This summer, I spent a month studying at the Universidad de los Andes in Chile. We visited the Atacama Desert, the driest non-polar desert in the world. It is nestled between two sets of mountains; during one of our excursions we hiked up the Andes Mountains to a village called Socaire, located at an altitude of around 11,000 feet above sea level.
Our site coordinator, physiology professor and “temporary mom,” Anne Crecelius, PhD, kindly offered us coca candy, hoping it might prevent the dizziness, nausea and headaches sometimes associated with altitude sickness. She had asked us to drink more water than we usually do, too, just in case anyone in our group responded badly to being so high up. Coca candy is made in part from coca leaves, a plant that local people have chewed on for thousands of years. Coca leaves contain chemical compounds called alkaloids, which have been shown to reduce hunger and calm the side effects of high-altitude travel.
The question remains whether coca really has physiological benefits. The research is mixed. Some studies, citing the uses of coca throughout history, claim that there are significant benefits to chewing coca leaves. They recount improved energy efficiency during exercise, boosted energy levels—similar to the effect of caffeine in coffee—and decreased thirst and appetite.
However, other researchers suggest that the effects of coca leaves are mostly psychological, similar to a placebo effect (using a fake treatment, or placebo, in a group of people to compare the effects with people using a real treatment). In some cases, the group taking the placebo will also see improvement in their condition.
Even if coca leaves do prevent altitude sickness symptoms, the candies we munched on did not contain enough coca to help much. But perhaps they were enough to create some sort of placebo effect in our group, as no one was sick, just a little out of breath. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the town, the candy and a snowball fight near a very old church. Who knew that a small town at high altitude could be so much fun? Most likely, the locals and generations of indigenous people, who also know of the power of coca.
Andrew Kramer is an exercise physiology major at the University of Dayton. Anne R. Crecelius, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Health and Sport Science Department at the University of Dayton. They spent four weeks in Chile as part of a study abroad program in partnership with the Universidad de los Andes, studying nutrition, sports and research in the context of the Chilean culture. This is the second in a three-part series that spies physiology in this dynamic South American country. Read part one.