How do I ensure that I have a better night’s sleep when flying long distances
The first suggestion for sleeping in this situation is to let your expectations fall to a degree.
Humans aren’t equipped to rest in an upright position. If you’re not fortunate enough to travel in a class that has lying-flat seats, you’re likely to leave an extended flight without having 8 hours of rest.
My research and that of my colleagues has proven that pilots who have the luxury of sleeping in a bunk during their breaks during flight get a sluggish and uneven sleep. While they may not get the best quality sleep, you can rest sure that that our study also proves that that pilots perform well at their jobs during long-haul flights. That, plus findings from numerous other studies conducted in labs, shows that even a small amount of restful sleep is beneficial.
Therefore, even if you don’t manage to get the usual eight hours of sleep during your flight, any sleep you get will make you function and feel better when you arrive at the destination.
We’re also not very good at assessing the amount of sleep we’ve had, especially when our sleep isn’t that good and uneven. Therefore, you’re likely to have been sleeping longer than you thought.
If you’re not able lay down and stretch your body during an airplane, you’re not going to enjoy an entire eight hours of sleep. iStock/Getty Images Plus
You should time your drinks and sleep.
The time of your flight, as well as the consumption of caffeine and alcohol, can directly affect your ability to sleep during an airplane.
Assuming that you’re adjusting to the time zone your flight leaves from, daytime flights can make sleeping at the airport much more difficult while nighttime flights allow sleeping easier.
Humans have the daily circadian (24-hour) time-keeping system which is programmed to allow us to the night to sleep and for wakefulness throughout the daytime. The process of sleeping (or awakening) against this biological time-keeping system can pose major difficulties.
There is an unnatural decrease in alertness around the afternoon, making it a great time to attempt to sleep during a daytime flight. For night flights, it will be easier to sleep when dinner is done and you won’t be fighting light, noise and the motion of others all around you.
Read more: Explainer: can you pay off your ‘sleep debt’?
As a stimulant, caffeine helps us stay alert. Even if you’re a regular coffee drinker and can fall asleep after drinking caffeine, your sleep will be lighter and you’ll be more easily woken .
However the alcohol causes us to feel sleepy, but affects our brain’s capacity to experience REM sleep (also called sleeping in dreams). While you might sleep more easily when you drink alcohol, your sleeping patterns will be disturbed as your body is metabolizing this alcohol, and seeks to get back in the REM sleep that it has missed out on.
What are the pros and cons of taking melatonin or other medications?
Certain people feel that using a sleeping tablet or melatonin helps during a flight. This is an individual preference.
When you are taking sleeping pills or melatonin, you must consult your physician and only take what is recommended for you. A lot of sleeping pills aren’t able to allow normal sleep and can cause you to feel tired and sleepy when you wake up.
Read more: I can’t sleep. What drugs can I (safely) take?
Importantly, melatonin is a hormone our brains use to tell us it’s nighttime. Melatonin can assist with sleep, but depending on when and how much you take, it can also shift your circadian clock. This could shift you further away from being aligned with the destination time zone.
The melatonin you take during your natural afternoon and evening shifts your circadian time-keeping system to the east (or sooner) and then taking it towards the close of your biological night and also in the morning, will shift your circadian clock to the west (or earlier). It can get very complicated quickly!
Muscles naturally relax while we sleep, which makes it hard to support the head. Shutterstock
Make sure you have your outfits and clothes ready.
Be prepared to make the most comfortable sleeping environment within the confines of an airplane seat.
Layer up in comfortable layers so that you are able to take them off when you’re too hot. You can also put things on after cooling down. You can also hold onto the blanket instead of slipping it beneath your seat.
Noise and light disrupt sleep, so bring glasses and eyeplugs (or a headset that blocks out noise) to block out these. Try using eye shades and earplugs in your home, since it may take a couple of nights to become accustomed to the idea of wearing them.