Ever wonder what true Road Warriors talk about at parties or when they get together?  It’s not about all the really cool places they’ve been or the sights they’ve seen.  It’s about sleeping medication.  The stories are about what they’re taking currently, what they’ve taken before, and some of the side effects and issues can be pretty graphic, and definitely not for the non-frequent traveler.  Still, it’s a fun conversation starter when someone announces they just flew in from China on business that morning.  It’s fun to see how many people say “what did you take to sleep?” with very serious expressions on their faces.  Try it sometime!

I did a post earlier on Jet Lag and all the non-medication options to help reduce that dragging feeling.   This is the missing piece – what to take when you need to sleep and just can’t.

Be aware that not all medications will work for all people, and always discuss what you’re planning to take with your doctor to be sure there are no interactions with your other medications or medical conditions.

Non-prescription meds:

  • Melatonin – This natural sleep aid is purported to help you reset your body clock.  It has never done anything for me, but I have several friends who swear by it.
  • Valerian – an herb taken in pill or tea formats, this is another natural sleep aid that can help you nod off.   I find this stuff makes me feel funny, so I stay away.
  • Chamomile tea – this is my hot drink of choice when at a restaurant in the evening.  It really disappoints the waiters – they can’t do the bait-and-switch bit with the decaf coffee.  It is also easily found all over the world.  This tea contains a natural sedative that is somewhat effective if you’re already tired, but not enough to put you to sleep out of your rhythm.
  • Antihistmines – Diphenhydramine HCL is the active ingredient in many over-the-counter drugs that induce drowsiness, including some of the NSAIDS.  They sell in the US under the names of Benadryl, NyQuill, or other generic allergy medication.  These pills work for some people, but not all.  They also do not work on a long-term basis.   I found that out the hard way, when they didn’t work halfway through a particular grueling trip.  Warning – some people get amped up when they take these particular meds.  Be sure you try it out first before relying on it for sleep on a trip.

Prescription meds:

  • Sleeping pills such as Ambien and Lunesta are billed to give you 8 hours of sleep, and they’re the most popular meds on the travel circuit from the people I’ve spoken to.   They help to put you to sleep out of your natural rhythm, and that’s a plus when traveling.  They also work pretty well for sleeping on planes, but the hangover can be pretty gnarly.   I’ve seen some people be fuzzy to the point of near-incapacity when they wake up before landing, and that’s not good.  You also want to make sure you don’t have any alcohol before taking them – that does make the hangover worse, I’m told.
  • Tranquilizers can also give you about 4 hours of quality sleep – they relax you so you fall asleep more naturally than with other sedatives.   My doctor recommended this option for me several years ago when I said I was desperate for a sleep aid that would work and wouldn’t upset my stomach like Ambien did the one time I tried it.   I get about 4 hours of sleep on the flight with absolutely no hangover, and that’s important for me.   I get a prescription for 4 pills for each overseas trip – one for the flight where I need to sleep, and then I cut the rest up into quarters and use them for the 3am wakey-wakey times when jet lag hits the hardest – usually the third day of the trip, or the third day home.  For me, this is the best option, but you may have a different experience.
  • Serious sedatives like Seconol have serious side-effects.  A co-worker of Vlad’s was an Airplane Hero recently for helping to restrain a guy during his flight who took a serious prescription sedative along with alcohol and had what Charlie Sheen would call an ‘adverse reaction’.  Mixing these bad boys with alcohol can also kill you.   Stay away!

Honestly – there are more idiots taking serious stuff out there than you’d want to believe.  I was once on a flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco where we experienced some of the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered.   One of our flight attendants hit the ceiling on the first big bump and broke her arm as she was serving us dinner.  She fell over this guy right across the aisle from me and that didn’t even wake him.  Things kind of progressed from there.  The guy in front of me started pelting him with peanuts and that started a really fun free-for-all among the other passengers in the upper deck that left him covered in snacks.

The idiot finally woke up as we were preparing to land and looked surprised at all the stuff covering him.  The first thing his seatmate said was “Dude – what were you taking?”.  When he said Seconol and Scotch, the loud comment from my seatmate (who was a doctor and set the flight attendant’s arm) was “Are you crazy?  That could have killed you!”  The next I saw either of them was when the doc was really giving this guy a finger-shaking lecture right before the customs line.  Good for him – he just may have saved that idiot’s life.

Whatever you decide to take, please be sure you are careful with your other medications and any alcohol you consume.  Medication can really help get you to sleep on a flight and reduce jet lag on your trip, but if you aren’t careful, you could be in some serious trouble.  Remember the idiot on my Hong Kong flight – you don’t want to be so out of it you can’t function when you have to, and you really want to get home alive so you join in on the travel sleep meds discussion at your next cocktail party.

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