Theory about why I don’t sleep on planes

9 11 2014

I’ve travelled to the US/Canada from Australia about 20 times since 1985, with most of those trips occurring from 2001,  which is when I started attending and speaking at conferences. You’d think I’d be used to the long flight across the Pacific and would have got the sleeping on planes thing worked out by now,  especially since much of the travel since 2001 has been in Business Class, and in more recent years on lie-flat beds.

However, I’ve never been able to do more than cat nap in short bursts. Sleeping on the plane had been impossible. I’ve tried prescription and over-the-counter sleeping medications,  to no avail. Ear plugs and noise-cancelling headphones (provided in Business Class on Qantas) dull the noise of the plane, but don’t eliminate it entirely. I’ve always assumed that my issue is related to the noise and vibration of the plane.

But perhaps that isn’t the reason at all. I had a light bulb moment in Santa Fe, New Mexico earlier this week – perhaps it is a combination of several other factors unique to me.

Here’s my logic…

I start getting altitude sickness symptoms at approx 7000 ft. I’ve known this from when I trekked in Nepal back in 1987 or thereabouts, and have had it confirmed whenever I go above 7000 ft. Well it seems that the air pressure inside an aircraft is set to be the same as the air pressure at an altitude of 6000 to 8000 ft. All the recommendations for flying and dehydration etc. are to ‘avoid alcohol’. Typically I have a couple of glasses of red wine with dinner when on the plane, not thinking that the combination of air pressure and alcohol might be affecting me.

I had three margaritas the night we arrived in in Santa Fe from Houston. Santa Fe is 7000 ft above sea level. Some 2+ hours later I felt very strange… Just like I feel on the plane when I can’t sleep. I should have been tired but I was wide awake and my pulse was a little faster than usual – almost tingly. At 10:40pm Santa Fe time it was 12:40am in Houston and I’d been up since 4am Houston time. I should have been dead on my feet (I walked more than 10,000 steps again that day… in low air pressure, but not thinking about it), but I didn’t feel the slightest bit tired. I had no symptoms of a hangover next morning.

Could alcohol plus air pressure plus my propensity for altitude sickness symptoms be the reason I don’t sleep on planes??

I searched for altitude sickness and alcohol and found a few medical sites that stated that anyone with that condition should not drink alcohol, and preferably not have caffeine, and that some sleeping meds should also be avoided as they don’t work – something to do with oxygenation of the blood, from memory.

As I can’t change the air pressure or my low tolerance of altitude, I guess I should have NO alcohol at all on the flights home and see if that makes any difference. And no Diet Coke either, thus avoiding the diuretic effects of caffeine too. I had two glasses of Diet Coke with lunch that first day in Santa Fe too, so that might have also contributed to the plane-like feeling I experienced that night.

Does this make sense? It could also explain why sleeping drugs don’t work on me, and why I have no  trouble sleeping at sea level, despite Diet Coke and alcohol.

I’ll provide an update after my long flight home in about 10 days time…

Update June 2015: Realised I hadn’t updated what happened… For 24 hours prior to the long flight home from the US (Salt Lake City to Los Angeles to Sydney to Perth), in the lounge, and on board, I had no alcohol or Diet Coke (I don’t drink tea or coffee). I cat napped, perhaps a little more than usual, but not appreciably so. And I may have got 2 hours actual sleep, which is definitely more than usual. So while no alcohol or caffeine may help, it didn’t put me into a long restful sleep on the flights home.


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