7 Sleep secrets from long-haul pilots


1st Jun 2021 Wellbeing

7 Sleep secrets from long-haul pilots

Here are the secrets to a good night's sleep, as told to by long-haul pilots. From The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again by Miranda Levy.

To reach your exotic holiday location, you need to suffer the grime and ennui of a long-haul flight. Not only is there boredom and bad food, there are (for most, except the lucky or the medicated) sleeplessness and a confusing romp through several time zones.

So, how does your captain stay responsive and alert? And can we apply this wisdom to our daily routine, whether we are flying or not? I spoke to a senior BA pilot and my sleep guru, Dr Sophie Bostock, for tips on adapting to long-haul trips in our short-haul lives.

This advice might also be helpful for shift workers. In fact, it can be applied to many situations when you are moved out of your sleep "comfort zone". Captain Charles Everett has been a British Airways pilot for 32 years. He currently flies the state-of-the-art A350.


1. Don’t worry if you can’t sleep 

insomniac man

Captain Charles says: "I plan four hours rest before my wake-up call. If I can sleep, that’s wonderful, but over the years I have taught myself not to feel anxious if I can’t drop off."

Dr Bostock says: "This advice goes for everyone. The biggest enemy to sleep is trying too hard to sleep. If you accept that you might only be able to relax, it will still reduce your stress levels and improve your mood."


2. Eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired

eating a burger

Captain Charles says: "It’s easy to overthink the effects of a long-haul lifestyle with complex routines. I like to be adaptable. But I do tend to eat light meals around the time I’m flying: salad with white meat, or avocado or egg on toast. I drink lots of water throughout the day and when I’m in the air."

Dr Bostock says: "This is great advice. Listen to your body. Don’t try to force sleep when you’re not tired—it may be counterproductive. On the subject of diet, healthy eating is important at any time but especially when your body is under the stress of sleep deprivation. Try to avoid eating in the middle of the night when your body clock is less able to metabolise food. It’s vital to stay hydrated."


3. Take exercise you enjoy

bicycle in the sun

Captain Charles says: "Some of my younger colleagues have adventurous pursuits like kitesurfing; others do yoga or pilates. I enjoy hiking, especially in California. It’s good exercise but also social: there’s always someone who wants to come along."

Dr Bostock says: "The relationship between sleep and exercise is reciprocal. Regular exercise increases your natural drive to sleep and relieves stress, while good quality sleep gives you the energy to get active. Physical activity also signals to our body clocks that it’s time to stay awake."


4. Don’t drink alcohol before an important day

drinking alcohol

Captain Charlies says: "A pilot is not allowed to have any alcohol in his or her bloodstream: it’s against the rules. I never drink the night before a flight, not just because of random testing, which could happen at any time, but also because I don’t sleep as well under the influence of alcohol."

Dr Bostock says: "It’s tempting to have a drink if you’re anxious about something the following morning. But if you have two or more drinks, the quality of your sleep will be worse and you’ll wake up more tired and groggy than if you’d stuck to mineral water."


5. Clear your mental inbox

writing a list

Captain Charles says: "A friend gave me some advice: 'Never open an email unless you are going to deal with it or delete it.' I don’t always stick to this but do find that completing tasks—even trivial ones—can enhance meaningful sleep. To illustrate: I now have two days off after a trip to Dubai. I need to write a report and could put it off, but I want to get it done so I have a clear mind tonight."

Dr Bostock says: "Some people find it useful to write down their 'must do tomorrow' list as they wind down for bed so that they don’t keep ruminating on these thoughts whizzing around their head."


6. Accept your limitations at 3am

co pilots in the cockpit

Captain Charles says: "For a flight say, to the USA’s west coast, there’s normally a captain and two co-pilots on board, sometimes three. Pilots work in shifts of about six hours with three hours’ rest, and we give each other a lot of support. Experience tells me that the period of low circadian rhythm, at 3 or 4am, is difficult. I used to think the answer was coffee. Now, I just understand and accept what I am feeling, and ask a colleague for help if I need it. And offer it back."

Dr Bostock says: "We find it hardest to stay awake during the circadian low, which is the time your body temperature is naturally at its lowest and when you’ve built up a lot of sleep pressure from the preceding day. Short naps of 10–20 min can help pep you up if you need to be alert."


7. Don’t rely on caffeine to pep you up

lemon tea

Captain Charles says: "To wake up quickly, I’ll splash water on my face and have a cup of tea—normally peppermint or lemon and ginger. Then I’ll stand at the back of the cockpit until I’m alert enough to take charge."

Dr Bostock says: "Highly caffeinated drinks mask the natural sleep drive, so you can’t rely on how sleepy you feel as a guide to needing rest. More excellent advice from our BA captain."


The Insomnia Diaries book cover

This is an excerpt from The Insomnia Diaries: How I Learned to Sleep Again - Foreword by Dr Sophie Bostock by Miranda Levy, published by Aster, £9.99

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter