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Study shows that people in Summit County sleep differently than in the Front Range

Ebert Family Clinic, Colorado Sleep Institute plan to continue research into the future

Dr. Christine Ebert-Santos talks about high-altitude health and living at the Ebert Family Clinic on Aug. 29, 2019, in Frisco. The Ebert Family Clinic and the Coloroad Sleep Institute recently completed a study that shows how people sleep differently at high elevations.
Liz Copan / Summit Daily archives

Early-morning headaches, daytime fatigue and poor sleep are all common symptoms felt by both visitors and locals in Summit County, but what does this mean for overall health? The team at Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco decided to launch a sleep study, with the help of the Frisco location of the Colorado Sleep Institute, to find out.

According to the clinic’s blog, the purpose of the nine-month project was to evaluate people’s oxygen levels when sleeping at night. Leading the charge from the clinic was family nurse practitioner Tara Taylor, who said the team’s hypothesis was that those sleeping at higher elevations get slightly less oxygen than those at lower elevations.

Taylor said the study targeted healthy individuals and they excluded those who had “anything that would interrupt sleep or alter our desire for a baseline of healthy, normal patients.” Depending on the results, Taylor said the study could — and did — show evidence of a new baseline for what could be expected oxygen levels at higher elevations.



For example, at lower elevations, healthy individuals usually have a 90% basal oxygen level, but healthy individuals in the study showed to be spending more time asleep below the range, usually at 88% or 89%.

“Most patients typically should be above 90% both awake and asleep,” Taylor explained. “So if you were in the hospital in Denver, you’d be sleeping 92%. If you were 88%, they would put you on a liter or two of oxygen. They would treat that number. So our goal is to say, ‘We’re at such high altitudes here, is this the baseline? Should we be looking for patients to be greater than 90%?’”

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Though not necessarily groundbreaking in itself, Taylor said new information provides enough reason to continue researching sleep at high elevations.

“In general, I wouldn’t say that it indicates poor sleep or any sort of potential for complications,” Taylor said. “I think we were just trying to initially identify this is happening. We would need further information that would show that these patients are complaining of poor sleep or complaining of daytime fatigue and things like that. I don’t think that data is at the place where it’s applicable to take interventions on patients or make hypotheses about outcomes from these numbers. This was a very preliminary study to say people’s oxygen levels are not the same during sleep up here as they are (in Denver) on average in healthy people without any complications.”

Dr. Ellen Stothard, research and development director for the Colorado Sleep Institute, pointed out that many of Summit County’s residents are not originally from the area. Instead, residents are from across the United States and even overseas, and Stothard noted that there’s not enough research to determine what that means for their “unadapted” bodies.

“If you think of people who live in the Andes and their families have lived there for years, they have this adaptation that may have occurred over generations,” Stothard said. “We have people who are moving here, to Summit County, to high altitude regions from everywhere, and they haven’t been exposed to this unique physiological environment. We don’t really know what this means for their health long term.”

When Colorado Sleep Institute opened its Frisco location, Stothad said the team immediately noticed a difference between their Front Range and Summit County patients.

“The thing that we noticed when we started treating sleep patients down in the Front Range and then we moved up into the High Country, we were basically like, ‘This is a different game.’ You have a protocol for treating people with their sleep apnea or their overnight sleep disorders or their breathing disorders, and you have to throw the playbook out the window a little bit when you come to altitude because of the different challenges that come with the environment.”

Moving forward, both Stothard and Taylor said they are interested in continuing research to understand how sleep at high elevations impact overall health.

“Maybe we can look at other things, such as genetics, such as other types of behavioral lifestyle things, that we think we can predict who is going to be more at risk for having these sleep issues because they’re going to lead to some (problems with) cardiovascular health, problems with cognition, memory, dementia, cancer, all these other things down the road,” Stothard said.

Tara Taylor, family nurse practitioner for the Ebert Family Clinic in Frisco, worked on a sleep study with the Colorado Sleep Institute. The study showed signs that people in Summit County sleep differently than in the Front Range.
Photo from Tara Taylor

 


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