Drinking alcohol on long-haul flights is bad for your heart, study


DLHA Staff Writer. Medical review and editorial support provided by the DLHA Team.

Sparkling wine being served from a bottle into a drinking glass on an airplane cabin

Sparkling wine being served from a bottle into a drinking glass on an airplane.


TUESDAY, June 18, 2024 - If you are one of those individuals who fall asleep on airplanes after taking an alcoholic beverage, you certainly want to read this piece.

A new study published on June 3 in the journal Thorax, warns that drinking alcohol particularly on long-haul flights could pose a danger to a sleeping air passenger’s heart and sleep health.

The study, according to the authors, found that when you take alcohol especially on a long-haul flight in a pressurised airplane at cruising altitude, and sleep, your blood oxygen level decreases, your heart rate rises for an extended period and the period you spend in deep refreshing sleep reduces.

What’s more, the study also found that the more alcohol you drink, the more severe the effects are. This can be very concerning, especially for older air passengers and those with chronic heart and breathing problems.

According to the researchers, blood oxygen levels can reduce to around 90% in healthy passengers at cruising altitude, and a rate lower than that is considered low (hypobaric hypoxia) at high altitude.


Why is this so?


For a start, the researchers explained that alcohol relaxes the smooth muscles of blood vessel walls causing a drop in blood pressure. The reduced blood pressure under the conditions of a pressurised cabin at cruising altitude will cause the blood oxygen level to be low and the heart rate to increase during sleep. The effect is similar to what is seen in hypobaric hypoxia, the researchers said. This made them suspect that the combination of alcohol consumption and pressurised cabin at high cruising altitude in an airplane could harm sleeping air passengers on a long-distance journey.

For the study, the researchers recruited 48 healthy people aged 18 – 40. Half of them were studied in a sleep lab under normal air pressure and the other half were studied in a chamber that mimicked cabin pressure at cruising altitude.

Both groups were studied on two consecutive nights each under control (no alcohol drinks) and test (prior alcohol drinks) conditions with an interval of two days between the control and test experiments.

The researchers observed that the combination of alcohol and cabin pressure caused a drop in blood oxygen levels to a little over 85%, and an increase in heart rate to an average of 88 beats per minute while sleeping. Also, the time spent in refreshing and satisfying deep sleep decreased in the test group.

By comparison, those in the altitude chamber who hadn’t drunk any alcohol had a little over 88% blood oxygen and a heart rate averaging 73 beats per minute.

Meanwhile, those in the normal unpressurised sleep lab who drank alcohol had an average of 95% blood oxygen and 77 beats per minute heart rate, while it was an average of 96% blood oxygen and 64 beats per minute for those who hadn’t had alcohol.

Oxygen levels below the healthy level lasted for 201 minutes with alcohol consumption and cabin pressure, compared with 173 minutes without alcohol under cabin pressure.

Speaking on the study, Eva-Maria Elmhorst, the lead researcher and deputy head of sleep research with the German Institute of Aerospace Medicine at Aachen University said: “Together 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 (worsening) of symptoms in patients with cardiac or pulmonary (chest) diseases”

“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 on board airplanes,” she added.



Trammer RA, Rooney D, Benderoth S, Wittkowski M, Wenzel J, Elmenhorst EM. Effects of moderate alcohol consumption and hypobaric hypoxia: implications for passengers' sleep, oxygen saturation and heart rate on long-haul flights. Thorax. 2024 Jun 3:thorax-2023-220998. doi: 10.1136/thorax-2023-220998. Available from here.



Published: June 18, 2024

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