11 Tips for Better Sleep When Traveling

  • Photo by Jamie Macfayden
    The bedroom of an Etihad Airways Residenc Photo by Jamie Macfayden
  • Charlie Sullivan/Eye Em/Getty Images
    Ideal sleep hygiene includes keeping non-sleeping activities out of the bedroom Charlie Sullivan/Eye Em/Getty Images
  • Inside a Stay Well suite at the MGM Grand Las Vegas
  • Photo by Jamie Macfayden
  • Charlie Sullivan/Eye Em/Getty Images
  • Janice O'Leary

Upgrade your travel experiences by following these 10 tips for getting premium sleep while away from home.

At its best, travel can be a thrilling adventure that reboots both body and mind. At its worst, it can wreak havoc with sleep, which will put a cranky damper on exploring your destination.

Long-term lack of sleep can make you look older; it can cause you to gain weight and experience more pain; and it can leave you more likely to engage in risky behavior or act unprofessionally in work settings. While chronic sleep deprivation may significantly compromise overall health and well-being, even brief periods of sleep loss can affect mood and memory. So if you want to etch the highlights of a trip into your recollections, getting quality slumber while traveling should be a priority, and it is easier than ever to do so.

The real issue when crossing time zones, says Dr. Rachel Salas, a neurologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, is exposure to light. “Light, especially sunlight, is the biggest clock resetter we have,” she says. If we can reset our circadian clocks when we travel, then we are much more likely to enjoy the trip. Many top international hotels design their rooms for optimal sleep so you can be your best self.

Travel can also be tough on sleep because by its very nature it casts aside routines. A healthy sleep regimen, however, is one habit you will want to preserve during your trip. Dr. Param Dedhia—the director of sleep medicine at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz.—says ideal sleep hygiene includes keeping non-sleeping activities out of the bedroom. That’s challenging when your hotel room or flight cabin has to serve as a workspace. Nevertheless, you can still harmonize your external environment with your internal state by following these tips:

1. Reset before you even leave home.
You can begin adjusting your sleep clock to a new country’s time zone at home by wearing darkening glasses or visors, or by going to bed and waking earlier or later, says Salas. She also suggests using a light box to tell your brain to wake up, even if it’s dark outside, or drawing blackout curtains to bring on the night a little earlier.
2. Plan to arrive in a foreign country in the morning and sleep on the plane.
If you need help falling asleep, Salas suggests a 1 mg dose of melatonin, a hormone the body produces to signal the mind that sleep is around the corner. Take it 30 minutes to 1 hour before you want to sleep, she says, but don’t use it as a sleeping pill: “It’s not a very good one. In our clinic we use it as a circadian-rhythm anchor.”

3. Forgo the beverage-service nightcap.
The most commonly used sleep aid, Dedhia says, is alcohol. However, it’s a poor choice. Every serving of alcohol affects sleep for 2 hours, he says. Sedation levels increase for the first hour, but during the second hour arousal increases as the alcohol leaves the body.
4. Bring your own pillow.

Sleep posture can affect sleep quality, especially if you have pain or sleep apnea, says Nancy Davis, an expert on sleep posture at Canyon Ranch. Unless you have sleep apnea, sleeping on your back is best—and most first-class lie-flat airline seats now extend to 6.5 feet. Side sleeping is the second preferred position for good slumber, Davis says. Whatever your sleep position, you want a pillow that supports your neck. Davis notes that most down pillows can easily be stuffed into a carry-on. She suggests tugging the bottom corners of the pillow down toward the shoulders to make a nest for your head.

5. Get exposure to light early in the day and retire to a dark room at night.
When you change time zones, you’re really changing when your body is being exposed to light, which confuses the sleep/wake signals for the brain. “If you get light exposure at the same time every morning, that’s essentially when your brain is reset, like a stopwatch,” says Salas. When you alter that, you scramble the cues to the brain.

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