The Science Behind Why Sleeping on a Plane is So Challenging

by Conor
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sleeping on a plane

For many travelers, sleeping on a plane feels like an impossible dream. The unique environment of an airplane presents a myriad of challenges that can significantly hinder one’s ability to get restful sleep. Understanding why sleeping on a plane is so difficult involves delving into various scientific and environmental factors. This blog post explores these factors in detail, shedding light on the complexities of airplane sleep and providing evidence and examples to illustrate these challenges.


1. The Disruption of Circadian Rhythms

  • Circadian Misalignment: Our bodies are governed by circadian rhythms, internal clocks that dictate our sleep-wake cycles. Air travel, especially across time zones, leads to circadian misalignment, commonly known as jet lag. This disruption makes it hard for the body to adjust to new sleep patterns.
  • Example: A flight from New York to London crosses several time zones, causing a significant shift in daylight hours, which can throw off the traveler’s sleep cycle.

2. The Impact of Cabin Pressure and Altitude

  • Reduced Oxygen Levels: The cabin pressure in airplanes is lower than what most people are accustomed to at ground level. This leads to reduced oxygen saturation in the blood, which can make passengers feel more tired but paradoxically, can also make it harder to fall asleep.
  • Physiological Stress: A study published in the journal “Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine” showed that the lower oxygen levels and pressure in airplane cabins can induce physiological stress in the body, further impairing sleep quality.

3. Environmental Noise

  • Constant Noise: Airplane cabins are filled with constant, ambient noise from the engines, air conditioning systems, and other passengers. This noise can be disruptive to sleep. According to the World Health Organization, environmental noise above 40 decibels can disturb sleep.
  • Example: The hum of an airplane’s engine typically measures between 60 and 85 decibels, well above the threshold that can disrupt sleep.

4. Uncomfortable Seating and Limited Space

  • Ergonomic Challenges: Airplane seats are not designed for sleeping. Their limited recline and space can cause discomfort, making it difficult to find a relaxing position.
  • Risk of Deep Vein Thrombosis: Remaining in a cramped position for an extended period can also increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT). The CDC highlights the importance of periodically moving and stretching your legs, which can be challenging in the confined space of an airplane seat.

5. The Impact of Light Exposure

  • Artificial Lighting: Exposure to the artificial light in cabins can interfere with melatonin production, the hormone that regulates sleep. A study in the “Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism” found that exposure to light during usual hours of sleep suppresses melatonin levels.
  • Screen Time: The use of personal electronic devices emits blue light, which can further disrupt the body’s natural sleep-wake cycle.

6. Dry Cabin Air and Dehydration

  • Low Humidity Levels: Airplane cabins have low humidity levels, often below 20%, leading to dryness in the nose and throat. This can create discomfort and disrupt sleep.
  • Dehydration Effects: Dehydration can exacerbate feelings of tiredness but also negatively impact sleep quality. It’s recommended to stay hydrated, but balancing hydration with reduced bathroom breaks in a cramped space can be challenging.

7. Psychological Factors

  • Stress and Anxiety: For many, flying induces stress or anxiety, which can make relaxing and falling asleep difficult. A study in the “International Journal of Behavioral Medicine” found a link between travel-related stress and sleep disturbances.
  • Disruption of Routine: The unfamiliar environment and the disruption of normal bedtime routines can make it hard for passengers to relax and fall asleep.

Sleeping on a plane is challenging due to a combination of physiological, environmental, and psychological factors. From the disruption of circadian rhythms to the discomfort of seating, each aspect plays a role in diminishing sleep quality. While some factors are beyond our control, understanding them can help travellers better prepare and potentially mitigate some of these challenges for a more restful journey.

sleeping on plane

Ultimate Guide to Comfortable Sleep on Airplanes: Advanced Strategies and In-Depth Insights

Achieving comfortable sleep on an airplane is often a daunting challenge due to cramped spaces, constant noise, and fluctuating cabin conditions. This struggle can lead to fatigue and pronounced jet lag upon arrival. However, with a strategic approach and understanding of sleep science, you can overcome these barriers and enhance your chances of getting restful sleep during your flight.


