Effects of moderate alcohol consumption and hypobaric hypoxia: Implications for passengers' sleep, oxygen saturation and heart rate on long-haul flights

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Abstract

Background: Passengers on long-haul flights frequently consume alcohol. Inflight sleep exacerbates the fall in blood oxygen saturation (SpO2) caused by the decreased oxygen partial pressure in the cabin. We investigated the combined influence of alcohol and hypobaric hypoxia on sleep, SpO2 and heart rate. Methods: Two groups of healthy individuals spent either two nights with a 4-hour sleep opportunity (00:00-04:00 hours) in the sleep laboratory (n=23; 53 m above sea level) or in the altitude chamber (n=17; 753 hPa corresponding to 2438 m above sea level, hypobaric condition). Participants consumed alcohol before one of the nights (mean±SE blood alcohol concentration 0.043±0.003%). The order of the nights was counterbalanced. Two 8-hour recovery nights (23:00-07:00 hours) were scheduled between conditions. Polysomnography, SpO2 and heart rate were recorded. Results: The combined exposure to alcohol and hypobaric condition decreased SpO2 to a median (25th/75th percentile) of 85.32% (82.86/85.93) and increased heart rate to a median (25th/75th percentile) of 87.73 bpm (85.89/93.86) during sleep compared with 88.07% (86.50/88.49) and 72.90 bpm (70.90/78.17), respectively, in the non-alcohol hypobaric condition, 94.97% (94.59/95.33) and 76.97 bpm (65.17/79.52), respectively, in the alcohol condition and 95.88% (95.72/96.36) and 63.74 bpm (55.55/70.98), respectively, in the non-alcohol condition of the sleep laboratory group (all p<0.0001). Under the combined exposure SpO2 was 201.18 min (188.08/214.42) below the clinical hypoxia threshold of 90% SpO2 compared with 173.28 min (133.25/199.03) in the hypobaric condition and 0 min (0/0) in both sleep laboratory conditions. Deep sleep (N3) was reduced to 46.50 min (39.00/57.00) under the combined exposure compared with both sleep laboratory conditions (alcohol: 84.00 min (62.25/92.75); non-alcohol: 67.50 min (58.50/87.75); both p<0.003). Conclusions: The combination of alcohol and inflight hypobaric hypoxia reduced sleep quality, challenged the cardiovascular system and led to extended duration of hypoxaemia (SpO2 <90%).

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Trammer, R. A., Rooney, D., Benderoth, S., Wittkowski, M., Wenzel, J., & Elmenhorst, E. M. (2024). Effects of moderate alcohol consumption and hypobaric hypoxia: Implications for passengers’ sleep, oxygen saturation and heart rate on long-haul flights. Thorax. https://doi.org/10.1136/thorax-2023-220998

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