Most people have heard that drinking alcohol at altitude – in the mountains or in Denver – compounds drunkenness: the greater the elevation, the bigger the buzz. But, can the same be said for marijuana? Does smoking at altitude add to the impact? Does being high aid in your high? Unfortunately for Coloradoans, the answer is probably not.
Alcohol At Altitude
Before we dive into cannabis at altitude, let’s discuss alcohol. As mentioned above, the idea that altitude enhances the effects of wine, liquor, and beer is widespread. We reason that alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to absorb oxygen (specifically the hemoglobin’s absorption). Since higher altitudes already have less oxygen, alcohol’s potency is greater at 10,000 feet than it is at 1,000. On the other hand, science isn’t convinced. A Federal Aviation Administration study tested this theory by placing people in a pressure chamber and simulating altitude. Ultimately, they found no difference between those who consumed booze at simulated coastal levels and those who consumed it at elevations similar to the Mile High City. Still, people argue that they feel a difference. I for one, a life-long Coloradoan, find that when I visit my relatives at sea level, I have a much more difficult time getting drunk. I’m around family; why be sober? It’s always possible that this is psychosomatic, but other explanations exist as well. Drinking alcohol when you’re dehydrated tends to result in a getting drunk faster, something that can happen no matter where you are.
At altitude, dehydration is more likely
Elevation can also hamper mental and physical abilities, which might lead to more slurring, stumbling, and cognitive impairment. In short, alcohol doesn’t necessarily make you more inebriated, but it can make you feel like you are.
Cannabis at Altitude
A person’s body can only process so much of anything at once – be it pinot noir or Pineapple Kush – and standing on top of a mountain shouldn’t make much of a difference. Even so, marijuana at altitude has a similar impact as alcohol; elevation doesn’t get you more stoned, but it can leave you winded and lightheaded, ultimately making you feel like you’re totally baked when you’re only lightly roasted. People who aren’t accustomed to any sort of elevation – you’ve lived your whole life at sea level – may come to a place like Denver and indeed feel more out of it the second they smoke up and hit the town. But, conversely, this same person would probably feel a little bit funny regardless of what they were doing - they were sipping milk and reading Tennyson. Altitude affects people, and usually not in wonderful ways.
This brings us to altitude sickness, a condition that arises when people not accustomed to elevation climb higher and higher. Altitude sickness involves a variety of symptoms, including headaches, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, insomnia, heart palpitations (or a racing heart), and loss of energy.
While most symptoms are minor, altitude sickness can become life-threatening when it’s severe
Usually, this is the result of pulmonary and cerebral edema. For people traveling to Denver to partake in the pot life, this isn’t really a concern; severe sickness is often limited to altitudes described as “extremely high” that clock in at over 18,000 feet. Denver is only 5,280 feet and popular ski destinations aren’t that high either: Aspen is 8,000 feet, Steamboat is 6,700, and Breckinridge is 9,600. By comparison, Mount Everest is over 29,000 feet.
Avoiding Altitude Sickness…Especially When Smoking
You probably want to avoid altitude sickness at all times (heck, you probably want to avoid every sickness), but when you couple altitude with marijuana, avoidance is that much more important; it’s hard to enjoy your buzz if you’re throwing up your pot brownie. There are lots of ways to avoid altitude sickness (staying at sea level isn’t the only solution). Some of these include: Drink a lot of water: Generally, the higher an elevation, the lower the humidity. This results in dry air that can dehydrate you easier than usual. So, drink water; aim to double your normal consumption. Eat foods full of potassium: Potassium helps the body acclimate to elevation. Foods that are rich in it include bananas, avocados, granola, dried fruit, potatoes, and – woo hoo! – chocolate. Don’t expect to run a marathon: Exercising at altitude is much more difficult than exerting yourself at sea level. You’ll feel the effects, no matter what kind of super awesome, buns-of-steel shape you’re in. Try ginger: If you’re overly concerned about getting sick, your doctor can write you a prescription for altitude sickness on a “just in case” basis. But you can also try ginger: it’s great a quieting the stomach and making you feel less like you took a spin on the Tilt-a-whirl. Acclimate: Acclimating to altitude in baby steps is better than doing it all at once. If you come to Colorado for a trip, hang out in Denver for a few days before you head up to the mountains.
Altitude and Weight Loss
If marijuana gives you so many munchies that pot’s become synonymous with pot belly, altitude offers good news: you do lose more weight at higher elevations. According to the Huffington Post, a 2013 study found that Americans living at sea-level are four to five times more likely to be obese than those who live in Colorado. This was after controlling for other factors, including Coloradoans tendency to hike, bike, and eat kale. Another study found that these weight loss benefits weren’t limited to permanent residents: visiting a high-altitude area can lead to weight loss and help you keep it off once you return to your regularly scheduled elevation. It’s believed that weight loss is a result of altitude’s ability to increase metabolism and reduce hunger. Smoking cannabis at elevation might make you feel as though you’re higher than you are, but it won’t technically get you more stoned. However, if you’re planning a trip to altitude, it’s always wise to take the precautions needed and reduce your chance of altitude sickness. At the very least, bring along a strain known for reducing nausea.