The risky business of flying

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”

Mahatma Ghandi

Recently I filmed a vlog about my Emirates resignation where I suggested that there were health risks associated with the flight attendant role. I admitted that one of the reasons why I left the job was because of health concerns. After some reflection on the topic, I realised there are a tremendous amount of health risks associated with flying. I’m not going to cover them all today, however, I do want to focus on a few that affected my health the most. This blog post will discuss the importance of sleep, getting routine Vitamin D, your body’s natural circadian rhythm, and how that can affect a women’s hormones, menstruation and fertility. I understand that the latter may not be relevant to my male readers, however, perhaps this information may be useful to your female friends, family members or coworkers in the profession or who are aspiring to be.

Sleep is not a luxury, it’s a necessity

The number one issue I dealt with as an international flight attendant was the consistent lack of sleep by working at random hours of the day and night and not being able to establish a routine sleep pattern. Middle Eastern flight attendants in particular are required to work a lot of night shifts as most flights are connecting from all parts of the world and different timezones. After five years of working in aviation, I could easily witness the effects shift work had on my brain and body. In neuroscientist Matthew Walker’s book “Why We Sleep” he explains how the shorter you sleep, the shorter your life span will be as there are a lot of health implications that come from not getting your recommended 7-8 hours per night.

One thing I experienced myself as did a lot of my ex-colleagues is an increase in memory loss and a decrease in the ability to learn and retain new information. After flying for only 6 months I already began to forget things more easily, I was constantly suffering from brain fog, particularly after landing from a night flight. I also found it hard to concentrate for long periods of time as my head would hurt once I tried to focus. Sleep is crucial for learning and remembering new information. The hippocampus is the part of our brain that retains short term information, and numerous studies on that region of the brain show that a lack of sleep can actually shut down that part of the brain by blocking new downloads of information.

It’s disturbing that it only takes one hour less of sleep to severely impact your body and brain functions the next day. Studies have shown that each year when daylight savings begin and we are deprived of one hour of sleep, there is a rapid increase in heart attacks, car collisions and suicide rates the day after the clocks change backwards. Sleep deprivation can also lead to cancer, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease and rapid ageing of our cognitive functions.

Sleep is one thing I will never take for granted after years of deprivation. I notice how good my body feels once I get it on a routine basis. After years of memory loss, fatigue, low energy and depressive moods on days I haven’t had enough rest, I am now at a point where I can’t wait to get back into a routine sleeping pattern. While shift workers can make up for sleep during the days they are not working, there is a huge benefit to sleeping at the same time every day, particularly throughout the night.

Why routine sleep patterns are important

Even if you’ve never worked in aviation, I’m sure the majority of you have travelled on a plane and if so, you’ve probably experienced jet lag to some degree. I watched a Ted Talk by Emily Manoogian recently where she claimed that for every one hour you spend on a plane, your body needs one day to readjust itself. If that’s true, then flight attendants are in serious trouble as we often have only 24 – 48 hours of rest between flights, even when the flight time is +15 hours long.

Nature moves in cycles – the sun rises in the morning and sets at dusk, plants and animals have no issue moving with their natural rhythms. Despite this, we humans have willingly disturbed our innate biological clocks, known as our circadian rhythm with blue light screens (TV, phones, tablets), eating and drinking whenever we desire, staying out to the wee hours of the morning, and of course shift work. The circadian rhythm is essentially our body’s natural master program of time. Have you ever set your alarm in the morning to wake up right before your alarm goes off the next day? Say hello to your circadian rhythm.

Why our circadian rhythm is important

  1. Optimises immune function
  2. Optimises repair of injuries
  3. Optimises brain functions
  4. Optimises metabolism and detoxification

After many years of flying, compromising my sleep and trying to manage a disturbed circadian rhythm, I noticed a decrease in my immunity, repair of injuries, brain performance and metabolism. The main health issue with being an international flight attendant is that it ultimately disrupts the body’s natural circadian rhythm. Your body’s circadian rhythm operates by looking for two external cues which are food and light. These cues allow your body to know when it’s time to start the day and when it’s time to rest at night. When you work in a job that involves exposing yourself to bright lights and eating at any time of the day and night, your body can’t function properly as the body’s master program becomes distressed. Eating at any time of the day and not allowing your body’s digestive system to rest can result in weight gain and slow metabolism which can expose you to high blood pressure and diabetes.

How this affects women’s menstrual cycle and fertility

If we zoom in on women’s health and the effect flying has on that in particular, we open up another series of problems. In Alisa Vitti’s book “In the Flo” she explains how a poorly functional internal ecosystem (ie. circadian rhythm out of whack) can lead to estrogen dominance. This is tied to nearly all hormonal imbalance symptoms such as infertility, PMS, low libido, cramps, heavy bleeding and PCOS.

