Getting some shut eye on a plane is a perennial challenge for travelers, but there are a few low-tech tricks that can make switching time zones and taking long haul flights a little easier. David Hamer, director of the Travel Clinic at Boston Medical Center and a professor of Global Health and Medicine at the Boston University Schools of Public Health and Medicine, shared some strategies for catching a few z’s at 30,000 feet.
Adjust Your Bedtime Before You Go
Tweak your sleep schedule before your flight so that when you land you will be more in sync with local time. “It’s pretty well established that resetting your biological clock one hour a day for each hour of a time difference is effective,” Dr. Hamer said.
For most flights to Europe from the East Coast, where the time is five to seven hours earlier, move your bedtime up an hour earlier each night for a few nights before your trip. For example, retire at 11 p.m. rather than midnight five days before departure, and the night before your flight try to get to bed around 7 p.m. That may sound early, but you’ll feel much better when you land. On flights to Western destinations, reverse the pattern by going to bed an hour later each night, Dr. Hamer said. “Traveling West is easier to adapt to.”
Eat and Drink Moderately While on Board
Some foods are thought to foster sleep, like trying to induce a “carb coma” by loading up on carbohydrates. “But there’s not much good data in the scientific literature to support it,” Dr. Hamer said. Instead of trying to eat specifically to get sleepy, just eat when you feel hungry. Try not to overeat, and avoid too much caffeine or alcohol. “A small amount of wine may help, but have no more than one or two drinks, as it may interfere with the quality of sleep, ” he said. “When you are ready to land, caffeine is fine.”
Act Like a Local After You Land
“What I try to do is eat and sleep like a local,” Dr. Hamer said, who flies frequently to Asia, Africa, Europe and South America on overnight flights. “I try to set my sleep schedule to the local time zone as quickly as possible. On the first day I take a short nap, but try to stay awake as much as possible during daytime hours. I also try to eat the same time of day as locals. Your body may say you are not hungry, but it’s important to try.”
Dr. Hamer elaborated, “And force yourself to get some exercise the first few days in the new location. It helps with falling asleep and general well being.”
Consider Sleep Aids Carefully
“The jury is out,” Dr. Hamer said, on using medication on long flights to induce deep sleep for extended periods of time is wise. “I don’t do it for a couple of reasons.” Some sleep aids, he explained, may compound the symptoms of jet lag, like fatigue, nausea, headaches and poor concentration.
Being knocked out for long periods may also mean less mobility, which makes deep vein thrombosis a greater risk, and if there are unexpected disruptions or emergencies on the flight, travelers won’t be fully alert to react appropriately.
Even with products like melatonin, a natural, over-the-counter supplement that is not regulated in the United States, “there are safety and quality control issues. Part of the challenge is optimal dosing and timing have not been determined,” Dr. Hamer said, noting that in some countries, melatonin is by prescription only. He recommends that if melatonin is your sleep aid of choice, start at a low dose of .5 milligrams at bedtime, but no more than 5 milligrams per night, and to use it only for the first few days of your trip.