There are so many records that ancient Andes people used coca leaves to avoid altitude sickness and perform effectively in high altitude. Even now a days also hikers used to bring coca leaves or coca tea. Because altitude sickness is one of an unpleasant experience you can face. So the question is how can coca tea helps in altitude sickness?
Scientists have proved that alkaloids in coca leaves can reduce the excess red blood cell formation. It is the key to prevention of altitude sickness. Because altitude sickness mainly happens when your blood contains more red cells and increases its viscosity. And flavonoids in coca leaves help to lipid breakdown and effective produce energy for long-term.
Let’s discuss this further
What is Altitude Sickness?
Our blood gets oxygen from external air. This oxygen transfer happen in alveoli. An alveoli is the functional structure of the lung. There are millions of alveoli in a single lung and each alveoli has adjacent small blood vessels. Oxygen enters in to the blood through alveolar membrane as a result of pressure gradient. This is what happens we live in our regular location.
But the atmospheric pressure or pressure of the air gradually decreases when it comes to higher places. Therefore the external force or pressure to oxygen to enter in to blood gradually reduces. So in high altitude locations we can have less oxygen compared with low altitude places.
Our body needs oxygen for optimum functioning. Specifically for brain. So less oxygen in blood makes less oxygen supply to the brain. If you are not a person lives in high altitude or not a regular hiker, your body not adjust to this situation. So about 12,000 feet you may feel drowsiness, lassitude, mental and muscle fatigue. And some times nausea and vomiting. And if you climb constantly at about 18,000 feet you might get seizures and about 23,000 feet coma and death.
The deadliest fact is with the start of altitude sickness, you might loos your judgemental ability and decision making. So you might continuously go up. This happens in several occasions that unexperienced hikers faced death even due to low oxygen.
How Body Acts in Altitude Sickness?
There are two types of altitude sickness. Acute altitude sickness which happens rapidly, and chronic altitude sickness which occurs in people, live in high altitude for few days.
Acute Altitude Sickness
Researchers have found that there are two main changes in human body that causing altitude sickness.
Acute cerebral oedema. This is believed to result from vasodilatation of brain. Because of low oxygen, body tries to oxygen supply as many as possible. To help with that blood vessels in the brain are dilated to get more blood. But this causes increasing of blood pressure in brain and fluids leak out from small vessels to the brain. Because of that brain tissue tend to swell. Your skull is a closed compartment, so brain can’t swell much. Therefore brain functions get impaired. Because of that disorientation and drowsiness like symptoms happens.
Acute pulmonary oedema. The mechanism of this is still debatable. But the most accepted concept is as follows. As a response to the low oxygen levels, blood vessels in the lung get constricted. Because this happens gradually, already normal blood vessels get more and more blood. Due to that blood pressure in that vessels increases and fluids will leak out to the lung tissues. When is happens gradually, lung will fill from fluid. And this will cause dysfunction of the lungs and difficulty in breathing.
Chronic Altitude Sickness
Occasionally people who remains at high altitude for long period of time, this happens. There are six main effects occur in their bodies.
- Red cell amount increases excessively.
- Blood pressure in pulmonary vessels increases.
- Right side of the heart becomes greatly enlarged.
- Blood pressure in peripheral vessels reduced.
- Whole heart become to fail.
This is a sequence of events. Because of low blood oxygen body tries to grab more oxygen from air. Therefore our bone marrow produces more and more red blood cells. This will cause increased blood viscosity. Because amount of cells exceeds normal ratio of plasma to cells. So blood flow further reduces causing less blood flow to organs. So oxygen supply further reduces.
With the same time blood vessels in the lung are constricted as a response to low blood oxygen. So blood pressure in lung raises. As you know our right heart pumps blood to the lungs. So what happens if blood pressure in lungs rises. Our right heart has to put much more force to pump out blood. For that heart need more muscle power so it becomes hypertrophy. The increasing workload of the heart muscles lead them to fatigue easier and faster. So ultimately the whole heart fails.
What Coca Tea does for Altitude Sickness?
The ancient Andes used coca leaves to avoid altitude sickness. They may didn’t know what happened with it. Newer studies related to this, identified that alkaloids in coca leaves help to avoid altitude sickness.
How this happens ?
As we discussed earlier altitude sickness mainly occurs due to increased blood viscosity and reduced blood flow to organs, specifically the brain. The coca tea comes out in this situation. It can reduce the excess blood cell production from bone marrow. Therefore blood viscosity doesn’t increases. The exact biochemical mechanism of this has not yet correctly identified. But several studies showed that alkaloids in coca leaves can do this.
How Coca leaves Enhance Physical Performance in High Altitude?
We actually don’t know how ancient Andes people got this knowledge. But the results are amazing!!
A study was performed regarding this and it shows that coca leaves can enhance the physical performance.
The basis is like this. Our body has basically two methods of energy production. During short term exercises body uses carbohydrates as the fuel of energy because it can generate energy fast. Glucose, Pyruvate and Glycerol use as the main energy source in carbohydrate metabolism. And ultimately lactic acid is produced. The more lactic acid accumulate in the body, the less effective using of carbohydrates. Gradually we became fatigue. And at the resting phase these lactic acid is consumed by liver and re-produce glucose.
In long term exercises our body switch to the second method. Which is using lipids as the energy source. At the end of lipid breakdown fatty acids and glycerol formed. Glycerol acts same as early and fatty acids enter into a energy cycle in our cells called Krebs cycle. Krebs cycle produces more energy than other methods and ultimately it produces carbon dioxide and water as end products. They cause no slow in energy mechanism compared with lactic acid as early. So basically fatty acid breakdown or oxidation can produce effective energy pathway.
What Coca leaves doing in this process ?
The study was performed in with two groups of Andes people. One group was given coca leaves to chew and other didn’t. All were connected to monitors and their biochemical processes was measured. They were placed in an exercise machine for 20 minutes. The study was performed for two and half hours with intermittent intervals. Once the study over results were analysed. What researchers noted was the people who used coca leaves still have glucose and pyruvate in their blood than others. So basically their body uses fatty acid oxidation which is the more efficient method to produce energy.
And further investigations revealed that ingredients in coca leaves can block the glucose breakdown pathway. It occurs by inhibiting a specific enzyme called Pyruvate Dehydragenase. And later studies shows that this happens because of the flavonoids in coca leaves and not because of the cocaine.
So ultimately results shows that chewing coca leaves is beneficial in prolonged periods of sustained activity. Perhaps this gives energy to function at a sustained levels over the long period of time.
Current Situation with Coca
The USA and most governments in the world prohibited the imports of coca due to its contains cocaine. But coca plants has more health benefits and ancient Andes did know this. Still people lives in Andes, Peru and other South American countries know the importance of coca. If you are a hiker in Andes you may get a chance to drink a cup of coca tea. And don’t miss the chance.
It is never addictive. And scientifically proven that the amount of cocaine in coca leaves is very little and only a large amount can make you high. But consuming a coca tea within 48 hours from a drug test can gives a positive result. So it’s better to know steps to avoid false positive drug tests as well.