Disruption of sleep, exhaustion of energy (particularly through menstruation) and inconsistent eating/poor nutrition can cause stress to a woman’s body. When women’s bodies are overly stressed causing a spike in cortisol levels, the chemicals released interfere with the body’s production of hormones leading to irregular periods, fertility problems and low libido. It can delay ovulation, change the timing and length of ovulation and even lead to a complete loss of your period altogether. A late period or change in period is not something you should ignore, it’s a cry for help that your body is under chronic or constant levels of stress.

The importance of sunlight/vitamin D

No matter if I was tired on my days off, I always tried to stay awake during the daytime and expose myself to natural sunlight. When the sun hits your skin a chemical reaction occurs to create Vitamin D, an extremely important contributor to your innate immune function. It’s very easy to get caught in a routine where you are not exposed to nearly as much daylight as you need in order to maintain your optimal health. I remember flying with one colleague in particular who told me she woke at 4pm every day to stay awake throughout the night, barely ever seeing the sun. I felt shocked when I heard this as I, the little wellness nerd, knew how detrimental this would be for her health.

Benefits of Vitamin D/Sunlight

  1. Produces chemicals in your brain like serotonin and dopamine – boosting your mood so you feel happy 🙂
  2. Increases bone strength
  3. Helps you sleep at nighttime – 30 mins of natural sunlight in the morning will do wonders for your sleep at night 😉
  4. The heat from the sun has the ability to decrease viral loads which means your chance of getting Covid is much lower
  5. Increases resistance to infections
  6. Decreases the risk of cancer

Scientists have proven that just 30 minutes of natural sunlight a day is the best way to resynchronise your brain clock, elevating your mood, and improving your overall immunity. When we don’t see sunlight for a long period of time, which is easy for an international flight attendant, we can easily fall depressed and run the risk of low immunity from disease and infection. I recall spending the entire landing day after a night duty feeling low and in a depressive mood. I wasn’t my usual vibrant self which I despised, I felt I was wasting the whole day feeling miserable and made choices I wouldn’t normally make ie. not partaking in exercise, eating poorly and declining social invitations from my friends.

Health tips for flight attendants

Before I leave you with all these health risks associated with flying, I want to also suggest ways I achieved better health for myself throughout my five years working for Emirates and Qatar Airways:

  1. Bring your own food onboard – maintaining a healthy diet is very important when your body is imbalanced. The food on board the plane is packed with preservatives to make them last longer.
  2. As I mentioned earlier, make sure you get vitamin D on your days off
  3. Eat a nutritionally balanced diet, meal prep on your days off can really assist you with a busy flying schedule
  4. Exercise whenever you can – I would listen to my body to see how it feels. If I felt physically exhausted from a flight I would go to a yoga class or stretch at home. If I felt energetic I would go to a high-intensity group fitness class (Emirates crew get free access to lots of gyms + we have a gym in each accommodation building)
  5. Weight training – I know a lot of women are scared to bulk – this is a LIE, get it out of your head! The job is very physically demanding and it is easy to slip a disc in your back or hurt your shoulder. It’s good practice to lift some weights and build up your muscle strength to prevent you from onboard injuries.
  6. Prioritise spending time with your friends on your days off – the job can get very lonely at times, you are away from your loved ones living as an ex-pat and it’s difficult to see your friends regularly because of your conflicting schedules. It’s good to make a whole heap of friends so you always have people in Dubai/Qatar when you’re on ground.
  7. Meditation, journaling, alone time, solo travel – I love to spend time with myself, particularly after being around so many people on the plane including colleagues and passengers. It’s nice to take time to be alone, sit in quiet and be with your beautiful self after you’ve given so much of your energy to the rest of the world
  8. Baths and self-care days – I made it a weekly ritual to take a bath and slap on a face mask. A bonus tip is to add magnesium sulphur/Epsom salt to your bath water as it will speed up muscle recovery and relieve pain in the body.

I hope you enjoyed this blog post and my tips on how to optimise your health working as a flight attendant. If you have any further comments or questions, feel free to write to me in the comments below.

Until next time,
Dani x

5 responses to “The risky business of flying”

  1. I have always wondered, what is cabin crew secret to catching up on sleep between time zones. Now I know, there isn’t one. I will see cabin crew in a completely different light and try to be invisible to them 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I was QR crew for 7 1/2 yrs, quit 6 months ago and my hair has got thicker, my eyesight has got better (I think the dim cabin wrecked my eyesight), I no longer have a bloat and the wrinkles round my eyes seem to have disappeared! Those schedules def wreck our health not to mention the psychological terror of minimum rest and curfew

    Liked by 1 person

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