Flying east (North & South America) Start getting up earlier by 30 to 60 minutes and do this progressively for four to six days before your flight. By getting up earlier, you are likely to be sleepier earlier at night, which is helpful when flying east. Get up early on the morning of your flight and do some exercise outside. Early morning light is useful and suppresses melatonin (sleep hormone). After 10am, wear sunglasses until you arrive at the airport. Once onboard the flight, keep your watch on Sydney time, but when travelling in this direction, taking melatonin (as per the directions on the label) onboard the flight may help you to fall asleep more easily.
Melatonin: Is useful when flying east only as it helps to advance sleep onset and is generally not effective when flying west. Melatonin 3mgs from a pharmacist is useful for jet lag but not necessarily for other sleep disorders.
Timing of light exposure: When onboard the aircraft, if you want to stay up later and delay your sleep, use as much light as you can, early in the flight. If you are wishing to advance your sleep (make it happen earlier), then reduce your exposure to light and in particular, blue light from iPads and smart phones. If you still want to use these devices, then consider buying amber glasses to use on the flight. Otherwise, when you are ready to sleep then use your eye pads.
Food: Generally we are better having smaller meals on a plane, as you are sitting for a large proportion of your flight and large meals tend to make you feel uncomfortable. High protein foods such as cheese can be alerting, whereas carbohydrate meals tend to increase sleepiness.
Alcohol: It may help to increase sleepiness and relaxation for sleep onset. but it tends to make your sleep more fragmented (lighter and more easily woken). which is a problem on long flights. For some individuals, alcohol may have a more potent effect at altitude so there are always safety issues to be considered.
Caffeinated products: These can have a half-life (time taken to be excreted from your body) of up to 8 hours. It is important to reduce or avoid caffeine onboard the aircraft.
Comfort onboard: Consider taking neck and head support with you. Also, wear loose, comfortable clothing and take deodorant, moisturiser and a toothbrush in your carry-on luggage. Take a regular walk up and down the aisle and stretch your upper leg muscles and calf muscles. Keep your water intake up, as it's easy to become dehydrated on a long flight.
Reduce your expectations of the quality of your sleep: You are on a plane with a lot of people – some who are noisy and some travelling with young children. Work on not concentrating on what may be frustrating and see if you can just be pleased you are going somewhere different and what you have to look forward to at the end of the journey. See if you can just 'let go' and put earplugs in, if needed. You may surprise yourself and sleep or just have a nap or doze. It all helps.
On arrival: Do your best to adjust to the local time zone in terms of meal times. If you arrive early in the morning, it may be useful to have a short nap. But make sure you set your alarm to avoid sleeping more than a couple of hours, or you may suffer from woolly head syndrome or sleep inertia. Exercise in the new time zone is also important and will increase alertness, as long as it is not too close to bed time in your new time zone.
Delwyn Bartlett is a sleep psychologist at the Woolcock Institute of Medical Research