5:17 pm

    I’m so glad to see it’s not just me. In September I moved from sea level to 8000 feet, and I have not had a full night’s sleep since. At first I had trouble even falling asleep. Now I can fall asleep, but I’ll only sleep 4 hours max before I wake up, and after that I’m just sort of nappy, off and on, until I’m fully awake by 4:30 am. I’m usually tired during the day (feeling like I just got 4 hours’ sleep!). When I first got here I found myself spontaneously gulping for air throughout the day, but that’s ended. Unfortunately, the insomnia persists … despite the fact that I’m able to run daily and am otherwise OK. Was hoping to find out how long this would last, but it looks like it could be permanent.

  • Elsa
    January 3, 2014, 7:30 pm

    I googled the topic because lying wide awake in Zermatt Switzerland at 2am – haven’t been able to sleep for the past 5 nights unaided – despite skiing and being physically exhausted. It’s a well-known old wives’ tale here that altitude causes insomnia. I usually live in London – and experience this every time I stay in the mountains. I have been taking melatonin which only worked the first night. Trying to not keep taking sleeping pills but looks like I might need to again!

    • Ali
      June 3, 2017, 12:22 pm

      Happens to me every single time I go on a walking holiday in Switzerland. If I am staying more than 5 nights it does start to get better but generally I’m here for 5 nights.

  • Tony Cullen
    December 8, 2013, 3:24 pm

    I live in Flagstaff, AZ at 7,000ft. I find myself waking up each hour and wake between 5:00 and 5:30 AM each morning. I travel often to Phoenix, 1500 ft and on every occasion find that I sleep through the night and often can stay asleep until 7:00 or 8:00 am. I am sure there is some type of correlation relating to altitude and sleeping.

  • Barbara Farrell
    October 2, 2013, 8:15 am

    I am in Santa Fe New Mexico on a 6 day vacation, and have zero to 3 hours a night. Even though I have a history of a very fragile sleep equilibrium at sea level too, (I live in Seattle, so there I deal with the Seasonal affective Disorder there,) Somehow I thought this insomnia was of a different variety. So I Googled Altitude insomnia and found that this a real phenomena. I noted that I felt winded when I walked, and had congestion in my lungs and sinuses, and had a full fledged panic attack in the middle of the night because I couldn’t breathe enough air to relax. Most of my insomnia here though, has just been feeling like I’m on the edge of dropping into slumber, but never dropping… So frustrating, and I struggle to not go into complete despair.

    Now I am wondering if even flying at high altitudes could trigger or worsen insomnia, because I am looking back my history, I am guessing it can.

    I would be interested in learning about things that have worked for some of you who have found answers other than drugs or neurotransmitter concoctions. I have found that one minute you think they are your friend, the next minute they turn on you….

    • Barbara Farrell
      October 2, 2013, 8:22 am

      PS. Would love to hear from anyone. Unless I read about you online, I tend to think I am the only one in the world who has as severe and mystifying insomnia spells as I do….

