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In-air cocktails followed by a catnap can harm your health

By The Health News Team | June 13, 2024
Glasses of white wine on an airplane tray

Stressful trip prep, rough takeoff or simply feeling ready to rest and relax are all common reasons a passenger might choose to have an inflight alcoholic beverage. But a recent study suggests the combination of an in-air cocktail followed by a catnap can negatively affect your health.

Researchers at the Department of Sleep and Human Factors Research in Germany found that inflight sleep intensifies the fall in blood oxygen saturation, caused by the decreased pressure in airplane cabins, and increases a person’s heart rate. The addition of alcohol amplifies these effects and also diminishes the quality of sleep.

This dangerous cocktail of occurrences can lead to an increased risk of health complications and medical emergencies during flights, especially among older adults and people with preexisting heart conditions.

“These results indicate that, even in young and healthy individuals, the combination of alcohol intake with sleeping under hypobaric conditions poses a considerable strain on the cardiac system and might lead to exacerbation of symptoms in patients with cardiac or pulmonary diseases,” the study’s authors write.

What’s more, the price of an airline ticket — whether paid in currency or frequent-flyer rewards — might play a role in how gravely a passenger is affected. Passengers in first and business class may be at greater risk due to the free drinks and spacious, reclining seats provided, as both encourage sleep.

“Onboard consumption of alcohol is an underestimated health risk that could be easily avoided,” the authors concluded. “Practitioners, passengers and crew should be informed about the potential risks, and it may be beneficial to consider altering regulations to restrict the access to alcoholic beverages onboard airplanes.”

Health hazards related to alcohol

Whether in the air, on the ground or anywhere else adult beverages can be consumed, drinking alcohol can be detrimental to your health.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), drinking alcohol affects nearly every system and organ in the body, including the:

  • Brain. Alcohol can affect the way the brain looks and works, from mood and behavior to cognition and coordination.

  • Heart. Drinking can damage the heart, leading to cardiomyopathy, the stretching and drooping of heart muscle; arrhythmia, which is an irregular heartbeat; stroke; and high blood pressure.

  • Liver. Heavy drinking can cause liver problems, including fatty liver; alcoholic hepatitis; and fibrosis and cirrhosis, when permanent scar tissue forms.

  • Pancreas. Alcohol causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can lead to pancreatitis, causing swelling and pain, and impairing digestion.

  • Immune system. Drinking can weaken the immune system, increasing the risk of sickness and disease.

Additionally, research has found that drinking alcohol can increase a person’s risk of developing cancer. The more alcohol you drink — especially when large amounts of alcohol are regularly consumed — the higher your risk of developing an alcohol-associated cancer is.

The NIH recommends that women limit their intake to one drink or less, and men limit their intake to two drinks or less on any single day. A standard drink is approximately 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of table wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits. Adults who are managing health conditions that can be worsened by alcohol, taking medications that could interact with alcohol, pregnant or planning to become pregnant should not drink any alcohol.

Talk with your doctor about whether drinking alcohol — on a plane or otherwise — is safe for you. And if you start noticing certain physical or emotional feelings of discomfort when trying to decrease your consumption of alcohol, it may be time to seek professional support.

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