Sipping in the Sky: The Hidden Risks of Alcohol on Airplanes

Today, air travel allows us to shrink the world via metal tubes, to travel over continents in a few hours, to connect with distant cultures on the ground, and conduct global business face to face. Better yet, there’s even a ritual associated with this very modern marvel: the pleasure of a drink at 35,000 feet. But new research shows that this sophisticated pastime might be a one-way ticket to the doctor’s office.

Understanding the Impact

A recent study highlighted the hazardous effects of combining drinking with long-haul flights. Passengers are warned of the consequences of boozing before and during flights by one of the researchers, Dr Eva-Maria Elmenhorst. She conducted the study, published in the medical journal Thorax, which showed that blood oxygen levels decreased significantly and the participants’ heart rates went up when they were tested after drinking alcohol at cabin pressure.

Why It Matters

The body’s strain of flying – particularly at higher altitudes – is well-documented. The cabin pressure of commercial aircraft is designed to approximate sea level at 6,000 to 8,000 feet, which reduces the amount of oxygen available for the body to absorb. As the National Institutes of Health points out clearly, alcohol, a known depressant, only reemphasises the dangers of reduced oxygen saturation and raised heart rates, even among the relatively healthy.

The Study in Detail

In the study, researchers monitored 48 volunteers in a laboratory setting where they simulated the cabin air pressure used on most flights. Some of the passengers consumed alcohol before bed while the others didn’t. What the researchers found was that those who drank alcohol saw their blood oxygen saturation drop to concerning levels, and their heart rate rise – the effects were significantly more pronounced in those who drank versus those who slept sans alcohol, making a clear connection between in-flight drinking and substantial physiological stress.

Health Implications

Even if we were healthy, the risk to us is still quite low in the short run, but the longer-term ramifications could be very substantial, at least for those who currently have cardiovascular disease,’ said Deepak Bhatt, an interventional cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and executive director of Interventional Cardiovascular Programs at the Harvard Clinical Research Institute. Mariann Piano, an epidemiologist and senior scientist at Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in Portland, Oregon, also expressed concerns. She said: ‘If we’re having low levels of oxygen and our heartrate speeds up during sleep, that [cessation] could certainly be stressing the cardiovascular system.’ She added that it might increase the chances of serious adverse events, such as heart attacks or strokes, in susceptible individuals.

Advice for Flyers

The authors recommend abstaining from alcohol by passengers, especially those with underlying health issues, while flying. And the same caution appears warranted for all – as noted by Dr Prashant Vaishnava, the report’s lead author and an epidemiology fellow at the US National Institutes of Health, healthy people with no underlying condition ‘might just want to have one [alcoholic drink], because they are still at risk.’

Navigating a Healthy Flight

What better opportunity than flying for an offer of a free drink – and to wash down a natural bout of flight anxiety with a little more booze? But as this study suggests, the physiological effects are profound. For safer travel:

  • Stay Hydrated: Opt for water or hydrating beverages instead of alcohol.
  • Move Around: Regularly stretch and move to combat the effects of prolonged sitting.
  • Rest Properly: Always try to sleep in a natural way, without drinking. Ear plugs, blindfolds and neck pillows can all help to make things more comfortable.

Conclusion: Rethinking Airborne Libations

This should offer a fresh perspective the next time you refill your glass on a plane. As we embrace the wonder of flight ever more often, it’s important for us to take care of our bodies within the abundant space of the air. The friendly skies can be friendly only when they respect the body’s limits.

Exploring the Beat of This Study

In journalism, the term ‘beat’ signifies a theme or area of coverage that a reporter is assigned to cover. This research is on the health and science beat; indeed, if there are harmful health impacts from drinking while flying, we might want to know about it, so that we can become more aware – and, perhaps, even fly differently. Thus, for the health-minded flyer, this is a must-read.

Jun 06, 2024
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