Why drinking and sleeping on a flight isn’t worth the risk

Drinking alcohol and then sleeping on a plane is a dangerous combination.

Drinking alcohol and then sleeping on a plane is a dangerous combination. Photo: Getty

Having a few beverages in the air might be a good way to ensure some shut-eye while on a long-haul flight, but a study has found doing so can be quite bad for your health.

The DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine, which is based in Cologne, Germany, conducted a series of tests to see if the combination of sleep, alcohol and cabin pressure negatively affects one’s health.

The study’s lead author, Dr Eva-Maria Elmenhorst, told NBC News the researchers expected consuming alcohol in an environment with low air pressure, such as a plane, would have an impact on people.

However, they didn’t expect the effect to be “so strong”, which is why she has a simple warning for those flying.

“Please don’t drink alcohol while being on an aeroplane,” she said.

Drinking and sleeping on a plane ‘not recommended’

The study, which was released this week, found sleeping on the plane exacerbates the fall in blood oxygen saturation, thanks to the cabin’s decreased oxygen partial pressure.

To test the effects of drinking alcohol and then sleeping on a plane, two groups of people spent two nights in different conditions, a sleep chamber, or a chamber with low air pressure.

Before one of the nights, some of the participants in each group were given alcohol.

The researchers found the combination of sleep and alcohol, while in an environment with low pressure, led to a lower amount of oxygen in the blood and an increase in heart rate.

Woman napping in the plane.

Drinking won’t help you sleep any better on a plane. Photo: Getty

Those who drank before sleeping in the altitude chamber had their blood oxygen saturation drop by 85 per cent.

Speaking to NBC, Elmenhorst said the “decreased oxygen saturation, together with the increase in heart rate, could exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions”.

“The oxygen saturation dropped to quite low levels during sleep,” she said.

“This is why I would recommend to avoid drinking alcohol, even when someone is healthy.”

Even the young shouldn’t drink and nap

The study concluded that alcohol, mixed with low oxygen concentration at high altitudes, not only reduced the quality of sleep but “challenged the cardiovascular system” and “led to extended duration of hypoxaemia (low levels of oxygen in the blood)”.

The paper also said the results indicate even young and healthy individuals could be doing damage to themselves by drinking and then sleeping on a plane.

“Cardiovascular symptoms have a prevalence of 7 per cent of in-flight medical emergencies, with cardiac arrest causing 58 per cent of aircraft diversions,” the study said.

Because sleep quality is compromised by alcohol, an in-flight sleep “cannot be considered as fully recuperative” and apparently, this is “even more true” for those lucky enough to be in first or business class, because they can sleep horizontally, the study said.

Additionally, the study’s findings support recommendations to avoid alcohol for 12 hours before a flight or during, especially for those with pre-existing health conditions.

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