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Everything You Need to Know About Sleeping on the Plane and Beating Jet Lag

Everything You Need to Know About Sleeping on the Plane and Beating Jet Lag

Who doesn’t want to sleep like a baby on a long-haul flight? (Photo: Serg Myshkovsky/Vetta/Getty Images)

Road warriors, aka frequent travelers, need their sleep in order to stay refreshed, whether they’re on a quick flight or a long-haul trip to a different country. I’ve learned through much trial and error that getting sleep right and beating jet lag is a bit of a science. (There was that flight when my husband and I popped our Ambien as we powered down our cell phones. Sure enough, our Boeing 757 then had mechanical trouble; we were escorted off the plane, in a haze, to another plane. At least neither of us remembers the incident clearly.) Since I’m about to take an overnight red-eye to Istanbul — and just to be sure I’m doing this travel-sleep thing right — I consulted a few experts for their best tips.

Melatonin for travel

Melatonin is a neurotransmitter produced in the body that encourages sleep. It also comes in pill form. (Photo: Murrur/Wikimedia Commons)

1. Plan ahead to beat jet lag.

Fun fact: “When you shift time zones, your clock takes about one day per time zone to catch up,” says Dr. Daniel A. Barone, a neurologist and sleep specialist at New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical College. So if you’re taking a longer trip to a far-off time zone, it pays to get yourself acclimated to the new schedule to lessen jet lag. The best way to do that? Use a one-two punch with melatonin (which encourages sleep) and a sliding bedtime schedule, says Barone. For example, “If you’re traveling eastward for a long period, you want to advance your body’s rhythm leading up to the trip,” he says. So, starting a few days before your flight, take melatonin at about 10 p.m. “with the intention of falling asleep a little earlier than usual and waking up a little earlier.” Each night, shave off another hour, and when you arrive in Europe, voilà, you’re on Paris time! One caveat, though: Taking loads of melatonin is questionable. Some data suggests that high levels can affect fertility, “though it hasn’t been fully studied,” says Barone.

Related: These Apps Claim to Help You Get Over Jet Lag — But Do They Work?

Ambien sleep aid on a long flight

Sometimes you just need a sleep aid on a long flight. (Photo: Purestock/Getty Images)

2. Use the right medication to get quality z’s on the plane.

Ambien (generically called zolpidem and available by prescription) is the holy grail of sleep medication for travel. “It’s short acting, it works for most people, and it’s potent,” says Dr. R. Robert Auger, a sleep specialist at the Mayo Center for Sleep Medicine in Rochester, Minnesota. It’s perfect for an overnight flight. Sonata (a cousin of Ambien, also by prescription) is a better choice for a slightly shorter flight. Over-the-counter medications like Unisom or Tylenol PM can certainly knock you out, but most people complain of a hangover-like effect when they don’t get the full eight hours of shut-eye. Also, “Over the long term, we build tolerance to them, and taking over-the-counter medicines often can hurt your liver,” adds Barone. 

Related: Confessions of a Fed-Up Flight Attendant: Attack of the Ambien Zombies (Part One)

sunlight for jet lag

Wake up early and take in some sunlight if you want to be energized instead of jet lagged. (Photo: Doug Berry/Vetta/Getty Images)

3. Make sunlight your friend for extra energy.

To keep yourself charged when you reach your final destination, get lots of natural light first thing in the early morning. “Sunlight is a strong time cue on our internal clock,” says Barone. 

internal clock helps jet lag

If you’re going on a quick business trip, plan your work around your own internal clock. (Photo: YinYang/E+/Getty Images)

4. Schedule your days around your internal clock.

For short trips, Dr. Susheel Patil, a sleep-medicine physician at the Sleep Disorders Center at Johns Hopkins University, recommends not adjusting your sleep patterns at all, but rather scheduling meetings or activities when you’re at your most alert. “Let’s say I go from Maryland to California for a few days on a business trip,” he says. “When you go west, you will wake up early. So if you’re used to getting up at 6 a.m. EST, you will be waking up at 3 a.m. Do all your work in those morning hours, then have your meetings and go to bed around 8 p.m.” You’re basically staying on your own time zone. When going east, which is harder because you lose rather than gain time, the doctor recommends choosing departures that match your natural bedtime.

Caffeine for jet lag

Tired from traveling? Caffeine can give you a temporary boost. (Photo: CZQS200/STS/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

5. When all else fails, suck it up.  

Many sleep specialists say it’s best just to suffer through a long flight for a quick trip and not bother adjusting anything — you’ll be home before you’re fully acclimated anyway. Sunlight and coffee will do what quality sleep cannot, and melatonin can help shove you off to la-la land in the evening.

Related: British Airways Testing “Happiness Blanket” to Help You Sleep Better on Flights

Istanbul has strong Turkish coffee

Thank goodness Istanbul has strong Turkish coffee! (Photo: silverjohn/iStock/Thinkstock)

As for me? I’m with Dr. Auger. As soon as I’m clear of JFK, I’ll pop 5 mg of Ambien, put in my earplugs, and strap on my sleep mask. When I awaken, I’ll be in Istanbul, where gallons of Turkish coffee await.

WATCH: 10 Simple Things to Make Jet Lag a Thing of the Past

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