10 Tips to Help You Sleep Better on Flights

© Dan Aragón / Unsplash
© Dan Aragón / Unsplash
Photo of Esme Benjamin
Wellness Editor27 January 2018

Unless you’ve got the cash to fly first or business class and enjoy those spacious, fully reclining seats, chances are you struggle to get more than a couple of hours sleep en route to far-flung locations. To avoid feeling like a zombie the first few days of your trip, try these sleep hacks and maximize your rest.

Invest in some hardcore ear plugs

Foam ear plugs, while useful in a bind and admittedly easy to travel with, aren’t the most effective. To block out the crying baby three rows back try silicone ones instead. Once warmed and made pliable between your palms, the putty moulds perfectly to your individual ear shape, even muting the roar of the airplane engine.

Don’t watch movies

Watching movies on a flight is the best, obviously, but if you want to get to sleep the blue light emitted from the screen isn’t going to do you any favors. The particular frequency of blue light prohibits the body’s production of melatonin, known as the sleep hormone, so you’re better off sticking to books. And yes, your phone and laptop are blue light culprits too, so try to avoid screens altogether.

Be prepared for temperature fluctuations

Sleeping in a cabin that feels like a refrigerator is highly unpleasant. Prevent that jarring feeling when an un-socked foot accidentally pops out from under the blanket by packing plenty of layers. Slouchy socks, a warm sweater, and a wrap or scarf that can double as a blanket or pillow are all essentials.

© Ethan Sykes / Unsplash

Workout before you fly

As airlines make the in-flight health of passengers a bigger priority, more and more airports are introducing fitness studios and yoga rooms at terminals. A good cardio session, in particular, has been shown to aid sleep; it raises your core temperature for several hours post-workout and, as you slowly cool down, signals to the body that it’s time to rest. It’s also great at reducing anxiety—useful if you’re a fearful flyer.

Reserve the window seat

Besides providing a much better spot to enjoy the view from 30,000 feet, and being less exposed to cabin germs, the window seat is a prime position for leaning. Cushion your head, pad out the space between your shoulder and neck with a sweater, and drift off comfortably.

Medicate yourself the smart way

Before you opt for hardcore meds that’ll render you virtually unconscious for eight hours straight and may have unexpected side-effects, consider trying something more natural. In accordance with your circadian rhythm, the body releases a hormone called melatonin, which induces sleepiness. You can buy synthetic melatonin pills at any pharmacy to help you snooze in the air, and fight jet lag in your new time zone.

© Daniel McCullough / Unsplash

Double up on pillows

While it’s true that virtually all airlines provide a small pillow on overnight flights, two will make a huge difference in terms of comfort. Bring a decent neck pillow to rest your head and use the cabin one for lumbar support, avoiding the back pain that’s irritatingly common in economy seating.

Avoid the booze

Ever noticed the affect a few glasses of alcohol have on your sleep? While drinking can make it easier to drift off initially, it actually prevents quality sleep by reducing the amount of REM you get. Without REM—the phase that’s most restorative for your health—you’ll wake feeling groggy, distracted, and generally slow, so resist the free booze and stick to sipping water instead.

Eat plenty of carbs

While the post-carb sleepies are normally something to avoid, on a flight they can work in your favor. Eating a starchy high-carb meal 3–4 hours before boarding increases tryptophan and serotonin, which in turn signals to your body it’s time to rest and digest.

Try essential oils

A few drops of essential oil on your eye mask can help you unwind and drift off faster. Camomile, cedarwood and, of course, lavender are proven sedatives with anti-anxiety benefits.

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