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For those who enjoy a drink or two while flying, a recent study presents sobering findings. Combining alcohol consumption with sleeping at high altitudes can significantly lower blood oxygen levels and strain the heart, even in young, healthy individuals.

Alcohol lowers blood oxygen saturation at high altitude

Commercial airplanes are pressurized to around 8,000 feet, akin to the height of a small mountain. This altitude reduces oxygen levels compared to sea level, and while the body can usually adapt, alcohol consumption disrupts this delicate balance.

Researchers at the German Aerospace Center conducted a study with 40 healthy participants aged 18 to 40. They slept in simulated airplane conditions at high altitude, with half consuming alcohol before sleep. Results, published in Thorax, revealed alarming drops in blood oxygen saturation among those who drank before sleeping at altitude.

Participants who consumed alcohol saw their blood oxygen levels drop to 85%, compared to 95% in the sea-level group. This level of oxygen deprivation, termed hypoxia, poses health risks. Additionally, the alcohol-altitude group experienced significant increases in heart rate, indicating strain on the cardiovascular system. Sleep quality also suffered, with reduced time spent in deep sleep and REM stages. This suggests that inflight snoozing after alcohol may not be as restorative as hoped.

Alcohol moderation or abstinence recommended during flight

While the study provides valuable insights, it has limitations. It only examined the first four hours of sleep and included a small sample of young, healthy adults. Factors like seating position and other environmental factors could influence results.

Despite these limitations, the study highlights the potential risks of inflight alcohol consumption, particularly at high altitudes. Passengers, especially older or less healthy individuals, should be cautious. Airlines and healthcare providers should consider these findings when advising passengers, emphasizing moderation or abstinence from alcohol during flights to mitigate risks.

Theerfore, while enjoying a drink on a flight may seem harmless, the combination of alcohol and high altitude poses significant health risks. Awareness of these risks and moderation in alcohol consumption can contribute to safer and healthier air travel experiences.