Space & Innovation

This Is What Happens To Your Body At High Altitudes

People say they get drunker on airplanes, but it's not the alcohol -- it's the altitude. Why is that? What does altitude do to the body?

Conventional wisdom holds that it's easier to get high when you're high, so to speak. But that's a myth. At high altitudes, you're not actually any drunker – it just feels like you are. Amy Shira-Teitel explains in today's DNews report.

Multiple studies over the years have confirmed that blood-alcohol levels remain the same regardless of altitude. If you feel a bit tipsier at 30,000 feet, that's your body reacting to the difference in altitude, with your perception of that reaction altered by the booze.

Here's a little detail a lot of people don't know: The pressurized cabins of modern airliners don't actually replicate atmospheric conditions at ground level. Instead, the flight systems keep air pressure at just below 8,000 feet. That's better than 30,000 feet, to be sure, but the pressure point is held at a specific threshold where effects are relatively mild.

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Still, most people feel the difference. Our lungs and circulatory system are optimized for working at sea level or thereabouts. At one bar of atmospheric pressure, the air is thick and contains plenty of oxygen. But as we go up in altitude, air pressure steadily drops – gravity keeps the atmosphere on the surface, after all. Not only does the thinner air contain less oxygen, it's harder for your lungs to suck it in.

At 8,000 feet – or within a standard pressurized airliner cabin – some people feel mild symptoms of hypoxia, a condition that's triggered when too little oxygen reaches the brain. Respiration and heart rate increase as your body tries to deliver oxygen to your organs. You might get headaches or nausea. And if you're drinking alcohol, the hypoxia can intensify the feeling of drunkenness.

Things get more serious the higher you climb – at 18,000 feet there is half as much oxygen in the air as there is at sea level. Amy has further details in her report, including reports from Mount Everest and a delightful little stratum of atmosphere known as the Death Zone.

-- Glenn McDonald

Learn More:

NY Times: The Claim: You Get Drunk Faster at High Altitudes

Scientific American: Into Thin Air: Weight Loss in High Altitudes

Nature World News: Everest: What Happens To Your Body 29,029 Feet Above Sea Level