There is truth to the adage that if man was meant to fly, he would have been granted wings. What happens to our bodies in the air is not natural—at least not for ground dwellers. But the way we react to an airplane's artificial environment, air pressure, elevation and extreme conditions are normal reactions to unnatural exposure, and it's amazing we even survive at all.
What we experience physiologically while traveling has an impact on how we feel, including our moods. These tips can help make your next trip more comfortable before, during and after landing.
Where does the in-flight air we breathe come from? The air right outside your window, while you are flying, is the same air you are breathing—albeit modified. In order for you to survive at such elevations (usually 25 to 60 thousand feet), mankind has ingeniously created a method by which the outside air is drawn in, compressed and then pumped into the cabins. This air is more akin to the thin mountain air we breathe, as in Denver or Mexico City, than the sea-level air, and is considered "low pressure."
Low pressure causes the nitrogen gas in our bodies to expand, and may affect the times and dosages of medications. Fingers, ankles and joints can also swell, and you may feel bloated.
Relative humidity also drops immensely in flight, especially on long journeys. Humans find a 50% rate of humidity to be comfortable, but even 25% humidity is tolerable in places like the Sahara and Palm Springs, CA. Humidity in-flight drops to 10% and below, with moisture resulting mainly from our own bodies. The physiological effect: rapid dehydration. Dry skin and eyes occur, and the rest of the body reacts to the lack of moisture by compensating or adjusting its biochemical levels, which can throw your entire system out of whack. Our bodies consist of over 50% water, so when we lose that water, every organ can be affected.
Since the cabin air comes from outside the plane, keep in mind that whatever ozone levels and pollutants exist out there are pumped inside for all to inhale. You may not be able to see them, but your body will feel them and this may contribute to the fatigue of jet lag. The already lesser oxygen of the pressurized air can have the same effects that low-oxygen does on earth. Namely: light headedness, difficulty in concentrating, shallow breathing, loss of math skills, aches in joints, impaired vision and other maladies. One of the benefits of traveling in first class is that the air up there is fuller than in coach. The pilots control the air flow in the cabins separately. Just as with a diver that has the bends, you can relieve the effects of low oxygen by asking the flight attendant for some oxygen for yourself, or asking that the air flow in the cabin be increased. (Since airflow requires fuel usage, many airlines intentionally limit the air flow, especially on the ground.)Other influences on the body when traveling range from radiation of jet streams and cargo containers, to magnetic fields to plain old noise. We can't control all of these, and their effects are simply part of the luxury of being to traverse the globe in a common spaceship. But hopefully, these tips will help us all enjoy our journeys more with a healthier mental and physical readiness for the adventures to come.
This page originally published as part of the electronic Gourmet Guide between 1994 and 1998.
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This page modified February 2007
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