An Extended Flight Can Be Most Intoxicating

On a recent flight, I had a chat with a charming flight attendant. It started with my nervous squeak: "Is the engine supposed to sound like that?" but by touch-down I'd learned that San Jose flights are dubbed "the nerd bird," that, no, flight attendants don't all end up hating passengers (was she just being nice?), and that the rowdiest, booziest clientele are on "any flight going into Vegas." (Going out, passengers are too subdued to make trouble.)

The booze thing, she said, is made worse by the fact that alcohol is more potent at high altitude.

Really? Back in L.A., I called UCLA alcohol expert Dr. Ernest Noble, former director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Here's what he told me.

Mile-high booze is more potent because air pressure is lower in planes (even pressurized cabins are like being at 5,000 to 8,000 feet). In labs, scientists have found that animals in low-pressure chambers tolerate less alcohol before they pass out. That's possibly because low pressure makes the membranes surrounding their (and our) cells become less rigid, so that alcohol more easily slips inside.

Noble reckons that airlines should limit the number of drinks passengers can imbibe so they can't get obnoxiously drunk. And, if we're drinking to quell fear of flying, he suggests we try instead to distract ourselves by reading or talking with others. The truly phobic might want an anti-anxiety pill.

One more warning from Noble: Hangovers--argh!--are also worse at high altitude.

Scent of Elderly Women Lifts the Spirits

Having dealt with alcohol, we'll now proceed seamlessly to another joy of close-packed plane flights: human body odor. Keep reading! This is good news.

According to New Scientist magazine, researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia have found that smells from elderly women elevate people's spirits.

This isn't the first "smell and mood" finding from these folks. In an earlier study, the team played happy or scary movie clips to people while collecting their armpit sweat with cotton swabs. When other folks smelled this sweat, they could distinguish "happy" sweat (the kind we'd imagine surges out when you see your kid waiting at the airport gate) from "fear" sweat (the kind that comes in a sickening wave when you peel back the foil and see, close-up, your hot, in-flight lunch.)

In the latest study, sweat was harvested from girls and boys plus middle-aged and elderly men and women. Then people reported in questionnaires how they felt, mood-wise, before and after smelling these various scents.

"Elderly woman" scent improved peoples' mood, the researchers found. Kid smells had no effect. This suggests, to us, that we'll have a happier plane flight if we sit near an elderly woman rather than a gaggle of toddlers and seat-kicking grade schoolers. Try it next time you fly.

Everything You Wanted to Know About Food

We often hear about health-related research meetings, including a recent one (by the American Herbal Products Assn.) featuring a talk on treating Chernobyl nuclear disaster victims with the herb echinacea. (To us, this smacks of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.)

But we like food, so we're jazzed about the shindig coming up in Chicago later this month--a meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists, scientists in industry and academia who study food.

If we were there, we'd check out video classics like "Pasta: The Inside Story," "Cottonseed: It's Part of Your Daily Life" and "The Essence of Quality Potato Chips." We'd love to hear "Packaging for the New Millennium," featuring talks like "Glass Remains the Clear Choice" (from the glass packaging industry). There's no way we'd miss "Physical Measurement of Rubbery Banana," whatever that is, nor a gross-sounding talk by the University of Wisconsin's "Muscle Biology Lab" on an icky problem of pale, flabby pork that animal breeders are trying to solve.

We hasten to add--since this is, after all, a health column--that the meeting is chockablock with talks about food safety and nutrients. Just to pick one: Scientists are exploring using ozone to kill bacteria on the surface of fruit and veggies. If it works, then we in L.A. must surely have the safest produce in the nation.

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