An Expert Tells Us Why This Common Tip For Sleeping On A Plane Is Actually Dangerous

Some people seem to have a natural knack for falling asleep on planes. The small seats, dry cabin air, and crying babies somehow don't deter them from squeezing in their regular eight hours of shut-eye. For the rest of us, though, snoozing on a plane can feel nearly impossible.

Look around at the travelers waiting for their flights and you'll find a number of sleep aids in various forms: neck pillows, noise-canceling headphones, and comfy clothes that almost resemble pajamas. But for some fliers, their chosen remedy is an easy-to-hide sleeping pill tucked away in a pocket of their carry-on bag. One survey by insurance comparison website (via The Senior) revealed that 65% of Australian respondents who admitted to taking sleeping pills during long flights said they did so because of the uncomfortable seats. Another 41% revealed they take sleeping medication to arrive at their destination well-rested.

However, sleeping pills can do more harm than good when flying, according to experts. Dr. Jason Singh, Chief Medical Officer and Physician at One Oak Medical, tells us in an exclusive interview about the hidden dangers of prescribed sleep aids — and safer ways to catch some Zs during your next flight.

You might feel worse after popping a sleeping pill on a plane

In many countries, sleeping pills, such as Ambien and Lunesta, are available with a prescription from a medical professional. However, just because doctors are authorizing these medications doesn't mean they're always safe to use — especially when 30,000 feet in the air.

As Dr. Jason Singh exclusively tells Explore, high altitudes can exacerbate medication side effects. "Sleeping pills, especially those in a class of sedative-hypnotics like benzodiazepines or non-benzodiazepine receptor agonists (i.e. Zolpidem/Ambien) can have adverse effects, especially at high altitudes," Dr. Singh explains. This is the result of reduced cabin pressure, which can worsen the drowsiness, poor motor skills, and impaired judgment associated with sleeping pills. In some cases, this can lead to embarrassing faux pas like falling asleep on your seatmate or sleepwalking down the aisles. Even worse, it could prevent you from responding appropriately during an emergency or plane evacuation.

Dr. Singh also says that prescribed sleep aids rarely leave users feeling refreshed. "These pills can disrupt normal sleep stages which can then exacerbate jet lag and leave you feeling groggy upon arrival at your destination," he notes. And if you continue taking the pills during your trip to deal with jet lag, you run the risk of becoming dependent on the drugs, a problem that Dr. Singh says can contribute to cognitive impairment, memory problems, and falls and injuries.

Safer ways to rest while flying

For many people, sleeping pills are more foe than friend during air travel. Still, that doesn't mean you have to resign yourself to a sleepless 12-hour flight. According to Dr. Jason Singh, getting sufficient rest during your journey starts days before your trip. "I typically counsel patients to establish adequate sleep in the days leading up [to] the flight and try to align the sleep-wake cycle with the destination time zone," he reveals. In other words, gradually move your sleep time to match the night hours of the place you'll be traveling to. That way, you'll find it easier to fall asleep on the plane when the flight attendants dim the cabin lights and be less likely to struggle with jet lag later.

If you know that's not enough to help you snooze soundly, Dr. Singh suggests swapping pills for eye masks, ear plugs, neck pillows, and lightweight travel blankets. "Avoid airplane coffee and alcohol because these can disrupt sleep patterns," he adds. If you still need a boost, talk to your doctor about taking melatonin, an over-the-counter supplement that promotes sleepiness and is generally safe when used as intended. For more information about Dr. Singh, find him on his TikTok or Instagram, or check out his profile at One Oak Medical.