Good Sleep on Long Flight

Today I flew from Beijing to San Francisco, an 11-hour flight. For the first time ever on a long flight, I slept well even though I had to sleep in my seat. (When I’ve been able to stretch out on several seats or on the floor, I’ve slept okay.) I slept so much the flight felt short — like it was four hours long. When we landed in San Francisco, I felt great. As if I hadn’t traveled at all. This has never happened before. Instead of going straight home, I did some errands.

Why did I sleep so well? It surely helped that the flight started at 4 pm Beijing time, to which I was well-adjusted. But I’ve never before slept well sitting up, no matter what the flight time. I think this time was different because I did two things I’ve never done together before:

1. Lots of one-legged standing. Around 2 pm I stood on one leg to exhaustion 3 times (right leg, left leg, right leg).  Around 7 pm I did it again: left leg, right leg, left leg. Six times is a really large dose, too large to be used every day because my legs would get too strong. Usually I do two or four times. I think that the two bouts (in this case, 2 pm and 7 pm) need to be widely spaced so that signaling molecules released into the blood by the exertion can be replenished.

2. Lots of cheese. Around 7 pm, I ate about a quarter-pound of Stilton. With a milder cheese I might have eaten more. It isn’t just the animal fat, I think something in milk makes me sleepy.

Around 8 pm I started trying to fall asleep. It didn’t seem promising, I only felt a little tired and not completely comfortable, but after maybe 4 minutes with my eyes shut, I fell asleep for most of the rest of the flight.

18 Responses to “Good Sleep on Long Flight”

  1. q Says:

    when i flew to japan (the long leg was SF -> tokyo) i was sitting in the front row, and right in front of me was a large video screen. i thought this would make for absolute havoc; i didn’t think i would sleep at all. i slept fitfully, but i felt well rested when i arrived and didn’t have jet lag despite a 12 hour time change.

    my theory is that the randomly pulsing light from the video screen, still visible through my closed eyes, simulated REM.

    i wonder if anyone has done experiments with sleeping with randomly pulsing light on.

  2. Sam Says:

    Did you use your Bose NC Headphones during the flight?

  3. hong lei Says:

    It’s really smart to eat lots of cheese instead of milk which also make you sleepy but urinate frequently.

  4. Laura Says:

    I’m glad you had a great flight!!!

  5. seth Says:

    I only used my Bose NC headphones when watching video — maybe an hour.

    It happens that I was sitting in the front row right next to the movie screen but on the aisle. The screen wasn’t bright and was easy to ignore.

  6. Mara Says:

    Hi Seth,
    This is off-topic but I just thought you might be interested by Marginal Revolution’s post today on radiation hormesis:



  7. G Says:

    Re. #1:

    “…too large to be used every day because my legs would get too strong.”

    …Huh!? Please explain.

    Re. #2:

    I guess you’ll have already heard this, but hot milk is a popular old sleep-aid; I think it actually works. You reckon there’s anything in the caution that cheese provokes nightmares? I haven’t found this, and often gravitate to cheese as a bedtime snack. Malt drinks made with hot milk, like Horlicks or Ovaltine, seem to be a good choice.

  8. seth Says:

    What did I mean by “too large [an amount of one-legged standing] to be used every day because my legs would get too strong”? If I did six one-legged stands to exhaustion every day, it would take longer and longer to reach exhaustion. 5 minutes per leg at the beginning, 20 minutes per leg a month later. I don’t want to spend 20 minutes per leg — that would be a total of 120 minutes per day.

    I haven’t noticed any nightmares after eating cheese.

  9. Allen K. Says:

    1/4 pound counts as a “lot” of cheese? Uh-oh…

  10. dr. cosa Says:

    the magnesium in milk and dairy might be part of the reason for sleep inducing effects,

  11. peter Says:

    i practice qigong. one of the forms/postures is playing pi pa (the third form in a series of 10), which involves a kind of stressful standing on one foot. You might learn that to avoid just ordinary standing on one foot because it will reduce the time required to fully stress the leg. You’d have to find an instructor, which shouldn’t be a problem in either Berkeley or China.

  12. seth Says:

    Allen K., I wish I knew the exact amount of cheese but I don’t, not even close. I’m not sure what you are trying to say.

  13. Wilhelm Says:

    Wasn’t there something like opiod in the milk. That could explain the sleep-inducing effect of the cheese.

  14. G Says:

    Uh Seth, why not just squat down a bit more on the leg? You can hang onto something for balance. Just a few degrees more of knee and hip-flexion should make a big difference if you’re standing for five minutes.

    Heh, or you could wear a backpack of heavy weights…

    This seems like kind of an eccentric way to encourage sleep, but hey, maybe one day everyone will do it. :-)

  15. G Says:

    Also, I’m sure Allen K. was just joking about his own cheese-intake, not asking a question.

  16. seth Says:

    G, yeah, that interpretation of Allen K’s remark makes sense. And, yeah, I could bend my leg more. Yet it feels like there is a natural amount to bend it, and it’s hard to go away from that. I worry that more bend would (more) isolate one muscle, yet the effect depends on lots of muscle being stressed. (So lifting weights with your arms won’t do it because the arm muscles are much smaller than the leg muscles.) The way I do it now I move my leg up and down small amounts while bending it, so both sets of muscles are being used.

  17. G Says:

    You’re doing a low-intensity endurance squat; as you get stronger, deepen the squat to keep the intensity at the right level.

    If you have a feeling of sitting back as you stand on the leg then you will be stressing your glute as well – feel or imagine how it acts to maintain the angle between your upper leg and the floor – so your two biggest muscle-groups will be tensed. If you instead sink forwards as you stand, with your knee and head extending beyond your toes, you will over-emphasise the quadriceps and stress the knee. Some knees are more resilient than others, but it’s a common problem area.

    Muscle-balance is a legitimate concern here, and shallow squats are less likely than deep squats to engage and strengthen the hamstrings in roughly desirable proportion – they are very much secondary to the movement; I think they’re mainly stabilizers rather than pushers. If your only leg exercise is deep squats, and over time you work up to a very heavy squat, then you pretty much must have strong hamstrings, because heavier weights will make their secondary-but-significant role more demanding, but shallow squats will leave the hamstrings seriously lagging, which can have undesirable consequences.

    If you are already doing some form of general strength-training, with good technique, then your standing periods are unlikely to much of a difference for better or worse. If you are not strength-training your legs already, you might want to maintain muscular balance by doing something that works your hamstrings. This needn’t be anything time-consuming; simple isometrics would do.

    Oh, and a little movement in the joints probably would be more effective than a purely static hold – just don’t jerk or bounce at all; knees are precious; take it from one who found out the hard way. :-)

  18. Allen K. Says:

    (Indeed, I was just joking; I can certainly put away more cheese than that without noticing.)