If you feel sick to your stomach or bloated on a plane, you're not alone. People generally exhale 12 to 25 times a day, but when you are on a plane, you may feel like you are constantly exhaling. In addition to increased gas, some people may experience gastrointestinal problems during air travel. Although scientists have yet to directly detect changes in the digestive tracts of people who fly commercial airlines, a recent high-altitude study has shed some light on what happens to the gut during flight.
As you ascend to higher altitudes, atmospheric pressure decreases. A change in atmospheric pressure causes the air to feel thinner because there is less oxygen. At such altitudes, low pressure and cold temperatures cause the air to expand and essential components of the air, such as molecules such as oxygen, nitrogen and argon, to diffuse out. Hypoxia occurs when the blood cannot deliver enough oxygen to tissues, says gastroenterologist Harvey Hamilton Allen of the College of Digestive Diseases in New York City. Reduced oxygen levels in the body weaken the activity of digestive enzymes, which may lead to digestive problems. Allen said studies of hypoxia have also revealed several other gastrointestinal (GI) problems—from stomach upset to more serious problems, such as intestinal bleeding.
Luckily, flying in a plane is not the same as climbing Mount Everest. Although commercial aircraft fly at altitudes as high as 9,448 to 12,800 meters, the aircraft is equipped with a cabin pressure control system. It adjusts the air so that the air pressure in the cabin is close to the air pressure at an altitude of 2,438 meters.
If you have food in your stomach, changes in cabin pressure can still expand the gas in your intestines. Rudolph Bedford, a gastroenterologist at St. John's Health Center in Providence, Calif., says you can try to remember that your ears also feel stuffy when a plane ascends or descends quickly. Like the middle ear, the intestines have air-filled cavities that grow larger to accommodate sudden changes in pressure.
"Changes in cabin pressure, blood oxygen saturation, and the vibration and motion of the aircraft all inhibit gastric emptying," Allen said. In other words, digested food cannot pass from the stomach into the small intestine, which makes it more difficult for the stomach to continue digesting food. Difficulty, which can lead to bloating, gas, and nausea.
Flight time is also important. The gut feeling on a 1-hour flight is definitely better than a 14-hour trip. Most of the time, the cramped seats on airplanes put pressure on the abdomen, making it harder for food to pass through the gastrointestinal tract. Even if you maintain good posture, sitting for long periods of time can make it harder to expel gas that expands in your gastrointestinal tract.
Sri Naveen Surapaneni, a gastroenterologist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Texas, says: "Sitting for long periods of time and being inactive can slow down bowel movement, which can worsen bloating and constipation." In addition, if you eat some greasy food, be careful when When an airplane encounters turbulence, it can also affect you. A bumpy ride can cause nausea and vomiting in people prone to motion sickness, Surapaneni said.
Stress may also cause the stomach to fill with gas. Research shows that the gut has a close relationship with the brain: People with flight anxiety release the stress hormone cortisol, which reduces blood flow and oxygen to the digestive system. This reduction in blood flow, in turn, slows down the peristalsis of the digestive system. "Many people with anxiety disorders experience bloating, abdominal cramping and stomach tension during long flights," Bedford said.
If you have a pre-existing gastrointestinal condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), gastroenterologists warn that flying can worsen your symptoms. People with Crohn's disease, a type of IBD, may experience diarrhea, while people with IBS, a non-inflammatory disease that causes abdominal discomfort and changes in bowel movements, report frequent Bloating, diarrhea, and constipation may occur. Increased symptoms are often not caused by flying itself, but by anxiety while flying, Bedford said. He said the anxiety and potential stress caused by flight delays or unexpected changes in travel plans can lead to an IBS attack for many people.
The good news is that there are steps you can take to prevent an upset stomach on your next flight. Some gut experts recommend drinking more water. "When you travel, you don't drink as much water as you normally would, so you have problems with dehydration," Allen said. On long-haul flights, dry air and low air pressure can cause dehydration. "Because of low cabin humidity, people can become dehydrated, which can slow digestion and worsen constipation and existing IBS symptoms," Surapaneni explains. So consider bringing a water bottle on board.
If you're eating before a flight, it's best to opt for something light and easy to digest, including something low in protein and high in fiber and healthy fats, like salmon and berry-flavored Greek yogurt. "It's best to avoid processed or salty foods before boarding," Bedford says. He also encourages people not to eat for at least 30 minutes before a flight. By eating earlier, your stomach can digest the food before boarding.
Once on a plane, it's best not to drink wine, coffee, or carbonated drinks, as these may make your stomach more upset. Surapaneni also suggested that as long as it is safe to do so, you can stay active on the plane as much as possible. You can stand up, stretch, or walk around the cabin.
If you have gastrointestinal issues or are nervous about an upcoming flight, it's a good idea to talk to your doctor before boarding. They may be able to recommend treatments that can help. Also, if you still have some digestive discomfort after landing, don't worry, Bedford says these symptoms are temporary and usually disappear within 24 to 48 hours.
Bedford also says if you feel like you have more gas than usual before boarding your next flight, it's best to let it out first rather than trying to "hold" the gas throughout the flight. He added: "Get up and move around to let the gas out - if you can, try not to be around anyone at this time."