Sleeping on a Plane: The Secret to Resting While Travelling

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Some of you might have already been through the hellish
experience that is long flights. It doesn’t matter if you’re heading towards
heaven on earth, you’ll have to suffer through a myriad of hurdles and
inconveniences, be it loud passengers, small seats with little leg room, and
everything in between.

If you happen to be one of the few lucky people who don’t find it hard to sleep in such poor
conditions, then good for you, you’re blessed. However,
if you’re part of the rest who can’t get any shuteye while on the plane, then
this guide is a godsend for you. We’ll hopefully be able to save you a
lot of trouble, as well as alleviate the effect of jet lag.

Before we dive into the tips and secrets, let us clear out
the obvious first. If you can afford a first-class
ticket along with a lie-flat seat, then you’re already way ahead of the game
when it comes to comfort. You can also invest in some earplugs. That should set
you up on the right path to mastering sleeping on the plain.

And now, without further ado, let us dive into the 10 best
things you can do to help you sleep during a long flight.

The 10 Secret Ingredients to Sleeping on a Plane

1.     Choose a Window Seat Before SLEEPING ON A PLANE

Window seats are extremely
helpful when it comes to rest. You can simply
lean on the plane’s side and drift to sleep. It’s a more natural way of sleeping
as opposed to trying to sleep while sitting straight. While neck pillows can
help with the issue, their effect isn’t as potent as that of leaning on
something. Another great thing about window seats is that you have control over
how much light you’re exposed to.

How does one guarantee a window seat? Well, glad you asked! In order to improve your odds at scoring a window seat, you need to establish status with an airline. What do we mean by that? Well, according to the CEO of McCabe World Travel Damian McCabe, who has air-traveled more than 100,000 miles during this year, he says “I tend to fly one airline group as much as possible, so I have status.” This regularity will grant you priority as you’ll be considered a loyal customer of sorts and you’ll have better odds of getting the seat you want. However, this isn’t the only benefit you’ll be granted when you build status with an airline.

It Doesn’t Stop There

However, getting the window seat is only the start. You’ll
need to get the most out of it. To do so, you need to sit in a comfortable
position. Alyx Brown, a sports chiropractor at Arvada Sport and Spine Group, recommends that you stretch out your
feet. “It’s not just about comfort,” he
says. Stretching your feet is also good for your circulation. In order to get
the best seat with the most space, we recommend that you use the airline’s
website or other sites like SeatGuru that will help you choose the best seat possible along with other useful details
that you can’t find when booking online.

2.    
Take Some Familiar Items
Along

What do we mean by that? Well, to put it blatantly, it’s
basically an adult version of sleeping with a teddy bear. Familiarity breeds a
sense of security and helps you fall faster to sleep. Did you know that only
half of your brain actually falls asleep in unfamiliar places? This is an
evolutionary trait we developed in order to detect possible threats. However,
while you’re on a plane, there are no threats, and
your brain will only be draining its energy in vain.

In order to circumvent this issue, you need to find a way to
trick your brain into thinking that you’re in a familiar, safe space. Damian
McCabe reports that he takes a shawl and a good pair of socks along with some good, relaxing music whenever he’s
traveling. With that said, prepare a
chill playlist and put on comfy clothes to make yourself feel at home even
though you’re up 38,000 ft in the air along with another 200 people.

3.    
Stop Crossing Your Legs

We strongly advise against crossing your legs. Doing so
could hamper blood flow and skyrocket your chances of getting a blood clot.
This risk grows exponentially with trips that are longer than 4 hours.

Karena Wu, the clinical director for ActiveCare Physical Therapy, says that it’s also a good idea to
“torque your low back.” This is because your lower half is twisted to the left or to the
right depending on which leg you crossed, while your upper half is still straightforward. This results in additional pressure
on your lumbar. This will dramatically decrease the quality of sleep and will
more than likely make you wake up in a state of discomfort and maybe even pain.

Another healthier way to sit would be to keep your legs
straight, along with a slight bend to your knees, according to Brown. He goes
on to say that one needs to avoid any blood pooling in the lower part of one’s
body. If you’re short, Wu recommends
leaning on your shoulder into your seat and shifting your whole body to the
side.

4.    
Try Leaning Back

Having less pressure on your back will help you fall asleep
faster. In order to reduce the stress on
your lumbar or lower spine, we recommend that you recline your chair.

Sitting straight is also a good way to ease some of the
stress on your lower spine. However, if your abdominal muscles aren’t that strong, you’re not going to have any support
from your lower spine. This will result in back pain. In order to circumvent
this issue, we recommend you use a lumbar pillow in order to keep the curve in
your lower back. According to Brown, you can either use a travel pillow or a rolled-up jacket.”