  • mary
    July 1, 2013, 6:26 am

    Wow, so this is my ongoing nemesis, I live at 8000 feet! So I have suffered BAD insomnia for years upon end, like 15, which began at the onset of my thyroid disease (thyroid meds?), but I was also living at 6000 feet then. I LOVE the mountains. I have tried every living and dead thing under the sun and it has only gotten worse. At first melatonin seemed to be the answer, then Kava Kava, then NAME IT. Finally a year ago I got the book THE EDGE EFFECT and set myself up on a doze of neuro transmitters each night along with B vitamins, etc, etc. so like 20 pills. All these things work in the beginning and I think I have solved the problem. For the past year, I had to add a Xanax to the concoction to GET TO SLEEP, but my mouth became SOOOOOOOOO dry that I said I didn’t care if I ever slept again and slowly got off that. Then I added some over the counter sleep aids which worked for a while, some times. Pretty much I lay all night in and out of light dreaming, knowing I am not asleep, like tonight. Tonight I got up to down a shot of cognac, I AM DESPARATE. I have not sleep now for 5 days straight since I got back from a recent trip. I was in Western NC for 3 weeks and actually after 3 nights of not sleeping in the beginning, started sleeping (with the concoction, no xanax or over-the-counter) and once that started, I seemed to be able to sleep. Asheville is at 3000 feet. I came back to Salt Lake City and slept one night pretty well after a very long flight, using sleep aids, plus concoction of neuro transmitters. Then came home to 8000 feet and have not slept at all for 5 nights now. So I thought it was because I vegged out for the first two days home because we are having a heatwave and it is very hot. Tonight I set a fan in the door and it is not hot, and I worked for 4 hours in the yard under the hot sun so I am exhausted, and since the sleep aids have not worked for 4 nights I didn’t take any tonight (they also cause dry mouth), so here I am at 3am drinking cognac and wondering how long my body can survive without sleep. So I am leaving for Mississippi for 3 weeks and I am going to begin to monitor how I sleep else where, although I already know that even during travels around the world, I still have insomnia, but I haven’t really considered that the altitude is one of the components causing this horrendous problem. I do not gasp for breath or have headaches like is described in other blogs on altitude insomnia, but I’m really beginning to wonder if this wasn’t the culprit all along and I haven’t considered it. I really hope NOT, because I have been here in this cabin for 8 years and have thousands of books I would never want to move. I don’t want to live is Salt Lake with the inversion factor as I have asthma, so it really stinks to have to think about actually having to move just because I cannot sleep here. YIKES!

    • Martin Reed
      July 1, 2013, 6:19 pm

      Please come back with an update on your sleep in Mississippi. Even if your sleep problems are altitude related, you may find my sleep training course helpful (and the Insomnia Land forum is worth joining, too).

  • Bob Price
    June 16, 2013, 3:41 am

    I’m at Lake Tahoe and suffering my third night of insomnia. Same thing happens in Colorado. I live at sea level and have sleep problems there as well but nothing like this. I’ve taken enough sleep aids (Ambien, Gabapenten, Tylonol PM) to knock out a horse but nothing seems to help. I get plenty of exercise and drink very moderately. Any other suggestions? Can’t wait to get back to sea level.

  • Matthias
    May 23, 2013, 3:42 pm

    Cola D3 (Dil 3) it’s called and was difficult to get. A friend from Switzerland recommended , I googled, and did not find a pharmacy to sell it to me. Then my mum got it via a friend who is a homoeopathic therapist in Germany. But she was warned that this should be only done usually with thorough analysis. But I’ve survived so far and slept well.

    The coka leave of course is the stuff that the Andean indigenous people chew all day to keep calm, beat the cold and perhaps sleep well.

  • Matthias
    May 19, 2013, 2:13 pm

    for the first time in 10 years or so I slept well during ski holidays in the Alps. Perhaps the drops I took helped. Cola D3, homeopathic remedy. My mum got it for me from Germany.

    • Martin Reed
      May 23, 2013, 3:02 pm

      Interesting – I’ve not heard of Cola D3 before. Do you have any more information on this supplement?

  • chris
    May 11, 2013, 7:58 am

    Sitting here crusty eyed in Colorado Springs at 5 am happy to get four hours of sleep last night, but was hoping for at least one night a my normal 7 hours. I remember this happening on my last trip to Boulder from my home at sea level in coastal California. Glad to read here that it is not just me!

  • Lucy
    March 29, 2013, 11:35 pm

    I just returned from Quito, Ecuador, and experienced the exact same thing. I have been many times over the past 11 years to visit my husband’s family there and it has happened every time. I barely slept the 7 nights I was just there. Very frustrating. I didn’t ever appear to feel tired and was just wide awake night after night with intermittent bursts of sleep. Probably averaged 3 hours max a night. Is interesting to hear others have had the same problem. Quito is the second highest capital in the world at 9252 feet. Am no doubt going again next year with the family so definitely want to know if there is something I can do or take to alleviate the problem next time we go!

  • fish
    March 23, 2013, 10:27 am

    I have just returned from a week in Mexico City, where I managed no sleep at all over six nights, which wrecked a business trip. I had not come across altitude insomnia before – I am researching it now as I may have to return.

