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Booking a first-class seat that doubles as a bed might be the best bet for sleeping on a plane, but what's a girl to do when her bank account calls for coach? Well, no matter *where* your seat is, you're still going to want to focus on getting some quality rest to set you up for a healthier trip. That's because not getting enough sleep majorly multiplies your chances of catching a basic cold (like from that jerk sitting in front of you not covering his mouth when he sneezes). And whether you're traveling for work or for pleasure, no one has time for that.
"Sleep is a complex puzzle," says Raj Dasgupta, M.D., an assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. And of course, everybody's different, so there are no hard-and-fast rules. Can you sleep through the wails of crying babies? Skip the headphones. (And count us jealous.) But these tips, courtesy of top sleep docs, are a good place to start if you want to get some shut-eye the next time you find yourself thousands of feet above the ground.
What to Do Pre-Trip
Pack noise-canceling headphones.
Airplane cabin noise can vary between 82 decibels (a garbage disposal) and 105 decibels (a power lawnmower), says Timothy I. Morgenthaler, M.D., codirector of the Center for Sleep Medicine at the Mayo Clinic. ICYW, some of that comes from the engine, but a lot comes from wind, and even from the AC. That's not just bad for your sleep: "The threshold of hearing damage is considered to be 85 decibels for more than eight hours," he says.
Here's the problem: While there's some research that noise increases fatigue, it also makes it harder to sleep, he says. Noise-canceling headphones can help, as can regular old foam in-ear hearing protectors. Listen to white noise instead of tunes, which research shows can assist in helping you drift off. Just be sure to download an app pre-takeoff.
Bring an eye mask.
"Light is one of the biggest influences on your body's natural clock," says Dr. Morgenthaler. If you're not in control of the window shade (or your seatmates are inclined to read at 2 a.m.), eye masks give you the darkness you need. You don't need anything fancy. Just look for one that's comfortable and that blocks out all the light, he says.
Choose your seat wisely.
A window seat first and foremost puts you in charge of the window shade, which means you control how much light exposure you get and when (a biggie). But it also gives you a surface to lean on and means you're not going to be woken up every time someone needs to use the restroom.
Another thing to consider: "Choose the side of the plane based upon what side you normally sleep on," says Dr. Dasgupta. "If you fall asleep on your right side, pick the right side of the plane." Also, noise levels are highest in the back of the plane since you're behind the engines and near the bathrooms, so it's better to choose the front.
Tire yourself out before a long flight.
Overnight flight? Wake up early that day, expose yourself to sunlight, and log an intense workout all before arriving at the airport. "Once you go into the flight itself, you'll be more ready for sleep," says Dr. Dasgupta.
One thing to note: "Going into a trip already tired and sleep deprived doesn't make any sense," says Dr. Morgenthaler. Quality sleep—at least seven hours a night—before your trip helps keep your body in tip-top shape.
What to Do In-Flight
Put your carry-on in the overhead bin.
"Nothing will prevent you from getting sleep like cramping up your legs and not being able to have space," says Dr. Dasgupta. Not only do you want enough space to be comfortable, but crossed, squished legs can increase your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a dangerous and potentially life-threatening blood clot in your legs. Staying hydrated, stretching, and moving around from time to time can help lower your risk. (Here's the best way to stretch on an airplane.)
Try to sleep during your "sleepy" times.
"Most people are the least alert near bedtime and in the early to mid afternoon, and most alert in the morning and around 6 to 8 p.m. in their natural time zone," says Dr. Morgenthaler. Try to sleep during those sleepy slots, not during your alert times.
Try this exercise.
If your mind is racing or you're stressing yourself out about not being able to sleep, try what Dr. Morgenthaler calls "cognitive shuffling." "It is a method designed to lull the brain into drowsiness by asking it to focus on random words and images without making connections between them," he says. Here's how it works, according to Jarrett Richardson, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and a sleep specialist at the Mayo Clinic.
- Think of a random, emotionally neutral word consisting of at least five letters. This will be your root word.
- Spell it in your mind once.
- Then, for each letter in the root word, think of a word that begins with that letter and think of an image that represents that word. Do this over and over again until you run out of ideas. So, if the first letter in your original word was an 'S,' you may think of suds (a relaxing bath), then seaside (lying on the beach), then sailboat (sailing on a sunny day).
- Move to the next letter.
- If you get to the end of your root word, pick another.
Doesn't work? "Consider meditation," says Dr. Morgenthaler. Apps such as Calm can help you rest, perhaps lulling you off to sleep after all.
Skip the sleeping aids (but consider melatonin).
Neither booze nor Xanax has friendly post-use side effects (hangovers and grogginess). That's why Dr. Dasgupta suggests skipping both. If you feel the need to take something, melatonin is okay. The human body releases melatonin—often called "the sleep hormone"—when the sun starts to set. While it's not a potent sleep aid, melatonin does make you sleepy and can do wonders for shifting the circadian rhythm, says Dr. Dasgupta. If you're headed multiple time zones away, consider using 1 milligram or so two hours before your desired sleep time at your destination. So if you live in New York and you are going to Spain, where you want to go to bed at 10 p.m., take melatonin at what would be 8 p.m. (2 p.m. Eastern) to help you adjust pre-trip.