Image Credit: NYT

Getting some shut-eye on a plane is a perennial challenge for travellers, but there are a few low-tech tricks that can make switching time zones and taking long-haul flights a little easier. David Hamer, director of the Travel Clinic at Boston Medical Center and a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University’s schools of Public Health and Medicine, shared some strategies for catching a few Z’s at 30,000 feet.

Adjust your bedtime before you go

Tweak your sleep schedule before your flight so when you land you will be more in sync with local time. “It’s pretty well established that resetting your biological clock one hour a day for each hour of a time difference is effective,” Hamer said.
For destinations where the time is five to seven hours earlier, move your bedtime up an hour earlier each night for a few nights before your trip. For example, retire at 11pm rather than midnight five days before departure, and the night before your flight try to get to bed around 7pm. That may sound early, but you’ll feel much better when you land. On destinations where the time is later, reverse the pattern by going to bed an hour later each night.

 It’s well established that resetting your biological clock one hour a day for each hour of a time difference is effective.”

 - DAVID HAMER | Professor of global health and medicine 

Eat and drink moderately while on-board

Some foods are thought to foster sleep, like trying to induce a “carb coma” by loading up on carbohydrates. “But there’s not much good data in the scientific literature to support it,” Hamer said. Instead of trying to eat specifically to get sleepy, just eat when you feel hungry. Try not to overeat, and avoid too much caffeine.

Act like a local after you land

“I try to set my sleep schedule to the local time zone as quickly as possible,” said Hamer. “On the first day I take a short nap, but try to stay awake as much as possible during daytime hours. I also try to eat at the same time of day as locals. Your body may say you are not hungry, but it’s important to try.”

Consider sleep aids carefully

“The jury is out,” Hamer said, on the wisdom of using medication on long flights to induce deep sleep for extended periods of time. “I don’t do it for a couple of reasons.” Some sleep aids, he explained, may compound the symptoms of jet lag like fatigue, nausea, headaches and poor concentration.
Being knocked out for long periods may also mean less mobility, which makes deep vein thrombosis a greater risk, and if there are unexpected disruptions or emergencies on the flight, travellers won’t be fully alert to react appropriately.

Get reliable advice

If you’re looking for more options, high-tech devices like “smart” sleep masks and headsets are on the market to try. Many use light, which has been proven to be an important factor to regulate sleep, Hamer said. But while some products may hold promise, there are relatively few rigorously designed studies that have evaluated them, he said.