06/13/2008 03:01 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Attention Jet Setters Who Snore

Air travel just got more dangerous. A new report just came out indicating that flying strains the hearts of people with sleep apnea.

Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common form of the disorder; breathing becomes halted or very shallow for short bursts of time during sleep. Because of this, the levels of oxygen drop in the blood as not enough gets in through the nose or mouth. Imagine what this could mean for someone with heart or other vascular challenges.

Why Flying is More Dangerous for People with Apnea

It makes sense that the environment on a plane could exacerbate someone's sleep apnea. (It exacerbates a lot of things, like people's patience and flexibility.) Oxygen and pressure levels can change, and compounding the problem is the fact people who suffer from sleep apnea generally have higher metabolic demands during flights. In other words, their bodies--especially their hearts--have to work harder to stay fully oxygenated. It doesn't help that many people who suffer from sleep apnea have another problem: obesity. The two often go hand in hand.

How Will This Affect Air Travel?

Flying isn't as like it used to be. We now have to deal with smaller
seats, packed planes, long waits, no food, and grumpy fellow passengers
in general. It's not pleasant to sit next to a stranger who begins to
snore and creep over into your space.

Snoring is a hallmark sign of obstructive sleep apnea. If the obesity rates continue to climb, will we have to set new standards for air travel? Wider seats? Extra oxygen tanks? Extra defibrillators? Cautionary signs in front of our seats that say "Attention Snorers or People with Apnea: Please Avoid Sleeping."?

I know this all sounds so extreme, but it's true that as a
nation our obesity is raising the risk for all kinds of health
challenges--many of which can be compounded on an airplane. If only
people took to heart the fact that weight loss can cure so many
problems, and in some cases, sleep apnea included.

But, if gas prices continue to soar, we could see an historic
pullback in the number of people who can afford the luxury of flying.
I've heard some speculate that flying will become an extravagance for
the common person. The only jet setters left will be business types
with corporate credit footing the bill. In any event, here's some

5 Ways to Make Air Travel Safe(r) If You Snore

  1. Eat well the morning of your flight and carry healthy snacks. Avoid fatty foods that can raise blood cholesterol and tax your system.
  2. Get yourself a C-pillow to support your head so you can nap comfortably in your seat,
    this will also keep your head from bobbing and cutting off your air.
  3. Avoid napping entirely if you cannot get into a comfortable position
    that prevents snoring. If you're seriously overweight, consider buying
    a business class ticket so you have more room.
  4. Don't do anything stressful during the flight. Enjoy this time to relax, read
    something light, or have a conversation with the person next to you.
  5. If the cabin pressure changes and you sense a higher heart rate, focus on taking a few deep belly breaths. Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Let your belly expand outward as you inhale, and back to resting position as you exhale.

Have a nice flight.

This post is cross-posted at Dr. Breus's blog, The Insomnia Blog.