Wines on a Plane: Does Drinking Affect You Differently While Flying?

Spoiler alert: You don't actually get "drunker," but that doesn't mean you should overindulge
Wines on a Plane: Does Drinking Affect You Differently While Flying?
A glass of wine is comforting on a long flight, but moderation is always important. (istockphotos)
Aug 21, 2018

At best, air travel is an exciting, even luxurious, means of transport to your desired destination. At worst, it can combine the stress of a rocket launch with the comfort of the night bus to Trenton. So whether you want to get your vacation started early, or you're craving a creature comfort to take the edge off of an unpleasant journey, as a wine lover, you're probably going to want to order a glass or two of vino while you travel. But how will drinking affect how you feel on the flight—and after you land?

Myth: You get drunker on airplanes

A common concern when it comes to in-flight imbibing is altitude. When you are at higher-than-usual altitudes, it becomes more difficult to transport oxygen throughout the body. "You become what we call relatively hypoxic—that's just a medical term for saying you are at a lower level of oxygen than your body is used to," Christopher Colwell, chief of emergency medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, told Wine Spectator. "What the body does is respond to that—it increases your respiratory rate a little bit, it increases some of the metabolic responses, it increases your heart rate a little bit to deliver more blood."

But no need to cancel your big overseas vacation: You're not going to feel the hard-core effects of severe altitudes when you fly—many people don't even notice a difference. "They do a pretty good job of maintaining a pressure in the cabin that allows for safety from extreme altitude issues," Colwell said. "In general, flying at 35,000 feet is not going to have an impact much more than, say, 5,000 or 6,000 feet—so it's a lot like being in [higher-altitude cities like] Denver. You have some of the effects, but not as much as you would have if you were in the mountains."

Though you shouldn't expect to deal with any major altitude sickness on your flight, some people still end up feeling a little off—especially when booze is thrown into the mix. But this isn't because alcohol is more powerful on airplanes, or because your body is processing it any differently.

"Combined with a lower oxygen pressure (even in a pressurized airplane cabin), you might 'feel' more drunk, given that your body has to work a little harder to carry oxygen to vital tissues, combined with the sedating effects of alcohol," said Peter Chai, a doctor of emergency medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. "Despite this, in reality, you aren’t any more 'drunk' than you would be at sea level—you have the same blood-alcohol concentration."

But if you're hoping to have a few drinks and then sleep through your red-eye—and any of the heady effects that might come with the combination of alcohol and altitude—think again. Studies have shown that alcohol might help you fall asleep, but it probably won't be quality rest. And again, while it isn't nearly as intense in an airplane as it is on a mountaintop, altitude can also mess with your sleep. Bottom line, if you're trying to get some shut-eye, be even more mindful about how much you're drinking.

Pay attention to hydration

Alcohol is a mild diuretic, which is one of the reasons why it's important to temper your consumption with water. When you're drinking up in the air, the need for rehydration is even greater.

You know how airplanes feel kind of stale? That's because the filtered air that's circulated throughout the cabin holds less humidity than what we're used to at sea level. This dryness essentially sucks the moisture out of the body.

"You can lose more fluid while you are flying, to the tune of about 150mL over an eight-hour flight," Chai said. "Additionally, the dry air can also dry out the mucous membranes, making you feel thirsty. All in all, flying tends to make people a little more dehydrated."

The combined diuretic effects of alcohol and the loss of fluids from the cabin's dry air means you're more likely to become dehydrated after enjoying some wine in the clouds than you would if you were on the ground. This increases the chance that your hangover—should you consume enough alcohol to develop one—will also be more intense.

"If you combine alcohol plus altitude's effects on your hydration status, it will absolutely impact how you feel the next day," Colwell said.

You are now free to drink in moderation

Though altitude effects and dehydration are certainly important to keep in mind, they don't need to stop you from ordering the next time the flight attendant passes by with the drink cart. Just be mindful of why you're craving that glass of wine.

"I wouldn’t recommend having a drink just because you’re nervous of flying," Chai said. "Alcohol has sedating effects and can make people feel calm, but it is not a treatment for people who are nervous about flying."

And the same rules of moderation you use on the ground should apply to the air. Nobody wants to be the unruly passenger that makes a scene. This isn't to say you must abstain if you're prone to air-travel jitters; just watch how much you're drinking on the flight—and at the airport bar before you board.

For most wine lovers, though, having some wine while flying is simply a way to add some extra enjoyment to their travels—especially if the drinks are complimentary! As always, practicing moderation is a good way to steer clear of alcohol- and altitude-related issues.

"If you normally drink two or three glasses in an evening, maybe two glasses on an airplane is the right approach," Colwell said. "I don't have a magic answer for everybody, but I think that moderation, without necessarily eliminating it entirely, is a good approach for everybody."

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