Does chewing on coca leaves or drinking coca tea help with altitude sickness?

1 Aug

File:Mate de coca Peru.jpgAltitude sickness comes in three basic forms: acute mountain sickness, high-altitude pulmonary edema and high-altitude cerebral edema. Acute mountain sickness is the most common, as it affects more than 50 percent of people who ascend higher than 8,000 feet (2,400 meters) in a relatively short time span. It’s caused by the lower levels of oxygen in the air at high elevations; your lungs can’t take in as much oxygen as they’re used to and your heart and lungs have to work harder to keep your blood oxygenated. Symptoms of acute mountain sickness include dizziness, fatigue, nausea, headaches and difficulty sleeping. Acute mountain sickness usually goes away within a few days as long as you remain well hydrated and stay at the same altitude until the symptoms pass.

Among the ways people have traditionally relieved the symptoms of mild altitude sickness is by chewing or making tea with coca leaves. Many workers in Central and South America, especially those in the Andes in Peru, who spend time at high altitudes use coca leaves to alleviate the discomfort.  The leaves of the coca plant contain alkaloids which–when extracted chemically–are the source for cocaine base. However, the amount of coca alkaloid in the raw leaves is small. A cup of coca tea prepared from one gram of coca leaves (the typical contents of a tea bag) contains approximately 4.2 mg of organic coca alkaloid.  Owing to the presence of these alkaloids, coca tea is a mild stimulant; its consumption may be compared to consumption of coffee or tea.

At the end of the day, there is no scientific evidence on whether or not the leaves actually help.  We have asked all our Alpaca trekkers and each one has a different answer, but they all seeem to enjoy participating in the Peruvian tradition of coca tea in the morning, especially when its delivered to your tent as your wake up call by your amazing Alpaca guide.

Let us know – did the coca leaves help you when you visited Peru?

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