16 Expert Tips for Falling Asleep on a Plane Fast
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The world is made up of two groups of people: Those who sit down in their plane seat, buckle themselves in, and promptly fall asleep, and those who toss and turn all night, craning every which way in the hopes of getting just a few (just a few!) restful minutes of shut-eye before touching down in their new destination.
To the first group, we salute you (and also, what’s your secret? Please tell us!), but for the second, rest easy: Help is on the way. We went to the experts to get their best tips for falling – and staying – asleep on a plane. You’ll definitely want to bookmark these before your next trip!
But first: Is it okay to sleep on a plane?
It might not be the best sleep you’ll ever get, but getting some shut eye on a long flight can help you enjoy your final destination that much more. As long as you’re prepared to take in-flight sleep quality (or lack thereof) with a grain of salt, take that nap! There are a few things you can do to get the most out of your slumber, but if you do plan to snooze in transit, don’t forget to take those necessary stretching and walking breaks.
Wait Until You’re Airborne to Sleep
When a plane takes off or begins to land at its destination, the cabin’s air pressure changes quickly with the change in altitude, and if you’re not awake and prepared for the acclimation, it can cause pain and blockage in your eardrums. This is due to the change in air pressure in your ear, and if this change catches you off guard, it can make the ears sound dull and feel blocked, which can also temporarily affect your hearing.
According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, if your ears remain blocked, it can lead to other problems including dizziness, nosebleeds, eardrum damage, ear infections, and long-term hearing loss. Staying awake during takeoff and landing and chewing gum, drinking water, or blowing your nose to reduce congestion can all help to gently “pop” your ears and equalize the extra pressure on your eardrums at the end of a flight.
Lastly, kindly ask one of your seatmates or traveling companions to wake you if you happen to still be asleep when the plane is preparing for landing.
Skip the Sleep Aids
Some medical experts would advise against taking a sleep aid while on a long flight, especially if you don’t know how it will affect you. Not only will it have you not moving for much longer than recommended, which can increase the risk of those aforementioned blood clots, it will also likely leave you feeling groggy and disoriented upon your arrival.
Or Don’t Skip the Sleep Aids
A 2018 review suggests that melatonin may be key in helping restore the circadian rhythm in people experiencing jet lag. Because it’s a hormone your body naturally produces when you’re going to sleep, taking a melatonin can signal to your brain it’s time to snooze. A 2010 study suggests that a melatonin supplement taken at the right time (before you’re wanting to sleep), can not only help with keeping you alert when you want to be up by getting a good sleep, but also helping treat some of the depressive/anxiety side effects that can come along with jet lag.
Get Moving In-Flight
It’s always good to get up and move a bit if your flight is longer than a couple of hours, as this can help to reduce the risk of blood clots, which increases when you’re sitting in a confined space for more than four hours. Avoid crossing your legs when sitting down to reduce your risk as well.
Chances are you won’t be able to sleep for an entire flight, anyway (especially if it’s longer than a couple of hours), so get up to stretch your legs every time you pop back awake. This will also help your legs and body to not feel so stiff upon finally exiting the plane.
Stick to Drinking Water, Not Alcohol
It’s a good idea to pass on alcoholic beverages during long travel times, as high altitude can contribute to dehydration. Boozy beverages are known to help most people doze off for a short time, but they can also leave you with a gnarly headache (and definitely not feeling well-rested) upon waking up if you’re not also drinking plenty of water. Take it a step further and also pack a sleep-friendly snack to enjoy on your flight.
Cuddle Up With a Blanket
Airplanes are notoriously cold. The average cabin temperature hovers around 72 degrees Fahrenheit, which seems pretty comfortable, but outside temps drop drastically and can make the cabin feel much colder. This can be a good thing since many experts say the perfect temperature to sleep in is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit, but you may still want to cocoon yourself in a blanket: A 2008 study found people slept more deeply and didn’t wake up as early when their skin was warmed. A blanket is also usually a part of your nighttime routine, so when you pull one over your body, it signals to your brain that it is time to sleep. It also helps release that wonderful sleepy hormone – melatonin.
Cover or Plug Your Ears
Planes can be a loud place, with roaring engines and noisy cabin mates. This certainly makes it hard to snooze, as noise is one of the largest factors in disrupting sleep. Sleeping in a familiar place gives you the best sleep, but a quiet, comfortable spot will be your best option outside of your regular bed, according to a 2016 study published in journal Noise & Health. Noise canceling headphones or regular headphones can reduce the sounds you hear around you and make sleep a little more possible. Audiologists say it’s safe to sleep with headphones, but cordless, over-the-ear headphones are probably the best option. There are a few things you should watch out for, like wax build up, irritation, or bacterial infections if you’re wearing them for long periods of time. You can play white noise or pink noise (like ocean waves) that’s scientifically proven to help block out sounds and lull you to sleep.
Wear Comfy Clothes
It seems obvious that no one would catch a great night’s sleep in freshly starched denim, but wearing comfy, soft clothing can help you catch some more Z’s. In fact, one study published in 2019 looked at types of fabric that may promote the best sleep. Researchers found wool fabrics people wore supported better sleep in their participants than cotton and polyester fabrics.