Don’t even think about sleeping on a plane while leaning forward. That’s the worst position to sleep in. You’ll have no back support that way, and you’ll be placing the most pressure on the spinal discs, according to Brown.

Another useful tip is to use the armrests that are provided
as research found that they helped reduce
back pressure. Rest your forearms on top to help
your upper body and help your spine with some of the load.

5.     Turn Off All Electronics Before Sleeping On a Plane

It goes without saying that light disrupts sleep. This stands even for the light that is emitted by mobile phones, seatback TV screens, laptops, and all electronic screens and equipment in general. Haley Byers, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist specialized in sleep, says that Electronic screens are similar to sunlight when it comes to disrupting sleep. She goes on to explain that looking at electronic screens right before sleeping inhibits melatonin release.

6.    
Stay Away from Sleep Aids
(Aside from Melatonin)

The chairman of the National Sleep Foundation, Max Hirshkowitz Ph.D. puts it best when he says that if you’re solo traveling, you need to be very careful about using any sleep medicine unless you know how it affects your body. He goes on to explain that the majority of over-the-counter sleep medicines and aids contain antihistamines that are long-lasting and leave you experiencing sleep inertia upon waking up after sleeping on a plane.

If you’re desperate for some help, you’d be better off with
melatonin. Even though it’s unregulated and isn’t approved by the FDA, multiple
studies[1]
have shown that it can be helpful and effective
in modifying your circadian rhythm. One study[2]
even suggested that if your flight leaves in the early evening, which is common
in eastward travel, it’s best to take the melatonin just before boarding and
the takeoff.

7.    
Avoid Alcohol

Various studies have shown that alcohol disrupts sleep, especially when sleeping on a plane, by interfering with the sleep cycles. Hirshkowitz says that Alcohol initially promotes sleep for three or four hours, just before starting to give its adverse effects by ruining your rest. This isn’t taking into consideration the fact that you’ll later wake up with a headache and also feeling thirsty. While a headache makes for an unpleasant experience overall, feeling thirsty will make you drink more water and cause you to go more to the bathroom, making for an even worse experience.

8.     Avoid Eating a Lot When SLEEPING ON A PLANE

It’s recommended that you don’t eat a meal just before you
go to sleep. You need to wait at least two hours before going to sleep. The
same applies here. You should also be careful about what you eat as overeating or eating foods rich in fats might leave you
feeling heavy and uneasy throughout the flight, thus making harder to fall
asleep.

The main reason for this is the fact that eating large meals
will require your heart to work harder in order to make sure that your stomach
gets the blood it needs to fully digest the food
you’ve eaten. Eating foods that are rich in fat can also increase the
risk of blood clotting, which is further amplified if you also sit in an uncomfortable position or cross
your legs.

9.    
Anticipate Jet Lag and Plan
Accordingly

You might be surprised to know that the direction you’re traveling in actually makes a difference when it comes to anticipating jet lag. If you’re heading east, then you’d be better off sleeping 30 to 60 minutes earlier for a few days before your trip. Byers suggests getting up 30 minutes earlier, to shift the whole sleeping schedule and window a bit earlier. A study[3] has found that using melatonin and shifting sleep cycles is the perfect combination to negate the effect of jet lag among subjects completely.

Research has also found that avoiding light exposure and trying to rest during the first half of the flight can also help avoid jet lag when you’re traveling east on an overnight trip.

Directions Matter

When sleeping on a plane while heading west, avoid lights during the second half of the flight in order to create a delay in your circadian rhythm. Hirshkowitz says that being a night owl gives an advantage when flying west. This makes sense as traveling west would mean that you should stay awake for longer which should be a specialty for night owls.

10. Calibrate Your Watch to the New Time Zone

Changing to the new time zone is part of adjusting to the
location you’re heading to. You’re basically trying to trick your body into
thinking that you’re already there, so
you get adjusted sooner. Recalibrate your
watch to the new time zone as soon as you take off your city and pretend that
you’re already at your destination.

Once You’ve Reached Your Destination

Try to stay awake. Byers says that If you sleep all day,
you’re going to be up all night, thus prolonging the very issue you’re trying
to solve. If you absolutely can’t take it anymore, take a short nap. Napping
for longer than 30 minutes will completely mess you up. Try to accept the idea that
it may take a while to feel like normal
again.

You can slowly shift and modify your circadian rhythm one
hour per day according to several experts. If you feel tired and stressed and
experience hunger during odd times, don’t be alarmed, that’s all part of your
body adjusting. Just give it some time, and
you’ll soon be back to full form and fully
enjoy your vacation!


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15649736

[2] http://www.cet.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Arendt-2009-SMR.pdf

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16077154

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The Medical Extern

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