How to Stay Healthy on a Long-haul Flight

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Long-haul flights can drain the life out of you, and if you're not prepared, make you feel ill. Here are our tips to help you arrive feeling fresh after a long-haul flight.

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The narrow aisle of a commercial flight Photo © Photo by Gerrie van der Walt on Unsplash

As aeronautical technology advances, we are seeing more non-stop flights appear, shortening the amount of time passengers spend getting to a destination. However, there is still a long way to go. For now, travelers need to catch multiple flights to get to and from destinations which are thousands of miles, and sometimes, days away.

Long-haul flights take a toll on us mentally and physically, and the discomfort can be multiplied if you feel unwell. Here are a few things to know about how flying affects our bodies, and how to stay healthy on your long-haul flight.

How does flying affect our bodies?

We lose our sense of taste

The higher in altitude we travel, some our tastebuds lose their ability to do their job. Couple that with cabin pressure, dry air, dull lighting and unexciting plane food and it's no wonder we lose our ability to taste and enjoy food. Research has indicated that we lose our ability to taste salty and sweet foods while flying by as much as 30%, so airlines are now spending more resources in the research and development of their plane food in order to counteract the lack of taste. Even wines are selectively chosen as the taste of a wine is affected by altitude.

Our blood oxygen saturation level drops

The World Health Organization says that plane cabin pressures are the equivalent of 6,000–8,000ft (1,800–2,400m) above sea level, which means our blood oxygen levels are reduced (hypoxia) leading to sleepiness, a lack of mental alertness and sometimes, headaches. Sitting down for long periods on a flight compounds this issue due to lack of circulation.

Our circadian rhythm gets messed with

Jet lag is a mix up between our body clock (which regulates everything from your mental self to even when you need to use the bathroom) and the real time in the destination we are traveling to. Our circadian rhythm can only be reset for up to 90 minutes every 24 hours, and the lack of light exposure on the plane adds to the effects of jet lag. Traveling east is harder than traveling west, as it fights against the normal body clock process. You need one day for each hour of time zone difference between where you are traveling from and to.

Blood pools in our lower extremities

Due to the lack of circulation in our body, blood will pool in our legs and feet. This leads to blood clots and deep vein thrombosis

We get bloated and farty

At altitude, gases within our body expand, leaving our stomach and abdominal area feeling full and bloated. So if you need to fart, let it go. Just don't crop dust your fellow passengers. Gases at altitude also affect our ability to hear properly, creating the popping effect and that pressurized feeling in our ears. On descent, the eustachian tube doesn't react fast enough which is why your ears hurt and you often see children in agony on planes.

We end up dehydrated

Because the cabin air is so dry, our skin begins to lose moisture and in turn, the rest of our body. Becoming dehydrated also exposes you to potential bacteria and viruses as your mucus membranes which provide a natural barrier have dried out.

Germs

Flying on a plane can sometimes feel like you are stuck in a cigar shaped petri dish of grossness. Fellow passengers maybe coughing and spluttering, some folks sense of hygiene may be not great and then there's the bathrooms everyone has to use. A 2014 study by Auburn University in Alabama discovered that bacteria like staph and e-coli can survive for up to a week in a plane on cabin surfaces, arm rests, tray tables and other spots. 

Radiation

The CDC states that air travel exposes travelers to a low level of radiation.

Radiation exposure from air travel doesn't come from the security scanning equipment – it comes from being at high altitudes where the air is thinner, and fewer molecules of gas mean fewer molecules to protect us from cosmic rays (radiation from outer space). Without atmospheric shielding, we are exposed to radiation.

A typical commercial airline flight, flying at an altitude of 35,000ft (10,660m), has a radiation dose of approximately 0.003 millisieverts per hour – this is less radiation exposure than what we get when we receive a chest x-ray.

Tips to stay healthy

Get comfortable

If you're stuck in the plane for 14 hours you may as well settle in and get comfy. Even consider what you plan to wear (loose fitting clothing is ideal) and where you want to sit before you get on the plane so you can relax without feeling restricted. Washing your face and brushing your teeth before sleeping can help you feel more relaxed. Planes do get cold and not every airline will offer a blanket so pack a sarong, shawl or light blanket plus socks and slippers. Don't forget the eyemask and neck pillow.

Tip: Wear your seat belt over your blanket so the flight crew don't disturb you if the seat belt sign comes on after you have fallen asleep.

Wear compression socks

You can get them all the way up to your knee or all the way up to your hip. They keep the blood from pooling in your lower leg and your feet, so it prevents some of that swelling and that achiness.

Block the noise

Sleeping on planes isn't the easiest but if you do want to catch a few z's prior to your arrival, grab some ear plugs or noise canceling headphones to drown out the droning noise of the plane and that guy who is snoring in the nearby row.

Stay hydrated

Besides the fact drinking hydrates you, your full bladder also nudges you to get up and move to visit the bathroom. Drink alcohol in moderation and limit your caffeine intake if you are planning to sleep. You may also want to consider using a saline nasal spray and moisturizer to stop your nose and skin from drying out.

Tip: Bring an empty reusable bottle which you can fill up before or after boarding the plane. Saves using plastic cups and means you always have water on hand.

Eat light

Try to avoid fatty and heavy foods while flying. Steer clear of consuming fizzy drinks and gas producing foods e.g beans, cabbage, lentils, chick peas etc. which can leave you bloated. Your digestive system slows down while flying so also consider your food choices when it comes to the meal offerings. Try to eat a light and balanced meal, avoiding starchy and sugary foods. Pack your own snacks.

Good hygiene

Make sure you pack a hand sanitizer and use it before meals and after using the bathroom.

Stretch and walk around

As mentioned before, our blood oxygen levels are lower and our circulatory slows down when we spend hours sitting on a flight which can lead to deep vein thrombosis. So make sure you get up every few hours, stretch and go for a walk around the plane.

Time zone adjustment

To combat jet lag, there are things you can do prior to flying to prepare yourself such as getting a good night's sleep and doing some light exercise e.g going for a walk outside, yoga or a light session at the gym. While on the flight, try to switch your mindset to your destination rather than what you would be doing if you were at home. Upon arrival, if it's daylight make sure you get outside for some sun and fresh air, even go for a walk or just hang out in the local park. If you're arriving in at night, then well it's easy enough to head to bed. 

Sleep medications

Some travelers like to use a sleep medication e.g melatonin or a prescription drug to help them sleep on the plane. Have a chat with your doctor and try the medication out before you fly. There is nothing worse than being on a flight, having a reaction to what you have taken and not being able to do anything about it. For some, sleep drugs can act like a stimulant rather than a sedative, leaving you awake the entire flight.

Unblock your ears

On descent, you will notice your ear pressure change and for some people, it can be painful. Some ideas to get relief from the pressure include holding your nose and blow out through your ears, yawn or suck/chew some candy to help release the pressure within your eustachian tubes.

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3 Comments

  • Eileen said

    Smart travel advice from 2 smart guys.

  • Lori said

    Great advice from one of the top guys in our sport!

  • mira said

    muito obrigado pelas dicas,valeu e uma coisa que faco tambem e exercicio de respiração vale tbm para dar uma relaxada

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