Does altitude make you more drunk?

Image credit: The Weekly Show

Being that we’re a community of frequent flyers and wine enthusiasts, this is a topic that has come up on numerous occasions. I think it’s time we laid to rest both the myths and facts about whether or not altitude makes you more drunk.

How Altitude Affects the Speed and Degree of Becoming Drunk

Firstly, it’s important to set apart fact from fiction. Historically, it’s been understood that at a higher altitude, the air is “thinner” and there is less oxygen available for your body and brain to process.

Simultaneously, without getting ultra-scientific – alcohol directly affects your bloods ability to absorb and synthesize oxygen.  Thus, the claim is that altitude (little oxygen) + alcohol (poor oxygen absorption) = more drunk. This is true to a degree, but not everyone is affected the same way for a few reasons. Read on to learn how to what’s true and false, as well as better prepare yourself for drinking at altitude.

Bottle on the left was photographed around 12,000 feet, and then again at sea-level to show barometric pressure differential. Does altitude make you more drunk?

Bottle on the left was photographed around 12,000 feet, and then again at sea-level to show barometric pressure differential. Image credit: Altitude.org

What’s True:  Oxygen levels at higher altitude are significantly lower. Air is compressible. At ground level, our bodies experience at all times the equivalent of roughly 10 meters of water pushing on us. This is called barometric pressure (atmospheric pressure), or the weight of the air above pressing on any given surface.

At sea-level, there are several miles worth of air being pushed down on the ground and anything that stands upon it.

At higher altitudes, the pressure is less because the air is less dense. Therefore, there are fewer oxygen molecules in any given vicinity at altitude.

How Your Body Acclimates to High Altitude

Our bodies are incredible machines. In order to compensate for less oxygen as we climb a mountain or fly in a plane, your body begins to generate more red blood cells. These cells play a crucial role in the absorption and synthesis of oxygen in our blood. This process can take a couple of days to complete, depending what altitude you remain static at.

Some individuals acclimate more rapidly, while others may naturally have a higher concentration of red blood cells depending on their lifestyle. This is part of the reason why altitude and drinking will affect people differently.

What’s False: Drinking alcohol at altitude does not affect the concentration of alcohol in your blood anymore than it does at sea-level, as this Austrian study notes. The FAA has also conducted numerous studies, further backing this evidence.

While most studies have proven that consumption of alcohol at 12,000ft does not affect BAC (Blood Alcohol Content), there have been additional studies done assessing the effects of alcohol at elevations of 20,000 or higher. At these elevations, there are possible “explanations” for varying degrees of BAC, which could be attributed to altitude affecting metabolism, but nothing conclusive. Especially considering the sample sizes.

The Culprit May Be Altitude Sickness

Taking the above facts into consideration, there’s one obvious culprit as to why you may be more affected by alcohol at a high altitude – that’s altitude sickness.

It’s been proven that at a higher elevation, the human body’s ability to maintain optimal mental and physical function is diminished due to less oxygen being available. Your body is attempting to acclimate to absorbing less oxygen at a high altitude and there are various symptoms that can become evident as your body goes through this process.

The most common symptoms include headache, dizziness and in some cases nausea. If you compound these naturally occurring symptoms with booz, it’s no surprise you might feel more affected by alcohol at a high altitude. Note that altitude sickness affects most individuals differently, while some may not experience it at all.

Conclusion – So do you get more drunk at altitude?

Put simply, yes, you can get more drunk up in the air – but not because your blood alcohol content is higher at elevation. Less oxygen is available to your brain at altitude, and our bodies are simultaneously attempting to acclimate to lower oxygen levels.  Compounded with this, alcohol can diminish your bloods ability to synthesize what little oxygen we have available to us.

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