Home News Why you shouldn’t drink before taking a nap on the plane

Why you shouldn’t drink before taking a nap on the plane

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By Madeline Holcombe | CNN

The “fasten seat belt” sign is off, and the time for a nap on your flight is on. You grab your neck pillow, eye mask and a glass of wine to make sure you are well-rested on the other side.

That tactic isn’t such a good idea, according to new research.

Airplanes flying at altitudes around 8,000 feet (2,438 meters) are hypobaric, meaning the air pressure and oxygen levels are lower than typical conditions on Earth. Combine that with alcohol consumption and sleep, and it’s more likely a person will experience an intensified drop in oxygen saturation in their blood, according to a study published Monday in the journal Thorax.

“Please don’t drink alcohol on board of airplanes,” said lead study author Dr. Eva-Maria Elmenhorst, deputy of the department of sleep and human factors and leader of the Working Group on Performance and Sleep at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne, Germany, in an email.

To investigate, researchers created an atmospheric environment similar to an airplane cabin in flight. Over two nights, 48 healthy adults slept for four hours in two different environments — once without alcohol and once after drinking the equivalent of two glasses of wine or cans of beer, according to the study.

On the nights with alcohol, researchers saw a lowered amount of oxygen and an increased heart rate, the study showed.

“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 researchers said.

The study is small, but it provides a starting point from which researchers should keep investigating the relationship between sleep, flight and alcohol, said cardiologist Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver. He was not involved in the research.

Many people may be drinking onboard to help them get to sleep in an often uncomfortable cabin — but doing so negatively impacts both long-term health and the immediate goal of getting some rest, experts said.

Alcohol gets you sleep — but not good sleep

The study authors didn’t just collect data on heart strain. They also took a closer look at the participants’ quality of sleep. It wasn’t great.

Time in REM sleep — the rapid-eye movement stage that may be important to memory consolidation and brain recuperation — was shorter for people in the airplane conditions who had alcohol, the study showed.

The finding isn’t a surprise, Freeman said. Alcohol may help you get to sleep, but the quality isn’t as good as sleep while sober, he said.

“Many people have witnessed when people drink heavily, their snoring and the sleep apnea is much more severe,” Freeman said.

The quantity of sleep under the influence also tends to be different, said Dr. Shalini Paruthi, adjunct professor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.

People tend to get more fragmented sleep after drinking, meaning they wake up more in the night and tend not to sleep as long, said Paruthi, an American Academy of Sleep Medicine spokesperson. She was not involved in the research.

‘Sometimes people will just think about the immediate effect of ‘ooh it will make me fall asleep faster’ but they forget about all the other effects of the alcohol,” she said.

Be especially careful not to mix sleep aids with alcohol, because both are depressants and intensify their sedative effects when taken together, Freeman said.

“I’ve definitely seen … people taking sleeping pills combined with alcohol, which is a major issue,” he said. “Then, there’s oftentimes a medical emergency.”

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