Between sitting in the most uncomfortable seats designed by man, breathing recirculated air for multiple hours, being surrounded by strangers, and being interrupted by exceptionally loud (and always shockingly long) announcements over the cabin speakers, it’s not hard to understand why sleeping on a flight doesn’t come easily for most.
That’s why people sometimes resort to medication—or cocktails of medications, for that matter—to fall asleep. According to a survey from Expedia, 15 percent of travelers “always or sometimes” use medication to help them asleep while flying. And while we understand that getting some shut-eye on your long-haul trip between time zones or that pre-meeting red eye is important, it’s probably not worth the risks of dehydration, prolonged grogginess, and possibly getting a blood clot. And it’s certainly not worth the risk of becoming a sleepwalking flight risk, also known as an “Ambien zombie” to flight attendants.
That’s why we found the scientifically proven best (and safest) ways to ensure that you can get quality sleep while you’re up in the air.
Whether you’re for or against wearing socks to bed, the rules (and comfort levels) all change when you’re crammed into an airplane—and having warm feet can be the difference between catching some shut-eye and showing up to your destination dragging your feet. A study in the Journal of Physiological Anthropology found that wearing socks while sleeping allowed participants to experience 7.6 percent higher sleep efficiency, 7.5 times fewer sleep awakenings, and 32 more minutes of sleep. We like Smartwool’s merino wool, nonbinding, pressure-free crew socks for their bare-foot feel and ability to stay stink-free.
Non-Binding Pressure Free Triangle Crew Socks ($23)
According to the National Sleep Foundation, eating certain foods before trying to fall asleep can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. One of the best presleep snacks you can eat is fruit, which is incredibly convenient considering how easy it is to pack into your carry-on. Tart cherries, bananas, and oranges all have high levels of natural melatonin in them—while cherries, prunes, raisins, and plums are rich in antioxidants, which have shown to aid with counteracting the oxidative stress caused by a sleep disorder. For those who suffer from insomnia (on a flight or otherwise) the Foundation recommends eating two kiwis before sleeping. This trick can increase your sleep duration by an hour over the course of a month.
Cover your eyes
Because your body relies on darkness to signal its natural release of melatonin, light creeping in from windows or shining down from overhead lights can delay your body’s ability to get to sleep. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that exposure to light shortened the body’s ability to release and utilize natural melatonin by about 90 minutes—meaning you could get gypped 1.5 hours of sleep. So dim the lights, close the window, put your phone away, and invest in a good eye mask. During a weeklong trip to Alaska in the summertime (when it’s light more than 19 hours a day), this contoured eye mask helped sleep come easily for one Fast Company staffer. Bonus points because the concave shape allows your eyes to naturally blink and flutter.
Nidra Dreams Eye Mask ($12)
Let the right noise in
According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, a cruising plane emits 85 decibels of sound—that’s the equivalent of listening to a vacuum running for the entire duration of your flight. Protect your ears by putting some headphones on (our current favorites are here) and tuning into some pink noise. It’s similar to white noise, but it tends to be on the lower end of the bass spectrum and fades in and out with similar patterns—like beach waves or steady rainfall, for example. A study published in the journal Front Neurology found that tuning in to pink noise decreased the time it took for participants to fall asleep by 38 percent. You can easily experiment with different types of pink noise with the Noisli app—which allows you to layer different types of pink noise at different volumes.
Noisli app ($2)
Pack a pillow
What’s more awkward than lugging a neck pillow through security? Well, nodding off and jerking your head back into consciousness every 10 seconds on a plane because your head isn’t properly supported. Grab a supportive, curved travel pillow that you can easily pack down and carry with you, like the TRTL Pillow Plus. Fast Company editors swear by this collar-like pillow to get you comfortably through even the longest flights. The conical shape is perfect according to research published in Human Factors and Ergonomics, which found that a U-shaped pillow wrapped around the head and that supports the chin provided the least head movement and led to less discomfort during sleep.
TRTL Pillow Plus ($60)
Turns out, the arm rest is worth fighting over. According to a study published in the Orthopedic Clinics of North America, armrests aid in alleviating the pressure that sleeping in an upright position can place on your spine. In turn, this pressure on your compressed spine can cause a lot of discomfort, which often prevents you from falling—and staying—asleep. So place your forearms on the armrests, and try to practice good posture.
Smell the . . . lavender
A study from Wesleyan University found that lavender increased slow-wave sleep among participants. Translation: lavender increased users’ chances to fall into the type of very deep sleep that allows your heart rate to decrease and your muscles to relax. Saje makes a delicious lavender based roll-on essential oil that’s small enough for your carry-on and smells great lingering on your neck and wrists long after you’ve woken up.
Saje Sleep Well Restful Sleep Oil Blend Roll-On ($27)
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