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How to sleep on a plane

Sept. 10, 2019
13 min read
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If you're one of those lucky people who can fall asleep within 30 seconds on a turboprop plane jouncing through a blizzard toward Churchill, Manitoba, like the winning ball in a bingo cage, then you can stop reading right here, smug in the knowledge that you're one of the blessed ones. We wish you a peaceful slumber.

If, however, you are one of the estimated 60 million people in the US who suffer from chronic sleeplessness, or if you just have a hard time falling asleep when you travel, you approach red-eyes with a mixture of dread and resignation. You know you're going to have to spend the next six to 10 hours in the dark, surrounded by hundreds of sleeping passengers who will arrive at their destination reasonably rejuvenated instead of feeling like their legs are stuck in molasses, their brains scrambled like eggs and the insides of their eyelids plastered with sandpaper.

It doesn't always have to be that way. Armed with a little knowledge about how your brain works and advice from experts, you just may be able to catch a few flies the next time you fly.

A Japanese Man Unable To Sleep Keeps The Window Blind Of A Jet Open While The Rest Of The Jet Remains In Total Darkness During A Finnair Flight Between Helsinki And Tokyo September 1, 1999. (Photo By Barry Cronin/Getty Images)
Image by Barry Cronin/Getty Images.

Your biological clock shifts an hour a day

You probably already know that we each have an internal "clock" that tells our bodies when to get up, when to go to sleep and so on. When you travel well outside your normal time zone, of course, your internal clock becomes wildly out of synch with the time in the real world in your new location, which is what gives you jet lag. Your clock eventually catches up, but it can be rough going until then, and that has a massive effect on how easily you'll sleep on a plane, or anywhere else. (And most international flights base when they dim their cabin lights on the destination time zone.)

What most people don't know, though, is that it takes roughly 24 hours for the average person's biological clock to shift by one hour, according to sleep expert Els van der Helm, founder of Amsterdam-based Shleep, which just came out with a new sleep-aid app (available on the Google and Apple app stores). So if you travel from, say, New York to Paris, it's going to take you about six days before your body's finally on local time.

That said, everyone's clock adjusts at slightly different rates, though the fastest rate seems to be about 90 minutes every 24 hours.

It's usually easier going west

It's common wisdom among travelers that it's easier to fly westward than eastward. There's a reason: Our biological clocks are actually slightly longer than 24 hours, so it's less of a stretch for most people to deal with longer days than shorter ones. Thus you will likely find that you have an easier time adjusting your internal clock if you're westbound — just keep in mind you're going to suffer for it after the eastbound trip in reverse.

Start changing your sleep habits well before your trip

Now that you know how your biological clock works, you can use it to your advantage, but it requires work well before you ever set foot on the plane.

If it's possible, a few days before you travel, start to gradually change your sleeping and waking times each day, edging closer and closer to what you expect your hours will be at your destination. For example, if you normally go to bed around midnight in New York City and are planning on a weeklong trip to Helsinki (which is seven hours ahead) in a few days, go to sleep at 11 p.m. the first day, 10 p.m. the second, and 9 p.m. the third, getting up earlier each day as well.

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If all goes according to plan, you'll make the remaining four-hour adjustment within four or fewer days, instead of catching up to Finland just in time to have to hop on the plane back to JFK.

IN FLIGHT - MAY 15: Boston Celtics player Larry Bird, right, sleeps on the plane back to Boston from Houston, as Celtics trainer Ray Melchiorre, left, holds the NBA Championship trophy on May 15, 1981. The Celtics beat the Houston Rockets 102 - 91, in the final game of the 1981 NBA Championships. (Photo by Frank O'Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Image by of Frank O'Brien/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Think in terms of sleep debt

The concept of sleep debt is becoming more well-known among insomniacs and people in professions that require odd hours, like emergency-room doctors. It refers to the concept that the amount of sleep you miss out on each night is cumulative, and that missing, say, two hours of sleep 10 nights in a row can be as bad as not sleeping at all a full night. Still, experts are still debating how it works and even whether it really exists.

"It's kind of like smoking — how many cigarettes is too much, and which is the one that gives you cancer?" van der Helm said.

The logic goes that you don't go to bed each night with a clean slate, at least as concerns your sleep needs. If your body says you missed out on three hours of sleep in the previous week, it's going to require 11 hours of sleep that night instead of eight to pay back the sleep debt you've racked up.

Sleep debt comes into play when you travel by plane, she said, because just as your bookie isn't going to be happy if you try to pay him back in loose change, your body knows the difference between good sleep and bad sleep, and bad sleep — like catching fitful Zs in an upright seat in economy in the middle of the day — doesn't erase as much of your sleep debt.

The takeaway? If you don't want to suffer from sleep deprivation on your flight or during your trip, try to work off your sleep debt before you travel. And if you do board your plane while still down a few hours of sleep, you'll do better in the long run if the sleep you get on board is as quality as possible.

Choose your seats carefully

Not even getting into cabin classes, where you are in the plane makes a huge difference when it comes to a restful flight and a nerve-wracking one. Seats to avoid include those right by the toilets or the galley.

In the former case, you'll have to deal with lines of passengers waiting to take their turn in the loo, which, let's face it, will begin to seriously stink after a couple hours and/or the first meal service. In the latter case, your problem won't be passengers but flight attendants clanking around while preparing meals and, in the case of some crews, yucking it up and having a little FA party while you're trying to catch your shut-eye.

And if you can't sleep feeling cramped, look for bulkhead seats, where there's no one in front of you to recline into your personal space and give you creepy nightmares about being buried alive in plastic and polyester.

