The Science Behind Why It’s Hard to Sleep While Traveling (And What You Can Do About it)

If you’ve ever taken a long flight, train, bus, or car trip, you’ll know first hand that it can be difficult to sleep while traveling. At best a red eye flight is uncomfortable, while at worst it can mean being crammed between a snorer and someone making a lot of bathroom trips. While it’s never easy, we learned why sleeping while sitting up can be so difficult for some people, and some simple tricks you can try to make that travel a little easier on your body (and your sleep schedule.)

REM Cycles and Travel
Your body cycles through five different phases while you sleep, during the REM cycle, you are at your deepest and most rejuvenating period of sleep. Unfortunately, so is the rest of your body. During REM, the brain sends signals to the spinal cord to create temporary paralysis of your muscles, which causes you to lose muscle control. That means that if you’re sitting upright, you’ll sort of slump to the side during this portion of sleep. That’s why a lot of times if you’re sitting next to someone catching some good sleep on a flight, you may find them leaning (but hopefully not drooling) on your shoulder while they get their Z’s.

Unfortunately, this also means that it can be hard to reach the REM stage of sleep while your body is upright. The body is a connected thing, and your brain can often tell if it can’t relax the lower portion of your body due to seat constraints. That means that while you may be able to snooze for part of your flight, you may never be cycling down to the deepest, REM part of your sleep.

In-Air Solutions to the Sleep Problem

So what can you do? One easy fix is to grab a window seat. While conventional wisdom may say that an aisle seat is better for maximum leg room, a window seat while allow you to rest your head against the wall, relieving the pressure on your neck muscles. It also allows you the ability to control the amount of light coming in directly from the window, which is another significant factor in good sleep.

Leaning back your chair is another option. While this may feel a little invasive to the person behind you, if it’s the difference between a few hours of restful sleep or not, you can politely explain to them that you’re sorry for the inconvenience. If you’re feeling especially guilty, a small treat bag never hurt either. With your seat back, you can now relieve some of the tension in your lumbar and lower back, freeing you up, and allowing that deep sleep to come easier.

Try not to take any sleep aids heavier than melatonin, especially if you’re traveling by yourself. You may not be fully aware of how those medications can affect you, and it can be disorienting to wake up after traveling while you’re still groggy. When in doubt, the natural route is always better. Oh, and don’t forget your sleep mask! Happy traveling.