New-Age Herb for an Age-Old Problem

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There's nothing worse than waking up to a few feet of fresh with a throbbing headache and a queasy stomach-or some other telltale sign of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). For years there wasn't a whole lot you could do about it beyond popping Diamox or dexamethasone, both prescription meds with serious side effects, or retreating to a lower elevation. More recent findings have shown that taking the herb ginkgo biloba five days before heading to the mountains mitigates the effects of altitude.

But Jeffrey Gertsch, a neurological scientist at the University of Hawaii-who also happens to be an avid snowboarder, mountain climber, and AMS sufferer-found that a hit of ginkgo just 24 hours before heading for the hills seems to lessen or even eliminate typical AMS symptoms (including headache, nausea, and fatigue). In a recent study, reported in High Altitude Medicine and Bioloy, Gertsch gave 26 subjects either 180 milligrams of ginkgo or a placebo pill the day before a three-hour climb of Hawaii's 13,650-foot Mauna Kea. Of the 12 participants who ultimately had to be taken off the mountain because of AMS, 11 had not been given ginkgo.

"We know from past research that taking 80 to 100 milligrams of ginkgo twice a day for five days before going to high altitude drastically reduces the odds of suffering from AMS," says Gertsch, who hopes that the herb will become a standard preventative measure. "Now we think that you might be able to take some just in time for a last-minute trip and still be okay."