Avoid Jet Lag By Learning How to Sleep Anytime, Anywhere

We don’t need to tell you that, for a long list of reasons, getting a good night’s sleep is essential. But it’s one thing to know that. It’s another matter to actually be able to fall asleep when you want or need to. With a little help from some of the world’s most adept sleepers — including military personnel, frequent travelers, and the Japanese (who master the cultural art of inemuri from an early age) — here are of our favorite tips for learning to fall asleep anywhere, anytime.

Stay Properly Hydrated

Air travel saps your body of water like no other zero-effort activity. Drink even more water than you think you need on every flight. It might seem like a pain, especially when so many airlines are stingy with the bottled water. However, if you ask nicely, they’ll give you an entire bottle. While you’re at it, skip any dehydrating refreshments — namely coffee or anything caffeinated.

beverage cart
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Skip the Booze

The building blocks for a good night’s sleep start with some well-known but rarely followed pieces of advice. First off, skip the booze. This might seem obvious but it’s critical, particularly when jet lag is an issue. This can prove difficult on long-haul flights when the bourbon flows like water and you can no longer stave off that crushing boredom with yet another Matthew McConaughey rom-com. But trust us, it’s worth it.

Some folks claim they sleep like a baby after an all-night bender. While it’s true that alcohol can help you fall asleep, science has shown that it’s never a deep, restful sleep that leaves you refreshed and energized when you wake up. For countless others, alcohol is a surefire recipe for a fitful night of tossing and turning. Either way, alcohol is bad, mmmkay?

Be Careful with Sleep Aids

Use sleep aids — even natural, over-the-counter options — with care. Like alcohol, these will often help you get to sleep, but you may be “knocking yourself out” more than “getting a decent rest.” This is especially true with hardcore prescription varieties like Xanax or Ambien. Many can compound the issues of sleeplessness and jet lag causing nausea, headaches, and fatigue. Long periods of extreme immobility like those induced by the above drugs can also threaten travelers with deep vein thrombosis (DVT),a potentially life-threatening condition involving blood clots forming within the body’s deep veins.

man sleeping on plane
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Melatonin is a natural, softer alternative to prescription meds. It’s a substance naturally produced by the human body, and most people tolerate it well in small doses (start with 0.5 milligrams and work your way up to a maximum of 5 milligrams if need be) to both help them sleep and adjust to a new time zone.

Eat Smart, Well-Timed Meals

Digestion is among the most labor-intensive processes the human body goes through on a daily basis. Timing your meals can make a surprising impact on your quality of sleep, especially while traveling. In some cases like international trips, this can involve planning a few days in advance. Start eating lighter, balanced meals closer to the times that align with your future destination. Doing this for even two days before your trip can help jumpstart your body into adjusting to a new time zone.

man eating sandwich on plane
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Relax Your Body

In the world of good sleep, the above tips are table stakes. Once you’ve dialed these in and you’re physically set up to catch some zzzs, it’s time to relax your body. For that, we look to Naval Ensign Bud Winter, a top-tier track and football coach who worked with the U.S. military to develop field-tested techniques for relaxation and sleep. This program was designed and tested exclusively on combat pilots who needed a strategy to sleep anywhere, even under the most stressful conditions. Winter ultimately used the same techniques to coach his team of high-level track stars who would go on to break nearly 40 world records.

In a write-up for his book Relax & Win, The Art of Manliness condenses his advice like so:

“Sit back in your chairs and put your feet flat on the deck. Knees apart, your hands limp on the inside of your lap. Now, close your eyes and drop your chin until it rests on your chest.

Let’s breathe slowly, deeply, and regularly. Take all the wrinkles out of your forehead. Relax your scalp. Just let go. Now let your jaw sag-g-g. Let it drop open. Now relax the rest of your face muscles. Get the brook trout look on your face. Even relax your tongue and lips. Just let them go loose. Breathe slowly.

Now, let’s go after the eight muscles that control your eyes. Let them go limp in their sockets. No focus, just let them go limp. Breathe slowly.

Now drop your shoulders as low as they will go. You think that they are low, but let them go more.  Did you feel the muscles in the back of your neck go limp? When you think you are really relaxed, let them go even more.

Now, let’s relax your chest. Take a deep breath. Hold it. Exhale and blow out all your tensions. Just let your chest collapse. Let it sag-g-g. Imagine you are a big, heavy blob on the chair, a jellyfish. Breathe slowly. When you exhale, release more and more of your tensions.

Let’s go after your arms. Talk directly to your arm muscles. First, talk to your right bicep. Tell it to relax, go limp. Do the same to your right forearm. Now to the right hand and fingers. Your arm should feel like a dead weight on your leg. Repeat the relaxation process with your left arm. Breathe slowly.

Your entire upper body has been exposed to relaxation and a warm, pleasant feeling comes over you. You feel good. A sense of well-being invades your body.

Now for your lower body. Talk to your right thigh muscles. Let them go to a dead weight on the chair. Let the meat hang on the bones. Go through the same routine for the right calf muscles. Then all the muscles of your right ankle and foot. Tell yourself that your right leg has no bones in it. It is just a flabby, heavy weight on the deck. Repeat the process with your left thigh, calf, ankle, and foot.

At present you are all relaxed physically, or think you are. For a little insurance, let’s take three deep breaths and when you let them out, blow out all the remaining tensions, one . . . whoosh, two . . . whoosh, three . . . whoosh.”

Relax Your Mind

Once your body feels as loose as possible, it’s time to focus on your mental state. Winter contended that, if you’re able to fully clear your mind for just 10 seconds, you’ll easily be ready to fall asleep. This comes from visualizing images of stillness and tranquility. The exact image(s) are likely to be different for everyone. But he recommends starting with imagining yourself floating peacefully in a canoe in the middle of a calm alpine lake. You’re looking upward at a clear sky dotted with just a handful of clouds. Keep focusing on this image for as long as possible without allowing any other memories, passing thoughts, or sensory input to creep in.

how to avoid jet lag sleeping on plane airport paddling a canoe during sunrise

If you can successfully hold this for ten seconds, you should be well on your way to snoozing. If all else fails, Winter recommends finding a mantra to override all other thoughts. Something like “Don’t think … don’t think … don’t think …” is a good starting point. The key is not in the words themselves but in giving your mind something on which to focus and drown out that constant chatter of thoughts.

It’s worth noting that these physical and mental relaxation techniques require practice to develop. Don’t expect it to work the very first time. But, try it on the subway or on your next flight (when you’re a captive audience with nothing better to do), and you should be able to master them in no time.

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