“Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight,” the captain reels off as we push backward. Come again? The ever-shrinking seat, disappearing legroom and crowded planes these days make it nearly impossible to do any of those things. Sometimes it seems the only way to “enjoy” a flight is to sleep away the time. And if you’re not one of those fortunate few who can drift off at will, swallowing a few sleeping pills on the plane may seem like the answer. However, sleep aids can have side effects that outweigh the extra shut-eye. Here’s what you should know about some common medications.
Ambien or Ambien CR?
Ambien (zolpidem) is among the most popular — and potent — sleeping pills for travel. Classified as a sedative-hypnotic drug, Ambien works by slowing down your brain, making it easier for you to fall asleep. It comes in two forms, Ambien and Ambien CR (controlled release), both of which require a prescription. The first dissolves quickly and will put you to sleep within 30 minutes with effects lasting four to eight hours. The second dissolves more slowly, helping to keep you asleep for a solid eight hours. If you’re looking to get knocked out, Ambien will do the trick. Some users, however, find that it works too well. Ambien can lead to some embarrassing situations when you’re airborne, including sleepwalking, drooling on your neighbor’s shoulder, memory loss and confusion. And you won’t want to take either form of Ambien on a short flight. Importantly, these drugs should not be taken without a prescription (your own!), and they should never be mixed with alcohol. Doing these could result in an Ambien addiction which requires treatment.
Other Sleep Medications
Lunesta (eszopiclone) and Sonata (zaleplon) are other well-known prescription sleeping pills for travel. They act quickly, but won’t keep you asleep as long as Ambien CR. Sonata is especially recommended for those on flights of only five to six hours. Another option for travelers is an over-the-counter sleep aid such as Unisom, ZZzQuil, Sominex and others, although these medications can have a hangover effect, making you feel groggy upon awakening. Rather than taking sleeping pills on a plane, some travelers rely on alcohol to help them get some shut-eye, but alcohol works for only a short time, then actually disturbs sleep. It is also a diuretic, which can exacerbate the dehydration that affects airline passengers.
The recommended Ambien dosage is 5 mg for women and either 5 mg or 10 mg for men, which should be taken right before you’re ready to fall asleep. For the extended-release formulation, the recommended dose is 6.25 mg for women and either 6.25 mg or 12.5 mg for men. The higher-end dose can be used by both women and men if the lower dose is not effective. (The recommended starting dose for Lunesta is 1 mg. For Sonata, a 10-mg dose is standard.) And be sure to do a test run of your sleep medication before your flight so you’ll get a feel for how you’ll react. Taking Ambien or any hypnotic drug for the first time when airborne is a bad idea.
The Natural Approach
The hormone melatonin occurs naturally in the body, signaling us that it’s time to sleep. Taking an extra dose can help induce slumber. What’s more, melatonin has been found to decrease jet lag if taken close to your bedtime at your final destination. Typical doses used to help with sleep and/or jet lag range from 0.3 mg to 5 mg. An herbal supplement called valerian root was found in a study review to help people fall asleep faster and improve sleep quality, but its effect was felt only over time, meaning you’ll need to take it every night for about two weeks before relying on it on a plane. People typically take 400 milligrams to 900 milligrams of valerian root to help them nod off, but you shouldn’t use valerian root for more than a month without first talking to your doctor.