Last year, I was living in Germany and working for US companies, which kept me up until the early morning and threw off my circadian rhythm to the point that I couldn’t fall asleep before 5 am if I tried. Then I got on a plane to Mexico around noon one day and slept for almost the entire 11-hour flight. Now I know that if I ever need to break a cycle of insomnia, I can do it on my next plane ride. My realization that planes knock me out has stood the test of multiple trips.
“Even if it's a two-hour flight in the morning and I just woke up, I fall asleep,” says Kenny Colvin, a 28-year-old creative director based in New York City and Tokyo, who’s also noticed this benefit of flying.
“The moment I book my flight, I automatically think about the beautiful nap that I’m about to have,” says Francesca Morgan, a 25-year-old publicist in Miami.
“It’s amazing how many people will say they can't fall asleep in a public place, in a meeting, watching TV, or reading books, but if you get them on a plane, they do fall asleep,” says W. Christopher Winter, a Virginia-based sleep medicine specialist and author of The Sleep Solution. For people who might have difficulty sleeping or who don't nap, being on a plane is sometimes a happy exception, he adds.
Then there are people with the exact opposite experience. “I used to go to college in San Diego and would fly redeyes home to New York, and felt like the only one awake on the plane even when I was tired,” says AnnaLee Barclay, a 23-year-old photographer in New York. “It probably keeps me awake knowing that I'm not stationary…I also find it difficult to sleep sitting up.”
Susannah Chen, a 36-year-old writer in San Francisco, tells me she’s never slept soundly on a plane, even when she’s in a seat that reclines all the way to mimic a bed. “After a sleepless 14-hour flight to Taiwan in first class, I concluded that it has to do with the dryness of the air on planes,” she says. “I feel so thirsty that I constantly have to be drinking water, which makes me constantly have to get up to go to the bathroom, which keeps me from getting any solid sleep.”
Why is it that so many people doze off easily on planes, despite the uncomfortable seating arrangements, the noise, the motion, and all the people? And how come other people can’t catch a wink of sleep even if they’re lying down at 180 degrees in first class?
One possible explanation: Workaholics like myself sleep well on planes because being in the air closes you off from the outside world’s distractions. I like to keep myself occupied, so I’ll usually work at the beginning of a flight, but once my back can’t take anymore leaning over the tray table, I’ll just sit there and relax, which usually means I’ll end up sleeping. “Individuals are forced into sitting there and doing nothing,” Winter says. “When you're forced to be inactive for a period of time, that does facilitate sleepiness.”
Also, certain people respond more amicably to the white noise of the plane engine. “The constant ‘shh’ of the plane might help to relax some people,” Winter says. Adding to this atmosphere are the dim lighting and cool temperature of the plane, which mimic the nighttime lighting and air we’re used to falling asleep in. The plane’s motion might actually help some people sleep rather than distract them, Winter adds, referring to the light motion that’s similar to the rocking that helps children sleep.
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There's also the reality that a lot of us have gotten up early to catch a flight or stayed up late to pack, so we'll crash by the time we get on the plane, Winter points out. People who are generally sleep-deprived or have a sleep disorder like sleep apnea that disrupts their nighttime sleep may have an easier time sleeping on planes simply because they’re more tired, Nowakowski says.
If someone has insomnia, a plane might provide a welcome break from their bedroom, which they may associate with tossing and turning, Nowakowski says. “Many times, anxiety and worry can go along with insomnia, but for some, they may find it relaxing to be on a plane and to have someone else in control,” she explains. “Combined with white noise, it may be ideal for certain individuals to actually fall asleep—despite how uncomfortable planes can be. A plane ride may feel like a mini-vacation to some to catch up on their sleep for a few hours.”
The more common scenario, though, is the one where a person finds it nearly impossible to fall asleep on planes. This one’s easy to understand. People learn to fall asleep based on established routines, so when usual triggers like their own bed aren’t present, they may have more trouble, says Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. “Some people take very well to conditioning,” he explains. “When they're home, where their body wants and is conditioned to sleep, they fall asleep right away. What a superpower.” But like all things, he says, this can come at a cost. If someone is too well-trained into their sleep cues, when those cues are missing—say, on the road or a plane—then sleep can be elusive. Their brains hold out for cues that aren't coming.
Others may have trouble sleeping through flights because they’ve either convinced themselves they can’t sleep on planes or they put pressure on themselves to fall asleep, both of which can stress them out, Winter says. If this is you, Winter suggests setting a goal of closing your eyes and relaxing for half an hour without even thinking about sleep.
Anxious travelers may have trouble sleeping on flights as well, since anxiety causes hyperarousal (which makes a person more sensitive to stimuli) that impedes sleep, Nowakowski tells me. Those who find it scary to give up control might find that anxiety stops them from sleeping on planes. And then of course there are basic anatomical differences: Larger people will have more trouble getting comfortable in planes’ cramped seating, Winter points out.
If you're the non-sleeping type and want to try to becoming a plane napper, here's some advice: “Waking early and avoiding naps can help to increase your body’s desire or drive for sleep when the environment permits,” Smarr says. It also might help to bring your pajamas or pillow (if you're not self-conscious about whipping these things out), so you have those familiar sleep triggers. Other sleep-friendly items to pack in your carry-on bag include a sleep mask, earplugs, a pillow designed for neck support while you travel (or forehead padding if you plan to lean forward), and warm clothes or a blanket, he adds. If dozing off on the flight is your priority, the price of a nonstop flight may be worth the chance to sleep uninterrupted.
Some travelers turn to sleeping pills or alcohol to get better sleep on planes, but you should use these with caution, Nowakowski says. Alcohol may make you conk out in the moment, but it could lead to insomnia after you land, and it may cause you to wake up to use the bathroom on the plane. Benadryl knocks some people out, but it can also leave you groggy and dehydrated. Ambien can help with this as well, but it can make some people sleepwalk and do things you don’t remember. If you’re going to use any of these drugs, Nowakowski recommends at least testing them out beforehand in a more predictable, controlled environment.
If you can’t fall asleep on planes, though, don’t sweat it, Nowakowski says. By staying up, you could actually be helping yourself sleep the next night, especially if you’re dealing with the challenge of switching time zones. “You cannot force sleep,” she says. “Your goal should be to simply relax and enjoy the plane ride the best you can. Sleep will either come or it won't, and that’s okay.”
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