What happens to your body when you fly – and top tips to stay healthy

With Summer now just around the corner, we take a closer look at just what happens to the human body when you fly (Image: Getty)

As the Summer holidays approach, many of us are eagerly anticipating our trips abroad to soak up the sun and explore exotic destinations worldwide.

However, any holiday requiring a flight can sometimes be more complex than expected, with air travel often having surprising effects on our health.

Indeed, flying is an unnatural mode of transport for humans. We didn’t evolve to flap our arms and fly through the sky, nor did we grow wings to do so unaided – but we did have the inventiveness to develop air travel and zoom across the skies in a long metal tube at over 500 miles per hour.

Given this ‘unnatural’ method of transportation, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it has some rather peculiar effects on the human body.

Plane passenger in seat

The simple act of flying can take quite the toll on the human body (Image: Getty)

So, what exactly happens to our bodies when we jet off abroad?

A recent study sought to answer this question. Published in the journal Thorax, the research revealed that cabin pressure in planes at cruising altitude actually lowers blood pressure and increases heart rate in passengers – even in young, healthy holidaymakers, reports Gloucestershire Live.

But more importantly, these biological changes were found to be exacerbated by in-flight alcohol consumption, prompting the researchers to advise passengers to avoid or limit their intake of alcoholic beverages while flying, according to The Telegraph.

Dr Stephen Hughes, a senior lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and an emergency medicine consultant, explained that there are several physical and psychological alterations to the human body during flight.

This is particularly true given that humans weren’t naturally designed to travel at 35,000 feet – the typical altitude of a commercial aeroplane.

Without the standard pressurisation we’re accustomed to today, our oxygen levels would quickly drop at such high altitudes, leading to rapid loss of consciousness. To counteract this, aircrafts are pressurised to maintain an internal relative altitude of approximately 6000-8000 feet, akin to climbing halfway up Mont Blanc.

Scared passenger on plane

For some passengers, flying can also have a psychological toll due to stress and fear (Image: Getty)

Alongside lowering our blood pressure and increasing our heart rate, several other changes occur that you may have personally experienced, such as ‘popping ears’ due to pressure changes, dry eyes from altered humidity, and even bloating or a sensation of stomach gas, caused by the expansion of gases as the plane ascends.

Passengers on long-haul flights may also suffer from deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot in a deep vein, as sitting still for extended periods has been scientifically shown to increase the risk of this condition.

Changes to the skin can also occur, largely due to dehydration and lower humidity levels in the air, with many travellers noting drier skin after flying.

The mental health impact should not be overlooked either, as anxious passengers may experience a surge in stress hormones when flying. This could lead to hyperventilation and an increased heart rate, potentially worsening any existing heart conditions.

While medical emergencies can occur during flights, they represent a tiny fraction of cases compared to the millions of people who travel each year. However, the physical strain of flying can contribute to these incidents.

So, how can we ensure our safety while on board?

Despite the daunting list of potential effects flying can have on our bodies, there are several straightforward measures to maximise your safety and comfort on a plane.

One of the simplest ways to maintain good health is to prevent dehydration by drinking plenty of water during the flight.

While it may seem inconvenient to frequently visit the tiny aeroplane bathroom, your body will appreciate the extra hydration. Not only does it help keep your skin moisturised, but it also combats side effects like headaches or nausea and helps maintain blood pressure.

It can even alleviate bloating and gut issues by promoting gut motility.

Young Asian woman carrying suitcase

There are several ways passengers can stay safe on their next flight to arrive feeling refreshed (Image: Getty)

Another safety measure on board is maintaining hand hygiene and wiping down surfaces such as tray tables with an anti-bacterial wipe. Given that planes are typically drier due to lower humidity, they can be a hotspot for catching colds or viruses.

Thus, good hand hygiene can minimise this risk.

To counteract the dreaded ‘ear-popping sensation’ during take-off and landing, a simple trick is to chew something or have a drink. Swallowing aids in equalising the pressure in your ears by opening the Eustachian tube, allowing small amounts of air to enter.

Movement is another crucial aspect to consider, especially during long-haul flights. Despite the standard safety guidelines on planes often advising passengers to stay seated (particularly when the seatbelt sign is on), getting up to stretch your legs in the aisle or doing simple yoga exercises can help maintain blood flow in your limbs and minimise the risk of blood clots.

Air passenger waiting for flight

From choosing a healthy snack, to moving around the cabin, small changes can make a big difference to your journey (Image: Getty)

To enhance this effect, travellers might want to consider investing in a pair of compression socks for an extra layer of protection against DVT.

Keeping your body well-nourished is another key factor, as it can soothe your digestive system and keep your blood sugar levels steady to prevent any uncomfortable dips. While there’s now a wide variety of in-flight meals available, not every airline’s cuisine will be to everyone’s taste, and in these instances, a healthy snack might be more beneficial.

Bananas are often recommended due to their high concentration of magnesium and potassium. They’re also easy to digest and gentle on the stomach.

If you have any health concerns, you should always consult your doctor about your symptoms first.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *