Ever woken up with a string of drool connecting your lips to a stranger’s shoulder? Me neither — though I would suffer the indignity in a heartbeat if it meant pressing fast forward on an Economy red-eye. That’s in theory, of course.
Problem is, after hearing the FDA alerts and seeing friends get hooked on sleeping pills, up until now I’ve steered clear of artificial slumber. So when I travel, while my partner sleeps like a (snoring) princess, I can be found cursing my neighbour’s epileptic-taste in movies and studiously shutting my eyes only to develop vertigo every time I reach the edge of sleep.
It turns out I’m not alone. Around one in three people have at least mild insomnia — a condition made worse by unusual circumstances like being launched 30,000ft into the stratosphere. Factor in the extortionate business class prices and it’s easy to see why so many people resort to sleeping tablets (roughly $15 a pill, for the strong kind), rather than paying $1,000 to $2,000 extra for a lie-flat seat.
There are a number of medical concerns one should understand, however, before smugly heading down the pharmacy, which is why we got in touch with Stephen Massey, a GP from Bondi Doctors.
According to Stephen, sleepless travellers have four different options when it comes to getting some big Z’s on the plane.
Ambien (strong prescription drug)
Ambien (Stilnox, if you’re in Australia) is one of the most effective ways to knock yourself out. But swallow with care; according to Stephen, “Ambien is a sleeping tablet that has been associated with abnormal behaviours such as sleepwalking and amnesia — so would be risky using it for the first time on a plane.”
“I’ve heard many stories of people cleaning the house, internet shopping etc. and having no recollection.”
If you are on a short-haul flight then this one is a no go, as it may leave you groggy for hours afterwards. However, if you have used it before, feel you really need it, have discussed it with your doctor, and are on a long haul flight, Ambien or Stilnox can be a great option (although if you are someone who is already at risk of DVT, this could heighten your chances, as you will inevitably move around less if you are fast asleep).
Temazepam (sedating sleeping tablet)
According to Stephen, Temazepam “is a more traditional sedating sleeping tablet” the main risk of which is oversedation — “particularly if combined with other sedatives such as alcohol.” So remember: if you are planning on knocking back one of these, steer clear of the beer.
Also, in the same way as Ambien, if you take a Temazepam and it actually works, you are putting yourself at a higher risk of DVT as a person who gets up and walks around every couple of hours. So weigh up how important this sleep really is to you, and assess whether you are a person who is already at risk of DVT, before opening the pack.
While anyone with a serious sleep issue will probably need something stronger to be effective, for others with more of a mental block to sleeping on a flight, Melatonin is a natural supplement that can help with sleep. Although the scientific jury is still out as to whether Melatonin works because of the placebo effect or because of biochemistry, either way it carries fewer risks than the stronger stuff.
Melatonin also allegedly helps with jetlag, with some people swearing by the technique of taking it at the time you plan to go to bed in the time zone you are travelling to for a couple of nights before you travel. This supposedly sets your body’s clock to your new time zone and allows you to make the transition seamlessly.
If you are a nervous flyer, don’t normally have sleep issues, but struggle in unfamiliar environments, short-acting anti-anxiety medication (always to be discussed with — and sourced from — your doctor) can be what you need to get you over the line into the world of dreams, but not keep you there for an unnatural amount of time.
And if the tablets don’t work?
“Feeling drowsy but being unable to fall asleep is quite common,” Stephen said. “I suspect this is due to taking sleeping tablet out of sleep cycle. ie trying to fall asleep when not tired.”
“The bodies natural hormones that control sleep and waking combat the effects of the sleeping tablet creating the effect you describe.”
“Spending too long asleep in a plane seat increases the risk of DVT,” Stephen told us, so it is important to “take precautions such as getting up and walking around every few hours and staying hydrated” in the hours that you are not asleep (and if you are already at risk of DVT, potentially avoiding sleeping for too long — which may also involve not using sleeping tablets — at all).
The biggest takeaway though is to remember never to mix medications, and never to drink alcohol if you are going to be taking sleeping pills or tablets.