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Sleep hacks for your overnight flight

National Geographic logo National Geographic 11/14/2018 Hannah Sheinberg
a large room: Seat-back devices light up the cabin of an airplane on a nighttime flight from the Bahamas to New York City. © Photograph by Wasim Choudhury Seat-back devices light up the cabin of an airplane on a nighttime flight from the Bahamas to New York City.

Arianna Huffington doesn’t lose much sleep. In her new book, The Sleep Revolution, the former president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post advocates for frequent dozing off, and also offers tips for time zone-crossing travelers beyond just counting sheep. “Because I travel so much, I’ve learned over time that a little preparation goes a long way,” she says. Here Huffington tells us how it’s possible to get a good night’s rest on a red-eye flight—even when you’re sitting upright, wrapped in a threadbare, airline-provided blanket, and being used as your neighbor’s pillow.

Arianna Huffington standing in front of a building: Arianna Huffington takes part in a ceremony at the Empire State Building in 2015, to commemorate the Huffington Post's 10-year anniversary. © Photograph by Damon Dahlen, Huffington Post Arianna Huffington takes part in a ceremony at the Empire State Building in 2015, to commemorate the Huffington Post's 10-year anniversary.

Get Into Gear

I have sleeping gear permanently packed in my carry-on: an eye mask, earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, herbal teas (like lavender and licorice), and my favorite neck pillow. I also pack my own snacks—salt-free almonds and walnuts, vegetables, and goat cheese and turkey in a container with an ice pack.

Mobile Motivator

Some apps aim to help you adjust to different time zones. Entrain, an app connecting users to sleep schedules developed by University of Michigan researchers, relies on math and data analysis to tell users how and when to utilize light so they can more quickly shift their sleep cycle in a new location. There’s also Re-Timer, which is a headpiece that can be worn by travelers over the eyes. It exposes the wearer to a simulation of outdoor light, which, when used in the morning, can help reset our body clock so that we can fall asleep at the right time.

Tune Out

The most important thing is to relax and disconnect from your surroundings so you can surrender to sleep. I have my 12 favorite meditations I play when I want to relax and sleep on a plane—there are at least two of them that I've never heard to the end because they always put me to sleep!

Prep Work

Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, says that a common mistake with red-eyes is starting them off tired: “People are usually running around before their trip, so they tend to be sleep deprived when they set foot on the plane.” Taking a nap the day before can also be really helpful.

Sniff Around

I’m an advocate of herbal sleep aids such as lavender or valerian root. Interior designer Michael Smith, who spends a large part of his life on planes, told me he sprays orange essential oil on the T-shirt he will sleep in that night. He finds the scent calms his mind and also has a humidifying effect. The lesson here is that it is important to experiment. And the mere fact that you’re taking any deliberate action to improve your sleep means that you likely will sleep better.

Soft Landing

As Betty Thesky, the author of Betty in the Sky With a Suitcase, wisely warned, it helps to set the sleep bar low. “Passengers will often have unrealistic expectations on an all-night flight,” she says. “They think, ‘I’ll sleep on the plane and be ready to hit the ground running’ when they land at their destination many time zones away.” But given that you don’t know how rested you will be when you land, it’s best to allow time for some real sleep before you schedule meetings or hit the tourist spots.

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