Wear comfortable clothes

You're not going to get decent sleep unless you're physically comfortable. And while that's a challenging proposition on a plane, it's not necessarily impossible. You can't do much about your seat, especially if you're in economy, but you can decide to wear clothes that'll help you snooze.

You don't have to travel in your pajamas, but it's always a good idea to wear comfortable clothing, which usually means looser and less restrictive. And don't forget about the footwear: van der Helm, for example, takes off her shoes and puts on her slippers from home when she flies.

"It makes a huge difference in the comfort level," she said.

Lying down can be better, except when it isn't

Like we said, if you're in a coach seat, you'll have to make do with an extra few degrees backward. But if you're in a first-class or business-class seat, or if you're lucky enough to snag several coach seats in a row on a long-haul flight, you may have the opportunity to lie fully horizontally or close to it. If you want to sleep, do not hesitate to take that opportunity.

If that isn't an option, and if you know you're not going to need regular visits to the lavatory, a window seat may be your next best option.

Besides that, though, your posture may play less of a role in whether you can sleep than you think, van der Helm said.

"There's not a lot of research to show what the best posture is," she said.

That said, people who suffer from sleep apnea tend to feel the worst effects when they sleep on their backs. If that's the case with you, for your own health and the sake of all the other passengers trying to sleep, try to lie on your side.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 21: A man sleeps in the new business class seat onboard the new Qantas A380 flagship the 'Nancy-Bird Walton' as she joins the Qantas fleet at Sydney Domestic Airport on September 21, 2008 in Sydney, Australia. The Qantas A380 will feature seating for 450 passengers across four cabins and will commence commercial services from Melbourne to Los Angeles on October 20, and from Sydney to Los Angeles on October 24. (Photo by Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images)
Image by Sergio Dionisio/Getty Images.

Not all neck pillows are created equal

We've become real fans of neck pillows, which have evolved from polyester U-shaped sacks to supportive sleep aids that help ensure you're not jolted out of your slumbers by turbulence and wake without neck cramps.

We've already tested out the best neck pillows on the market, and have our own favorites, depending on whether you like your pillows soft or firm.

Avoid spicy foods and eat sparingly

Intestinal distress and deep slumber are not well-acquainted. Spicy meals and gluttonous portions tend to make the former more likely at the expense of the latter. In fact, if you're really serious about sawing logs during your flight, van der Helm suggests you eat three hours before you want to go to sleep.

If you tend to snore, keep in mind that alcohol relaxes the muscles in your throat, making it more likely you'll rattle the shingles. (And if you're a known snorer's companion, bring earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.)

Turn off the screens

Studies have shown that blue light resets our biological clocks, since our brain reads short-wavelength light as its cue to wake up. Our now-omnipresent screens, whether in phone, tablet or laptop form, emit way too much of that light for you to hope for a restful slumber. So, if that's your goal, you're going to have to take a break from Instagram and Facebook for a few hours.

ABEL SANTAMARIA AIRPORT, SANTA CLARA, VILLA CLARA, CUBA - 2015/09/26: Tourist woman taking picture with cell from an airplane taking off in Cuba . (Photo by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Image by Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Melatonin brings mixed results

The jury's still out on whether store-bought melatonin — the manmade version of the sleep-signaling hormone in our brains — works or not, but van der Helm said it's worth a try if you're having trouble getting to sleep on a plane, if only for a placebo effect.

The catch? Melatonin seems to be most effective when taken five hours before bedtime, so you may have to pop the stuff before you even board. You also don't want to take more than half a milligram, van der Helm said, since higher dosages haven't necessarily demonstrated that they're any more effective and may, in fact, actually flood the brain's receptors and create sleep issues for you down the line.

Avoid sleep medication if possible

Relying on prescription medication to sleep easily leads down a dangerous path, healthwise, and often comes with a boatload of potentially devastating side effects, both short- and long-term. Only take them when you absolutely must, and only under the supervision of a doctor.

Your flying companion can help

Sometimes there's nothing more soothing than knowing you have a trusted loved one next to you. Don't discount how much a companion's touch can relax you.

"Massages, just being touched or a kiss releases oxytocin, is psychologically associated with relaxation and makes it easier to fall asleep," van der Helm said.

Jeunes mariés s'embrassant après la cérémonie qui s'est déroulée dans un avion au-dessus de Los Angeles, Californie, Etats-Unis le 28 juillet 1938. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
Image courtesy of Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

Insomniacs may actually sleep better on planes

It may sound paradoxical, but sometimes those who have the hardest time falling asleep on the ground find it much easier to get to Sleepytown in the discomfort of an airplane filled with hundreds of total strangers.

"People with insomnia sometimes have an association with their own bed that creates frustration and stress, becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy every night," van der Helm said. "Other places don't have that association, so they actually fall asleep faster away from home. The less you worry about sleeping, even on a plane, the fewer stress hormones are created, and the better your sleep will be."

Don't worry about sleeping on a plane

The worst thing you can do if you're trying to sleep on a plane is worry about sleeping on a plane. So, above all, don't fret and don't let anything — your history of sleeplessness, your anxiety about your upcoming trip, even this article — convince you your journey is already ruined if you're not going to achieve shut-eye.

"It's much better to assume you won't sleep on the plane, because if you do, it's a bonus, as opposed to telling yourself life will be hell if you don't get sleep on a plane," van der Helm said. "Because that's how you ensure you won't get sleep on a plane."

Featured image by NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images