    I experienced some mild breathlessness after climbing stairs but, while in bed, I was tired, comfortable and relaxed, physically and mentally – just not asleep. Internet explanations that the condition is caused by waking due to panic about breathlessness do not seem relevant in my case. I never felt remotely close to sleep at any point, as if I’d tried to sleep at an inappropriate time.

    I experienced immediate relief on my return to the UK (virtually at sea level) and slept an uninterrupted twelve hours last night, which was very welcome.

    Should acetazolamide be taken before a trip or only in response to symptoms? Would it be worth taking iron supplements before a trip to increase red cell count and/or haemooglobin levels?

    My hotel was near one of the venues for the Mexico Olympics and it occurs to me that international athletes must be familiar with this problem. I’ll try searching athletics sites and, if I find anything useful, I’ll report back here.

    • James
      March 25, 2013, 9:52 am

      I have tried both acetazolamide & iron supplement and am not convinced they are the answer, especially taken together.

      I was planning 6 weeks in NM at altitude 5000 to 8000 feet and asked my doctor at home how I might deal with the sleeplessness I had experienced on past trips. He prescribed the acetazolamide. And from my research on the topic of oxygen deprivation at altitude I decided to take an iron supplement beginning a couple of weeks before the trip.

      Acetazolamide is a powerful diuretic, so be prepared to get up multiple times thru the night to urinate. And in combo with iron – I continued to take it after I arrived in NM – I experienced obnoxious constipation.

      Read the Wikipedia pages on both of these agents before you embark. Acetazolamide I think is intended for use at VERY high altitude. As I understood it – and how it works is very complicated – this medication actually PRODUCES the symptoms that keep me awake at moderately high altitudes of 5000 to 8500 feet – the frequent waking up to gulp some air.

      When I stopped taking it I settled into a pattern of falling asleep for a 3-4 hour stretch and then restless meditation until dawn. Not my customary pattern in Piedmont NC, and certainly not my preferred pattern, but I find that al long as I don’t let myself get upset about it I am well enough rested to enjoy the day.

  • peter hurlin
    March 18, 2013, 9:27 am

    Same thing here. Live in Portland OR and its my last of 4 nights in Aspen – maybe a couple hours sleep each night. Frustrating but good to see there may be a solution (acetazolamide). My cousin from Boston took it and slept fine. Will give it a try next time.

  • Vic
    March 10, 2013, 6:23 am

    From Florida … Elevation 20 ft at most!!
    Day one @ Breckenridge skiing -taking deeper breathes but just not getting the oxygen.
    It is now 4 am am and I am completely wide awake without an minute of sleep.
    Just lying in bed taking deep breathes. Resting sea level pulse is 40 but in Breckenridge @ 9500 ft, it’s 80 while lying down.

    Funny thing is that I spent 2 nights in Mt. Pilatus Switzerland @ 7000 ft and slept like a log. Maybe everyone has an altitude threshold barrier?

    • Kristina Chirico
      March 18, 2013, 4:10 pm

      I live @ 6,200 ft and sleep fine. But when I go to a higher elevation – about 9600) I can’t sleep for several nights, and then my body adjusts. Maybe there is some kind of threshold.

  • Jose
    January 1, 2013, 3:44 pm

    I visited Toluca Mexico elevation 8600 feet in July 2012 for a week and could not sleep a wink the whole time. I felt there was something wrong with my breathing pattern as I started to sleep and would wake up. I was also very irritable. It was horrible. I never had sleeping problems like this before. Even when I returned to home elevation near Dallas at 600 feet the same sleeping problems continued. I had to see a doctor who prescribed Lunesta, but that only made me sleep for 2 hours. Finally another doctor prescribed a high dose of Restoril a benzo type drug, and I started sleeping normally. It’s been 6 months and I am still relying on Restoril although a lower dosage. I had no idea that high altitude could cause sleeping disorder until I got back and reasoned it had to be the high altitude. When I got back, I had a brain ct scan and a head MRI because I sensed I was also having short term memory problems and anxiety, but both scans were normal. I’m slowly getting back to feeling normal after months of sleep problems and medication. I will never travel to any city associated with altitude sickness again, which appears can occur even at 3000 ft. Travelers should be warned about the potential hazards associated with altitude sickness when traveling to these of cities.