How Drinking Alcohol on a Flight Affects Your Body

How Drinking Alcohol on a Flight Affects Your Body


Whether it’s to calm nerves or simply to enjoy the flight, you may choose to order an alcoholic drink when on a plane. However, new research suggests you might want to avoid napping after the fact—flying, drinking, and sleeping could be a dangerous combination.

A first-of-its-kind study—published on June 3 in the journal Thorax—found that sleeping in a pressurized cabin after consuming alcohol made participants more likely to experience poor sleep quality, stress on their cardiovascular system, and lower blood oxygen concentrations.

With participants’ blood oxygen levels in particular, researchers found they dipped “to quite low values for extended durations,” lead study author Eva-Maria Elmenhorst, MD, deputy of the Department of Sleep and Human Factors Research at the Institute of Aerospace Medicine at the German Aerospace Center, told Health.

Researchers said this could be a risky situation, particularly for people with certain underlying conditions. This might include those with lung or heart disease—or those with risk factors for either condition—since their bodies are already working harder to circulate blood and oxygen.

“Even though this might not be directly harmful for healthy persons, I would still recommend [people] avoid such [blood oxygen] desaturations,” Elmenhorst said.

Here’s what experts had to say about the new research, and what to know before ordering a beverage on your next flight.

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To learn more about the health effects of drinking alcohol on a plane, researchers studied the sleep of 48 healthy adults.

The participants, who were between ages 18 and 40, were split into two different groups. Within each group, 12 people drank an amount of vodka equivalent to about two glasses of wine or two cans of beer; the other 12 didn’t have anything to drink.

One group slept for four hours in a sleep lab with air pressure at sea level, while the other half slept for the same amount of time in an altitude chamber to simulate being on a flight. Two days after this original test, the drinker and non-drinker groups switched.

Assessing all the data, the researchers found that both drinkers and non-drinkers in the normal pressure setting had relatively stable blood oxygen concentrations and heart rates. Blood oxygen concentrations were 95% and 96% for the drinkers and non-drinkers, respectively. Those who drank had an average heart rate of 77 beats per minute (bpm), and those who didn’t had a heart rate of about 64 bpm. These metrics are considered fairly standard.

However, participants who slept in the low-pressure setting mimicking an airplane had more concerning results. Those who didn’t drink alcohol had blood oxygen levels around 88%, while those who did had an average 85% blood oxygen concentration. Normal blood oxygen levels are considered 95% and higher.

And though a person’s heart rate usually drops during sleep, the study authors found that—especially for the group drinking alcohol—the opposite was true.

“In our study after alcohol intake and under hypobaric [low air pressure] conditions, heart rate did not decrease during sleep but increased,” said Elmenhorst.

People in these airplane-like environments had an average heart rate of 73 bpm when they didn’t drink, and an average heart rate of 88 bpm when they did.

Additionally, people who drank and slept in low-pressure settings had worse sleep quality compared to those who didn’t have alcohol. Drinkers had less time in a rapid eye movement (REM) cycle—a sleep stage with a slew of benefits.

Poor sleep, a higher heart rate, and lower blood oxygen levels are surely not healthy for any person, but for certain people, experiencing these effects from drinking then napping on a flight could be dangerous.

These cardiovascular stressors in particular could be more risky for people with underlying conditions, such as lung disease, heart disease, or heart failure. People with these conditions may already have lower blood oxygen concentrations to begin with, or their bodies may have to work harder to circulate oxygen. Because of this, they may bring oxygen with them when they fly.

Further diminishing those blood oxygen concentrations and raising the heart rate by napping after consuming alcohol on a flight is simply “a potentially avoidable risk,” Deepak Bhatt, MD, MPH, MBA, director of the Mount Sinai Fuster Heart Hospital and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine, told Health.

It’s unclear to what extent alcohol has been involved in cardiovascular-related emergencies on flights. However, the authors noted that cardiovascular symptoms account for about 7% of these events and cardiac arrest is behind about 58% of aircraft diversions.

Flying can be hard on the human body even when alcohol isn’t involved—not moving as much can cause aches and pains, and can raise a person’s risk of developing blood clots in their legs (also known as deep vein thrombosis).

The results of the study are interesting, but the research does have some limitations.

For one, the study population was small, and all of the participants included were relatively young and healthy—this means the results may not necessarily be applicable to the American population more broadly. Also, the study participants slept lying down, which is not how most passengers nap during air travel.

More research would have to be done to see how drinking and sleeping on a flight might affect larger and more diverse populations in real-world scenarios.

Also, the researchers only assessed a moderate dose of alcohol within the study, and they didn’t examine how drinking before takeoff might change these results. However, Elmenhorst hypothesized that this, too, might be risky.

“I would speculate that drinking alcohol before the flight will still have an effect during flight,” she said.

Though questions remain, experts agree people may want to rethink ordering their favorite alcoholic beverage while they’re in the air. This is true even if a person is using it to calm flight-related nerves.

“Treating a phobia with alcohol has never been a healthy method,” Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, told Health. “Now this study shows there is an additional unhealthy component to drinking while flying.”

In addition, drinking alcohol so you can fall asleep on a plane likely won’t even lead to good rest.

“Usually staying somewhat upright can help keep the airway more open but if someone already has problems with sleep apnea, drinking alcohol or taking medications can certainly make it worse,” Fariha Abbasi-Feinberg, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at Millennium Physician Group in Florida, told Health.

Rather than relying on alcohol, people with a flying phobia can try exposure therapy or medication, Saltz recommended.

So should you order a drink while you wait for your flight, or when the beverage cart rolls by? Elmenhorst said the decision is yours, so long as you understand how it may be affecting your body.

“I would like people to make informed decisions,” she said. “I hope that people will be made aware that drinking alcohol during a flight is not without risk.”

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