How Flying Messes with Your Body and Mind

Tia Winter | 23 February 2018

Air travel is one of the greatest achievements of the modern age, and we have come a long way since the days of the Wright Brothers.

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As travelling by airplane has become so common, greater numbers of people from all walks of life have taken to the skies. This means that more people than ever before are subjected to long hours in the highly pressurised cabins that shuttle them from A to B, and the effects of time spent flying become more oblivious. A number of studies have been conducted on the effects of flying, and scientists and researchers are fascinated by what a high altitude and high pressure environment does to the brain.

It turns out that when we fly, our senses, higher brain activity and bodily functions are all affected quite dramatically and these effects may not be the most positive. As always, knowledge is power; and if we know what the effects are we know what precautions to take, and what to expect.

Knowing, for example, that mild hypoxia (a decrease in oxygen to the brain and bodily tissues) occurs at high altitudes and that it can affect your ability to concentrate, which may influence the things you decide to do as the aircraft you are in climbs higher. You may choose to get all your gaming in on your mobile device before you rise too high, or you may wait until the plane is high enough to pose difficulties and create more of a challenge!

Physical Effects of Flying

If you’ve ever flown a long distance, you have no doubt experienced the exhaustion that we know as jetlag. Moving into a different time zone certainly contributes to this a great deal, but it’s not the whole story; you may well have noticed that short flights also tire you out too. Once again, mild hypoxia is to blame for this, and studies have found that varying levels of hypoxia affect people differently for various reasons. The more a person suffers, the more jetlagged they will feel, even if the flight is a short one.

There are some other general observations that have been made during studies too, and these include the fact that food tastes blander, the effects of alcohol are stronger, and people generally feel physically uncomfortable. You’re also more likely to pass gas as air pressure changes too, so it’s just as well that your sense of smell will be diminished!

Interestingly, night vision is significantly affected at altitudes of just 5000 ft. This is because the photoreceptor cells we need to see in the dark are very oxygen-hungry, and are not getting what they need to work properly. Over time, this could lead to the eye neovascularising as it attempts to get more oxygen to these cells. All the extra blood vessels could cause major problems, or even lead to retinal detachment, so pilots and other frequent fliers need to watch this carefully.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) is also a risk when flying, as blood clots can form faster when a person is immobile and in a high-pressure environment such an aeroplane cabin.

Mental Effects of Flying

It’s just as well that the effects of alcohol are heightened in the air; anxiety goes up too, and sufferers may need to drink up a little extra courage. Reaction time, cognitive function, reasoning ability, stress and tearfulness have all been noted to increase in the air too.

A lot more research is needed into all the effects that mild hypoxia can have on individuals’ mental state, according to Stephen Legg and the handful of other scientists who are dedicated to this field. In particular, the interaction of physical stressors on key mental health areas is only just beginning to be understood.

The hypoxia and mild dehydration associated with flying has been shown to influence mood, in particular by raising levels of depression and anxiety. On the other hand, some studies show that high altitudes make some people happier and potentially more annoying to passengers who are looking for a quiet time. Understanding this could go a long way to being patient with yourself and others on a flight!

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