As with a quiet environment, a dark environment is a key part of practicing good sleep hygiene. In fact, according to a small 2022 study, higher light levels while sleeping may increase glucose and insulin levels in people. The study, published in the March 2022 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), split 20 participants into two groups: one which slept in a room with a dim light for the first night, and then a bright light for the next night; and the second, in which the participants slept under a dim light for both nights. They found that even one night of bright light exposure increased insulin resistance in the first group.
Depending on your flight time, the plane may be filled with sunlight, cell phone and tablet screens, overhead lights, and all the little knobs and buttons that glow on the plane. These can be distracting and keep you up, but the darker you can make your surroundings, the better. Pack a comfortable eye mask in your carryon to wear when you’re ready to sleep. Not only does the mask protect your eyes, but helps produce melatonin (yay!) and is proven to help you sleep by blocking out excess light.
Break It Up
In recent years, there’s been an increase in research on segmented and biphasic sleep patterns (that is, sleeping in portions instead of one large 8 to 10 hour chunk). Biphasic sleeping could reduce stress, increase productivity, and improve your cognition. And really, it’s more like getting back to your roots. There’s good evidence early humans slept in shifts, and this could have been a large part in what helped humans evolve and develop. In fact, a 2017 study done with the Hadza community in Tanzania suggested they had stronger circadian rhythms than industrialized communities. Taking a few naps during a long flight may take the pressure off you to sleep the whole time, allowing yourself to sleep as much as you can, when you can.
Eat to Sleep
Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests eating complex carbs like oatmeal before sleep to get better rest. These will help your body produce those sleepy hormones. They say high-fat foods, high-protein, and spicy foods can cause you to toss and turn because they can take longer to digest and cause things like heartburn. So while you pack for your weekend away, don’t forget to add a sleep-friendly snack to enjoy on your flight.
As your body works to get to sleep, it brings down your core body temperature (another reason to bring a blanket). However, if your feet are too chilly, your body may react by increasing your core body temperature to keep your feet warm, Cleveland Clinic reports. This can mess with your circadian rhythm and wake you more often. Wearing some comfy socks can help keep your feet warm and allow your body to do its natural thing by reducing your core temperature elsewhere.
Reduce Blue Light
It’s so easy to want to watch the free in-flight movies or doom scroll your way through the airport and flight. But blue light has proven negative impacts on your sleep by blocking your sleepy hormones. It’s not just blue light though, green light has also been shown to change your body’s sleep response by alerting your eyes and brain. A study in Science Translational Medicine showed green light was also connected to poorer sleep, but not as much as blue light. Even more luminous green light was shown to have less of an effect on major areas of the brain than blue light. Another study showed bluer light decreased melatonin secretion by as much as 81 percent, while less-blue light decreased melatonin secretion by about 60 percent.
Harvard researchers found that blue light, “…suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much.” Though exactly why green light may be less harmful than blue light is still unknown, when people get less sleep, like after blue light exposure, could be linked to depression, high blood sugar, and diabetes, Harvard researchers said. While really any kind of light can lower your melatonin levels while sleeping, blue light is by far the most invasive. Bring a book to read or activities that aren’t on a screen of some sort to help reduce your blue light exposure.
Meditation has been proven to help reduce cortisol, the stuff your body releases when you’re stressed. It may also reduce anxiety, insomnia, and depression, which may help people fall asleep, according to a 2015 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine. If you have a meditation technique that works for you, channel it when you’re trying to sleep on a plane. A guided meditation may also be helpful.
Lather Up With Lavender
It’s not just a pretty purple plant! Research suggests lavender can help people sleep better: A 2015 study found people who wore a lavender patch while they slept had better sleep quality while they could inhale and smell the soft scent. Another study, published in 2020 and which looked at 105 cardiac patients, found that those who inhaled lavender and peppermint essential oils slept better and more deeply than those who used other forms of essential oils, leading the researchers to recommend it as a safe, non-pharmacological sleep aid for cardiac patients.
While that specific study didn’t examine non-cardiac patients, both studies suggest that inhaling lavender somehow may benefit your sleep. So pack a lavender essential oil roller, a small lavender sachet, or wear a light, natural lavender body scent. (Just make sure it’s not overwhelming to your neighbors in your row.)
Get a Window Seat
The window seat is a coveted position many travelers strive to grab. Not only do you get a good view of the sights you fly over, but you can get some good sleep too. Using the wall of the plane helps prop your head, neck, and upper body up into a more comfortable position. Using a pillow to support your head will be more comfortable as well. Plus, you’ll be able to control some of the light that filters into your row with the window shade. A 2018 study suggests that sleeping at at least a 40-degree angle helped people fall asleep better than sitting straight up. A window seat can allow you to position your body slightly angled, but if you’re not lucky enough to get one, a respectful recline may be your best bet.
Prepare for Potential Time Differences
Last, but definitely not least: If your goal is to prevent jet lag, we understand why you might try to get a head start by sleeping on your flight. However, similar to changing your sleep habits with the seasons, this would usually require some strategic planning.
For instance, it’s better to sleep for the first half of a long flight if you’re heading east if it’s already nighttime while you’re en route. A better solution might just be to go to bed and wake up an hour or so earlier than usual in the days leading up to your travel. Once you arrive, avoid napping to speed up the adjustment process.
Now, go catch that flight–and a few extra minutes of shut eye.