Should you take sleep aids on a flight? According to Aneesa Das, M.D., a sleep medicine specialist at the Ohio State University, you can skip medication if you’re only on a short trip (just stay awake instead), and reserve it for those overnight flights when you’re jumping across multiple time zones. Some pills are stronger than others, and some have side effects that may outweigh the extra sleep. Here’s what to know about three common medications.
Ambien—the most powerful option on this list and the only one that requires an Rx—works as asedative-hypnotic medication that slows your brain activity to make you feel very sleepy. Some users experience retroactive amnesia, which means you could wake up mid-flight, have a full conversation with the flight attendant, and have no memory of it when morning comes, Das says. Ambien can also lead to sleepwalking. But it’s not all bad. Zolpidem (the generic name for Ambien) has been shown to fight off jet lag, finds a study published in Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine.
The over-the-counter medication is easy to pick up at the drugstore. Diphenhydramine, the same antihistamine found in Benadryl, will likely put you to sleep, though you may pay the price once you land. “It makes us feel really groggy when we wake up, and it can make us feel really hungover,” Das says. The antihistamine may also leave you with a dry mouth. Still, Das says it’s okay to take so long as you’ve tolerated it in the past.
The hormone occurs naturally in the body, but taking an extra dose helps induce sleep and adjust your circadian clock. Start taking melatonin a few days before your trip, about four to six hours before your bedtime, so that you’re ready to hit the pillow 30 minutes to an hour earlier than normal, Das says. A review from U.K. researchers found melatonin decreases jet lag if you take it close to your target bedtime at your destination, especially if you’re traveling across five or more time zones. The researchers found doses of .5 and 5 milligrams were equally effective at preventing jet lag, though the larger (maximum) dose will help you fall asleep quicker and sleep better. Another plus? There are no major side effects to worry about. (Note: The FDA does regulate dietary supplements such as melatonin, but these regulations are less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter medications; check with your doctor for an appropriate recommendation.)
If you decide to take sleep aids, make sure to follow the ground rules. First, give it a test run at home. “You want to know how your body tolerates it before you go,” Das says. Then, once you’re settled into your seat, pass on booze and don’t pop the medicine until the flight attendants have gone over safety instructions.