The Expert-Approved Guide to Sleeping on a Plane

Good news: You’ve just booked a dream vacation. Bad news: You’ll suffer through epically long flights, cramped seats, and loud passengers to get there.

While a few lucky folks can pass out easily upon takeoff, for most of us, quality in-flight sleep is a struggle. And that can lead to exhaustion and several nights of playing catch-up when you arrive at your final destination.

Beyond the tips you likely already know—invest in earplugs, an eyemask, and a pillow; wear comfy clothing; and book a first class ticket with a lie-flat seat (#lifegoals)—here are more ways you can rest en route.

10 Secrets for In-Flight Sleep

1. Score a window seat.

If you can reserve a window seat, lean against and rest your head on the side of the plane. (It's a lot easier than trying to fall asleep on a neck pillow while basically sitting upright.) Bonus: You can also control your light exposure.

The best way to guarantee you can pick your seat? Build status with an airline. “I tend to fly one airline group as much as possible so I have status,” says Damian McCabe, CEO of McCabe World Travel, who has logged more than 100,000 miles in the air this year alone. McCabe says perks can include a better seat and priority boarding. (Plus there’ll be more space for your carry-on.)

Also, make sure you can stretch out your feet, says Alyx Brown, a sports chiropractor at Arvada Sport and Spine Group. It's more than just a comfort issue—it's also better for your cirulation (more on that below). McCabe recommends using the airline’s website or sites like SeatGuru to pick the best seat possible and get additional details (like legroom inches and proximity to bathrooms) that aren’t always available when booking online.

2. Bring some comfort items.

Remember your favorite teddy bear as a kid? Think of this as the adult version. “I take a shawl and a good pair of socks, and I always have music because it helps to relax,” McCabe says.

So now's the time to put that broken-in sweater, super-soft faded t-shirt, and chill playlist to good use. Falling asleep when you’re in the midst of 200 people and 38,000 feet up in the air is all about making yourself feel as at-home as possible.

3. Uncross your legs.

When you cross your legs, you clamp down on one side, which could restrict blood flow (and increase your chances of a blood clot if your flight is more than four hours). “You could also torque your low back,” says Karena Wu, P.T., the clinical director for ActiveCare Physical Therapy. Because your lower half is slightly twisted either to the right or left (depending on which leg you crossed), and your upper body is still facing straight ahead, you add a small amount of additional stress to your lumbar. If you fall asleep that way, you’ll likely wake up at some point and immediately cross your legs the other way because you’re subconsciously trying to even out that twist.

A better way to sit: “Keep your legs straight, with a slight bend to your knees,” Brown says. “You want to avoid any blood pooling in the lower part of your body.” If you’re petite, Wu also suggests shifting your entire body to the side, and leaning your shoulder into your seat.

4. Lean back.

Reclining your chair will help ease some of the pressure on your lower (lumbar) spine. With less pressure on your back, it’ll be easier to fall asleep.

The second best position is sitting up straight. But if your abdominal muscles aren’t strong, you won’t have any lumbar support—and that can lead to lower back pain. The fix: a lumbar pillow, which helps to keep that curve in your low back, Brown says. “You can use a travel pillow or even a rolled-up jacket.”

The worst thing you can do? Fall asleep leaning forward without any back support. “In that position, you’re putting the most pressure on the [spinal] discs,” Brown says.

And use those armrests: One study found that they helped alleviate back pressure. Rather than try to squeeze between them, rest your forearms on top to gently support your upper body and relieve your spine from doing all of the work. 

5. Power down.

We all know that light exposure is a bad idea if you’re trying to sleep. The same holds true for the light produced by seatback TV screens, mobile phones, tablets, or laptops. Electronic screens are similar to sunlight, explains Haley Byers, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who specializes in sleep. ”So when you’re looking at that right before bed, you’re suppressing melatonin release.”

6. Avoid sleep aids, except melatonin.

“If you’re traveling alone, be very careful about using any sleep medicine unless you know how it affects you,” says Max Hirshkowitz, Ph.D, chairman of the National Sleep Foundation.

He adds that most over-the-counter sleep aids contain antihistamines, which are typically longer-acting and may leave you feeling groggy.

If you really want some help, try melatonin. Though it’s not regulated or approved by the FDA, several studies have shown it might be useful in shifting your circadian rhythm.  One papersuggests if your flight departs in the early evening (typical of eastward travel), you should take the melatonin before boarding.

7. Skip alcohol.

Though it might be tempting—you’re on vacation, right?!—booze won’t help you sleep soundly. “Alcohol will initially promote sleep, but it's usually only in effect for three to four hours, and then you can’t get back to sleep,” Hirshkowitz says. On top of that, you might wake with a headache and feel thirsty. That could lead to overcompensating with water—and we all know frequent bathroom trips won't make it easy to fall asleep.

8. Don’t eat too much.

Try not to eat a meal within two hours of trying to sleep, Byers says. And watch what you eat: Overeating or having fatty foods might feel uncomfortable and make it harder to catch some zzzs. When you eat a big (or high-fat) meal, your heart needs to work harder to pump more blood to your stomach and intestines. Eating large quantities of fatty foods can also lead to changes that cause blood to clot more easily, something you want to avoid if you're on a long flight.

9. Plan ahead to beat jet lag.

Whether you’re traveling east or west can make a difference in your pre-flight plan. Heading east? Go to bed 30 to 60 minutes earlier than usual in the days leading up to your trip. “Then, try to get up 30 minutes earlier, so you’ve shifted the whole sleeping window a little bit earlier,” Byers suggests. One study found a combination of shifting sleep cycles and using melatonin allowed subjects to avoid jet lag entirely. 

Research also suggests if you’re traveling east on an overnight flight, you should avoid light exposure and try to sleep during the first half of the flight (likely when it’s night where you’re heading). Going west? Avoid light exposure during the second half of your flight to initiate a delay in your circadian rhythm. The good news is if you’re flying west and you’re a night owl, you have an advantage, Hirshkowitz says.

Think about it: If you're flying from N.Y.C. to L.A., you're now three hours behind. So if it's 3 a.m. in N.Y.C. (and to your body), it's only midnight in California—an easier adjustment if you already like staying up late. You'll also get to "sleep in" the next morning. So if you have an 8 a.m. meeting in California, it might feel more like 11 a.m. to your body. The reverse—traveling east—is typically harder: Arriving at 3 a.m. local time, your body thinks it should only be midnight, and getting up at 8 a.m. will feel like 5 a.m.

10. Set your watch to your new time zone.

As soon as you leave your starting city, act as if you're already in the time zone of your destination, Byers suggests. For instance, if you feel like you need a cup of joe, only have it if you’d be drinking coffee at that time in your arrival city, Byers says. If it's 10 p.m., the answer is no—regardless of how you feel in your current time zone. The sooner you can start acclimating to your new destination, the better off you’ll be once you actually arrive.

Once You've Landed

Stay up! “If you sleep all day, then you’re going to be up all night, prolonging the same issue,” Byers says. If you nap, keep it short: 15 to 30 minutes. And accept that it may take a few days to feel completely back to normal: You can shift your circadian rhythm about one hour per day, several experts confirmed. So if the first day or two you’re groggy, hungry at odd times, or have GI issues, it’s just part of your body adjusting. Give it time, and soon you’ll be back to enjoying your vacay.

Special thanks to Daniel Barone, M.D., of Weill Cornell Medical College, and Erina Pindar of SmartFlyer, who also contributed to this piece.

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