This is your brain on long distance air travel

If hypoxia, dehydration and fuzzy thinking are your thing, you probably love long-distance air travel.

With globalisation and the ease of travelling relatively cheaply around the planet, many people spend a lot more time travelling by air for work and pleasure.

Earlier this year Qantas unveiled its new direct route between Perth WA and Heathrow London. The thought of shaving off a few hours of travelling time is highly appealing – though the thought of sitting in the flying silver tube for 17 hours with a numb bum, the potential for being trapped next to noisy, fractious children and trying to catch some sleep in a poorly reclining seat, even with the addition of a whole 1 inch of extra seat space (don’t get too excited) somewhat less so.

Having just tried out this route (and survived – hooray!) and now getting over the jet lag, I was reflecting on what impact this type of long-distance air travel has on our bodies and minds especially when crossing multiple time zones.

Air travel is tiring.

You might be sitting on your bottom for hours, but the one thing you’ll notice is just how tired you feel at the end of the journey, and it’s not just the lack of or disturbed sleep that’s the problem.

When flying at altitude, the reduced air pressure leads to an element of hypoxia meaning less oxygen is getting to your brain. This can lead to a decrease in cognitive performance and reasoning (though usually, this is only a mild effect in the pressurised cabin) more noticeable in the very young and older people.

We get jet lag because our body clock doesn’t sync to our new time zone straight away, meaning you may have trouble sleeping at the right time, experience daytime sleepiness and feel generally groggy or a bit “off” following your arrival. It is more likely to be experienced when crossing a greater number of time zones, when flying east, being a frequent flyer and as we get older.

You can minimise the potential effect by sleeping during the flight if it’s nighttime at your destination, staying hydrated and synching your watch to your destination’s time.

It can take 48 hours for your diurnal rhythm to recover, implying it’s a good idea to arrive early to avoid having to go straight into an important business meeting or conference on arrival.

Air travel is stressful

Getting ready for air travel can be stressful. We worry about remembering our passport, the tickets, flight delays, or losing our luggage.

The bad news for those who get more stressed by air travel or have a fear of flying is that hypoxia can increase anxiety levels.

Have you ever wondered why flying appears to bring out the worst in some people’s behaviour?

That increased level of tension and emotional fragility might also explain why we are more likely to cry when watching a sad movie on the in-flight entertainment. If you find crying in front of strangers embarrassing maybe choose to watch a comedy or something uplifting so that your tears are of happiness instead.

Air travel is dehydrating

The low humidity of the air in the cabin has been shown to dehydrate our skin by up to 37%! No wonder we suffer from dry eyes, parched throat and dry skin after a flight. To avoid feeling like desiccated coconut when disembarking, and minimise the effect dehydration has on our cognition, it’s highly recommended to drink plenty of water before, during and after the flight, and to avoid alcohol altogether.

Air travel is sickening

Do you dread being seated next to someone who snivels, coughs and sneezes throughout the flight? The fear is we’ll succumb to their horrid germs, especially as our protective mucus membranes have dried out in the dry air. But it’s not just their proximity that puts us at risk; flying alters our immune state making us more susceptible to infection.

As air travel becomes more commonplace and single routes even longer, the best way to preserve our health and cognition is to avoid dehydration, synch to your destination’s time zone when the flight leaves and remember to move regularly to help your circulation.

Happy flying!