Expanded Strategies for Sleeping on a Plane

  1. Mastering Cabin Temperature for Optimal Sleep
    • The science of sleep temperature is critical. Your body naturally cools down as you sleep, so maintaining a cooler temperature is conducive to better sleep. In addition to the aforementioned strategies, consider using thermal blankets provided by airlines, which are designed to help regulate body temperature.
  2. Advanced Insights into Wearing Bed Socks
    • The principle behind wearing bed socks extends beyond just warming your feet. It’s based on the concept of distal vasodilation, where warming the hands and feet widens blood vessels, thereby lowering core body temperature, a signal to the brain that it’s time for sleep.
  3. Deeper Understanding of Blue Light and Sleep
    • Delve into the science of melatonin, the sleep hormone disrupted by blue light. Explain how blue light affects the brain’s suprachiasmatic nucleus, the central clock that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. Recommend avoiding screen use at least an hour before attempting to sleep.
  4. Enhanced Light-Blocking Techniques
    • In addition to using eye masks, consider the use of light-blocking techniques such as adjusting the overhead air vents to direct airflow away from your face. This can create a more conducive environment for sleep.
  5. Pink Noise: A Deeper Dive
    • Explore the concept of pink noise in more depth. Discuss how the varying frequencies of pink noise can mimic the sounds of nature, providing a soothing effect that can enhance the depth and quality of sleep.
  1. Advanced Noise-Canceling Technology
    • Discuss the latest advancements in noise-canceling technology, such as headphones that adapt to the specific frequencies of airplane noise, providing a more peaceful sleep environment.
  2. Leg Positioning and Circulation: A Medical Perspective
    • Expand on the medical reasons behind avoiding crossed legs, such as the risk of DVT. Discuss the importance of periodic movement and stretching exercises, especially on long-haul flights.
  3. Optimizing Seat Recline for Sleep
    • Provide insights into the ergonomics of airplane seats and how to make the most of limited recline capabilities. Discuss the use of neck supports that can attach to the seat and provide better alignment for the spine.
  4. Lumbar Support: Beyond Basic Comfort
    • Delve into the anatomy of the spine and why supporting the lumbar region is crucial, especially in the seated position. Discuss alternatives to pillows, such as specialized lumbar support devices designed for travel.
  5. Neck Pillow Efficacy: Unpacking the Research
    • Provide a deeper analysis of the research on neck pillows, discussing the different types (inflatable, memory foam) and their respective benefits and drawbacks.
  6. Alcohol, Caffeine, and Sleep: A Biochemical Perspective
    • Explore the biochemical effects of alcohol and caffeine on the body and how they disrupt sleep cycles, emphasizing the importance of avoiding these substances before and during flights.
  7. Lavender Aromatherapy: Understanding the Science
    • Explain the neurological effects of lavender and how it interacts with the nervous system to promote relaxation and sleep.
  8. The Role of Diet in Sleep
    • Discuss the importance of avoiding heavy meals before sleep and focus on foods that promote sleep, such as those rich in tryptophan, magnesium, and potassium.
  9. Combating Low Humidity and Dry Air
    • Expand on the effects of low humidity on the respiratory system and skin, and provide tips for maintaining hydration, like avoiding diuretic beverages and using moisturizers.
  10. Mindfulness and Meditation: Techniques for Relaxation
    • Offer specific mindfulness exercises and meditation techniques that can be done in a seated position to help prepare the mind and body for sleep.

Additional Pre-Flight Preparation Tips

  • Selecting the Ideal Seat for Sleep
    • Provide detailed advice on seat selection, including the pros and cons of different positions in the cabin (front vs. back, aisle vs. window).
  • Pre-Flight Sleep Schedule Adjustment
    • Offer a detailed plan for adjusting your sleep schedule in the days leading up to the flight to minimize jet lag.
  • Pre-Flight Relaxation and Exercise
    • Suggest specific types of exercises that are beneficial before a flight, such as yoga or light stretching, to prepare the body for prolonged sitting.

While sleeping on a plane poses unique challenges, understanding and applying these in-depth strategies can significantly improve your sleep quality during air travel. With the right preparation and approach, restful sleep on a plane is achievable, ensuring you arrive at your destination feeling refreshed and alert.

Finding Comfort in the Clouds: Best Positions for Sleeping on a Plane

For many travelers, catching some shut-eye on a plane is as elusive as a dream. However, with the right strategies and knowledge about the best positions to sleep in, you can transform your next flight into a restful experience. This blog post explores the most effective sleeping positions on a plane, taking into account the constraints of space and the need for maintaining health and comfort during your journey.


1. The Reclined Seat Position

  • The Basics: Reclining your seat slightly can help in aligning your spine and reducing pressure on your lower back. The American Chiropractic Association recommends a recline of about 100 to 110 degrees to minimize lower back strain.
  • Tips for Comfort: Use a pillow or a rolled-up blanket for additional lumbar support. This can prevent lower back pain, a common issue during long flights.

2. The Window Lean

  • Ideal for Side Sleepers: If you’re a side sleeper, a window seat is your best bet. You can lean against the window side, providing support for your head and neck.
  • Making It Work: Use a soft pillow or a folded blanket against the window to create a cushioned surface. This helps in avoiding neck strain and ensures a more comfortable rest.

3. The Forward Lean

  • For Restricted Spaces: In situations where reclining isn’t an option, leaning forward onto the tray table can be a makeshift solution. This position can be helpful if you’re in a middle or aisle seat with limited reclining space.
  • How to Do It Right: Place a pillow or a folded sweater on the tray table to create a soft surface to rest your head and arms. This can help in reducing strain on your back and neck.

4. The Cross-Legged Sit

  • For Short Naps: Sitting upright with your legs crossed (if space permits) can be a comfortable position for short naps. This position can help in maintaining blood flow and reducing the risk of DVT (Deep Vein Thrombosis).
  • Enhancing Comfort: Use a neck pillow to support your head and prevent it from bobbing forward or sideways.

5. The Half-Seated Curl

  • Maximizing Limited Space: If you’re in a window seat, you can try curling up in a semi-fetal position. This involves bringing your knees up slightly and leaning against the window.
  • Comfort Tips: Place a pillow or blanket behind your back for support. Make sure to switch sides occasionally to avoid stiffness.

6. The Supported Back Lean

  • For Back Sleepers: If you prefer sleeping on your back, lean back in your seat with a pillow behind your head. Keep your feet flat on the floor to maintain circulation.
  • Enhancing the Position: Use a small pillow or a rolled-up item under your knees to reduce strain on your lower back.

Additional Tips for Comfortable Sleep on a Plane

  • Hydration is Key: Stay hydrated, but avoid excessive fluids that can lead to frequent bathroom trips.
  • Use of Sleep Accessories: Eye masks, earplugs, or noise-canceling headphones can significantly enhance your ability to sleep in these positions.
  • Frequent Movement: Regardless of your sleeping position, make sure to move or stretch periodically to maintain good blood circulation.

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