Libations & Wellness: Drinking at Altitude

Photo from Elevation Beer Co.

Photo from Elevation Beer Co.

It’s GABF week! Beer drinkers from all over the country will be filling our quaint city on a mission to drink lots and lots of beer. Many of these individuals will blame some of their drunk antics on the altitude. The claim being: drinking at higher elevation makes one drink feel like it has the impact of two or three. But the question remains, is there science to support the claim that drinking at higher elevations makes you get drunk faster?

I asked Dr. Christopher Colwell, director of emergency medicine at Denver Health, to answer a few questions to get to the bottom of this claim.

Why do you get drunk faster at higher elevations?
People do not actually get intoxicated faster at higher elevations; they generally just get the sense that they feel more intoxicated more quickly. The body’s reactions to both the alcohol and the higher altitude are more pronounced because they are responding to each.

When in the blood, alcohol interferes with hemoglobin’s absorption of oxygen. At higher altitudes you have less oxygen present in the air to begin with, so the effect of getting intoxicated are magnified. Your BAC level won’t actually change.

So what is the culprit causing all of these people to feel more buzzed?
Altitude sickness. Altitude sickness is the body’s response to low levels of oxygen. As oxygen levels drop, the body responds to it by increasing respirations, increasing pulse and the body’s systems begin to do things differently.

Altitude sickness affects everyone differently. Symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, weakness, and headaches. Sounds just like symptoms of a hangover to me.

How long does it take to become acclimated?
It takes the body a good three months to reach full acclimation and for the blood levels to truly change and respond to decreased oxygen. Some people are more prone to high altitude sickness. There many also be genetic components. The biggest risk is not allowing enough time for the body to adjust or acclimate.

A frequent mistake we see is people in good physical conditioning – athletes – thinking they can ward off the effects of altitude sickness through their sheer physical conditioning. This is a myth – even the most physically fit bodies will pathologically react the same to decreased oxygen levels until their bodies have time to properly acclimate.

Who is most at risk?
The people who are at the highest risk for altitude sickness are those who are coming straight from sea level and then head up to the mountains above 8,000 feet and immediately engage in strenuous physical activity like skiing.

If you are a drunk at sea level, you will be a drunk at higher elevations. There is no science to that. What you are actually experiencing is a form of altitude sickness and lack of oxygen to your brain. True altitude sickness should not be experienced in Denver, however if you are coming from sea level you are most likely to experience some symptoms.

If you are heading up to any altitude above 8,000 feet, you will feel the effects even more. To help yourself become more acclimated give your body time to adjust, stay hydrated and don’t overdo it.

About Alexandra Weissner

Alex loves craft beer, whiskey and brunch. She has a weakness for Champagne and Prosecco. She also likes to run a lot.