Plants for altitude sickness

  • Aug 08, 2017
  • Machupicchu Hike

Natural medicine or herbal medicine forms a great variety of techniques and treatments that over the years were used for the purpose of curing and treating different health conditions.

The Incas were our main exponents of natural medicine in our geographical area.

The use of these plants enables a quick and viable solution, without the use of drugs, in order to counteract the symptomatology typical of altitude sickness.

The main plants used are: Coca leaf, muña, chachacoma, mint and capulí. These botanical species have curative effects to reduce the characteristic symptomatology of this pathology.


Throughout our development as a civilization, the human being was at the mercy of a great variety of diseases, discomforts and ailments.

This problem generated the need to find solutions according to their context. In this way, the man began the search for materials, methods, techniques and therapies that can reduce or eliminate the discomfort generated in his health.

The great distribution of ecosystems in Peru generates a great variety of botanical species, which are the main component of natural medicine.

As major references in this regard, historians observed the widespread use of medicinal plants during the Inca empire; Being the coca leaf (Erythroxylon coca) the one of greater application not only in the medical area, but also in the spiritual one.

The high Andean area presents a relatively rough geography, given the altitude, low temperatures and other factors that favor the presence of predominant pathologies in this territory. The main disease that occurs in these conditions is altitude sickness (MAM).

This is generated by a rapid ascent above sea level. Several researchers mention that the symptomatology occurs from 2500 to 3000 meters above sea level and these are complicated by different factors, including: ascending speed, previous cardiac and pulmonary pathologies, lack of acclimatization and lack of prevention.

The symptomatology characteristic of this pathology is: intense headache, nausea, vomiting, apnea, dyspnea, hypotension, dizziness, vertigo, insomnia. The most serious complications are: cerebral edema, pulmonary edema and death.

Different studies referring to altitude sickness refer to the fact that there is no cure for this pathology, since its main form of treatment is adapted according to the present clinical picture.

In cases of chronic AMI, the only way to avoid complications and a fatal outcome is the descent to lower altitudes or to sea level.

Mention of this concept, the symptomatic treatment of MAM, can and has been carried out with medicinal plants during later years. A study on Etno - Pharmacology Iberoamericana brings to the knowledge the abundant use of the botanical species for the cure of different diseases.

This research took as main points of analysis, geographical area and culture. In the case of Peru, the influence of three cultural centers was observed: the Andean influence of the Incas and Aymaras, the medical legacy brought by the Amazon jungle and the botanical influence brought by the Spaniards.

Based on these three cultural lines, it was observed that, different plants present in our area, can be applied for the treatment of altitude sickness.

Among them we have:

  • Coca leaf: Erythroxylon coca, used mainly by infusions. It is a stimulant, analgesic, digestive, blood pressure regulator.
  • Muña: Minthostachys setosa, can be used in infusions. It has a medicinal use to treat headache, gastritis, altitude sickness. Its antiseptic, analgesic and carminative capacity were checked. After the coca leaf, it is a botanical species traditional in the medicine of the Inca culture.
  • Capulí: Prunus capulí Cav. Being a tree of 20 meters in height, it has three forms of application, the fruit is used as depurative, the leaves as regulator of the heart rhythm and for altitude sickness and the bark of the tree as antirheumatic.
  • Mint: Mentha piperita, the biochemical composition mainly presents eugenol and rosmarinic acid, which are anticoagulants. These can improve circulation but at minimal doses for people with diabetes. Its use, like the plants described above, is based on infusions.
  • Chachacoma: Senecio nutans, a high Andean plant that has a geographical distribution that includes the area of ​​the Peruvian Ande to the country of Argentina. It is a bush of 20 to 50 cm of height, ramoso and covered of leaves until the apex. According to several studies carried out in Chile, Argentina and Bolivia, the use of this plant in infusions serves mainly for altitude sickness.


The historical and scientific evidences allow the possibility of using these medicinal plants for the treatment of altitude sickness. The main biochemical components of these species improve the clinical picture present in the MAM, mainly in the case of the coca leaf, the muña and the chachacoma, since its action is at the circulatory level and can counteract the main symptoms of the MAM. The appropriate way to be able to use the medicinal plants described in the upper part is through infusions. The use and application of this type of alternative medicine has not yet been fully tested, so a greater predisposition is needed in the scientific field, in order to verify the curative capacities of these and other botanical species.


BELTRÁN, Hamilton; GAMARRA, José Roque. The genus Senecio L. (Asteraceae-Senecioneae) in the department of Lima, Peru. ARNALDOA, 2015, vol. 22, no. 2, p. 395-412.

ARAYA-PRESA, Jorge, et al. Manual of plants and songs Aymara. Explora-Conicyt Project. University of La Serena. Chile, 2003.

MADALENO, Isabel María. Ethno-pharmacology in Latin America, an alternative to the globalization of healing practices. Geographical Notebooks, 2007, no.

GUYTON, AC, & Hall, JE (2001). Treaty of medical physiology. Inter-American Ed. McGraw Hill. Madrid, 43 (8), 528-61 (11), 748-749


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