It doesn’t matter if you’re traveling for business or pleasure — for something that involves just sitting still for hours on end, flying long-haul sure is tiring.
Experts define long-haul flights as those that last at least seven hours, and ultra-long-haul anything in excess of 12 hours.
Professor Leigh Signal — an expert in fatigue management at Massey University, in Palmerston North, New Zealand — has shared her top tips for getting a good sleep in the air.
Writing in the Conversation, she says: “For most of us, the prospect of a long-haul flight is exciting, mixed with a few nerves. Of course, you want to arrive fully rested and ready to go.”
Yet, she quipped, “all that time you’re confined in a seat that’s supposed to recline but feels like it hardly moves — while the seat in front seems to recline ten times lower than yours.
“So, what can you do to get a decent rest?”
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Tip 1: “Accept the situation”
Prof. Signal says that her first piece of advice for trying to get a good night’s sleep mid-flight is to manage your expectations.
Unless you’re flying in first or business class with the luxury of a “lie-flat” seat, she notes, you’re deeply unlikely to step off a long-haul flight having had a solid eight hours’ sleep.
She explains: “Humans are just not well designed to sleep in an almost upright position.
“Research by colleagues and myself has shown pilots — who get a bunk to sleep in during their in-flight rest breaks — have light and fragmented sleep.”
While this may seem rather alarming, Prof. Signal is keen to stress that the research has also shown that pilots still remain excellent at their jobs when they return to the flight deck, as even a short amount of light sleep is beneficial.
Given this, Prof.Signal adds, “any sleep you do get will help you feel and function better at your destination.”
Tip 2: It’s all about timing
Exactly when you are flying can have a major impact on the ease with which you drift off — but watching when and what you have to drink can also make life easier.
Prof. Signal explains: “Assuming you’re adjusted to the time zone the flight departs from, daytime flights will make sleep on board much harder, whereas nighttime flights make sleep easier.
“All humans have a circadian (24-hour) time-keeping system, which programs us for sleep at night and wakefulness during the day. Sleeping (or waking) against this biological time-keeping system poses significant challenges.”
Good times to try to drift off, she added, include the middle of the afternoon, when the body has a natural decrease in alertness, and in the evening once the dinner service — and the associated light, noise and movement — has come to an end.
Avoiding both coffee and alcohol is also wise, Prof. Signal said. Even regular coffee drinkers experience lighter sleep after drinking coffee, she explained.
The expert added: “On the other hand, alcohol makes us feel sleepy, but it interferes with our ability to have REM sleep.”
This period of sleep — named for the rapid eye movements associated with it — is when we dream, and is an essential part of a good night’s sleep, along with the various depths of non-REM sleep.
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Tip 3: Be prepared
Just as one can prepare a good sleep environment at home, you can do the same thing when in the air.
Prof. Signal explains: “Wear comfy layers, so you can take things off if you get too hot or put things on when you cool down — and hang on to that blanket instead of losing it under your seat.
“Light and noise disturb sleep, so pack eye shades and earplugs, or a noise canceling headset, to block these out.”
It can be beneficial, she said, to practice using these for a few sleeps at home first, so you can get used to wearing them.
As anyone who’s ever tried to fall asleep on a plane or train will know, one of the worst parts of trying to drift off sitting nearly upright in a chair is the lack of decent neck support.
Prof. Signal comments: “A normal and necessary part of the falling asleep process is relaxation — including our neck muscles.
“Try supporting your head with a neck pillow or, if you have a window seat, against the aircraft wall.”
She jokes: “Unless you know the person in the next seat well, they are probably not a good option to prop you up!”
Tip 4: Sleeping pills and melatonin can help
Prof. Signal said: “Some people find taking a sleeping tablet, or melatonin, can help on a plane. This is a very personal choice.”
Sleeping pills are essentially minor sedatives, and help guide you into the arms of Morpheus by slowing down the body and brain’s functions and making you drowsy and relaxed.
In contrast, melatonin — which can also help with jet lag after a long-distance flight — is a hormone that our brains rely on to tell us when it’s nighttime.
The risk with taking melatonin for a flight is that, depending on dosage and timing, it can also shift your circadian clock in such a way that puts you even more out-of-sync with your destination timezone.
Taking the hormone in the afternoon and evening can shift your body clock earlier (eastward), whereas taking it in the morning has the opposite effect.
Accordingly, Prof. Signal added: “Before taking sleeping medication or melatonin you should see your doctor, and only take what’s prescribed for you.
“Many sleeping medications do not allow perfectly normal sleep to occur and can make you feel groggy and drowsy after waking.”
Tip 5: “Don’t try to force it”
Finally, Prof. Signal said: “If you wake up and are struggling to go back to sleep, don’t fight it.
“Take advantage of the in-flight entertainment. This is one of the few times sleep scientists will tell you it’s okay to turn on the technology — watch a movie, binge-watch a TV series, or if you prefer, listen to music or read a good book.
“When you feel sleepy, you can try going back to sleep, but don’t get stressed or worried about getting enough sleep.”
She concluded: “Our brains are very good at sleeping – trust that your body will catch you up when it can!”
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