We’re all aware these days of the importance of sleep, as well as the need to establish consistent patterns to trigger and enhance sleep. Often, however, these go out the window when we travel, leading to difficulties getting to sleep and getting enough sleep.
“Normal is good, but traveling is inherently abnormal,” says Dr. Michael Grandner, Director of the Sleep & Health Research Program at the University of Arizona and a scientific advisor for Fitbit. That doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do. Try the following methods to improve your chance of feeling rested on your next trip.
Pack the Essentials
When you’re on the road, a few familiar items can provide comfortable consistency. “Be the snail and take your home with you when you travel,” says Grandner. “Bring things with you that create an environment as conducive to sleep for you as possible.”
This may be a favorite pillow or blanket. But it needn’t be that big. Bring a book to read, an herb tea, or slippers and pajamas to change into—something that sends the signal that you’re winding down and transitioning to sleep. “Whatever your normal routine is, see if you can approximate it as much as possible,” Grandner advises.
“If you have a certain night light or white noise machine, take it,” Grandner says.
Controlling light and sound are critical for letting your brain know if it is day or night. “Eye masks and ear plugs are some of the best sleep technologies out there, and they’re cheap.” Better than ear plugs are ear buds that generate a soothing white noise. Night lights let you avoid turning on the often over-bright bathroom lights which tell your brain it is day and time to wake up.
Anticipate Any Roadblocks
Regardless of how much you bring, many elements of your life will be different on the road. That’s one reason we travel. To counteract this and still get your sleep, Grandner suggests going pro-active. “Rather than try and pretend that things aren’t going to be different, anticipate what is going to be different and see if you can build in safeguards.”
If you’re traveling east two or three time zones, for example, you’re going to be shortening the day and bedtime will feel abnormally early. Grandner says, “One very simple thing you can do to make that easier is to wake up extra early that morning.” Set your alarm as if you’re in the new time zone and start your day early so you’ll be tired earlier and ready to go to bed at an appropriate hour at your destination.
If you’re crossing more than three time zones, you can start “pre-adjusting” a few days in advance, gradually shifting your wake and sleep time toward the new schedule. “The rule of thumb is about a time zone a day,” Grandner says.
Another way to anticipate: Pack exercise clothes so you can get out in the sun the next morning. “Getting up and getting some physical activity early in the morning can help you adjust faster and acclimate a little better.”
Be tuned into your surroundings and how they affect you. “Be mindful of where you’re at,” Grandner says. “If want to be able to sleep in, make sure the blinds are closed. If you want to be able to wake up in the morning, make sure the blinds are open so you can see the sun coming up.”
Give Your Brain Some Help
Grandner says there is insufficient evidence to recommend most supplements or medications, but melatonin can be effective in helping you reset your internal time-clock. “The specific thing melatonin does is it tells your body when it is nighttime,” he says. Because of that, timing is more important than the dose. In fact, Grandner says, “Lower doses tend to be as good or better as higher doses. If you overshoot or undershoot the level of concentration you’re receptors are looking for it’s not going to have the same effect.”
Grandner suggest you take a low dose—about half a gram—in the evening, a few hours before you’re going to bed. This will tell your body to get into a night mode. He warns, however, that light suppresses melatonin, so if you’re around bright lights it won’t produce the desired effect.
Control What You Can
The most helpful thing you can do to ensure you sleep well on the road is good stimulus control. “In a nutshell, if you’re in bed, you’re asleep. If you’re not asleep, get out of bed,” he says. “You want it so that every time you get into bed, sleep follows. If you spend too much time doing other stuff in bed, where sleep isn’t necessarily following, it weakens the ability of the bed to become a trigger for sleep.”
This is something you need to develop in your daily life, long before you travel. Making the bed a sleep trigger will allow you to be more flexible as this trigger will overpower all the other disruptors. “Even if you are in a slightly strange bed in a slightly strange place, going to sleep at a slightly strange time, you have something to counterbalance that,” Grandner says.
On the road, be careful to reserve the hotel bed for sleeping only. Use the desk in your room for work; watch TV or read in a chair or couch. “A lot of people work on their laptop or watch TV in bed when their traveling, like they’re in a dorm room,” says Grandner. This changes the stimulus, making it difficult to transition when it is time for sleep.
Don’t Stress Over Your Sleep
Regardless of how well you pack and plan, sleeping on the road is going to be somewhat more difficult than at home. Stress has significant impacts on sleep, and travel is often stressful. You may be excited about your vacation plans the next day or concerned about an important business presentation. Just being in a new place raises your awareness. “If you’re sleeping in an unfamiliar place, you tend to be a more alert, paying a little more attention to the environment—and it might be a little harder to wind down,” Grandner says.
Don’t add to the stress by fretting over lost sleep. Be smart and mindful, do all you can, then trust that you’ll be OK. “You’re body is pretty flexible,” Grandner says. “Humans are pretty adaptable. We’re built to have some elasticity in the system.”
If you’re tired the next day, feel free to give yourself an extra 30–60 minutes of sleep to recover. “It’s OK to be flexible,” Grandner says. “If you are overthinking it, then it can become more problematic.”
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.