One of the thrills of travel is challenging yourself in exotic, even extreme, conditions—think endless White Nights in St. Petersburg, searing heat in the Arizona desert, or long winter days of near-darkness in Alaska.
What’s less enthralling, though, is disrupted sleep patterns when your body lands outside its comfort zone. Even after you conquer jet lag, a good night’s sleep can elude you when you travel to far-flung destinations with unusual temperatures, unfamiliar day/night cycles, or unaccustomed altitude.
Sleep and Travel: Consistency Is Key
The good news for travelers: It’s possible to sleep better while traveling, and simple steps can lead to sounder sleep, even in less-than-optimal environments. The key is consistency. “Your body likes routine,” explains Michael Breus, Ph.D., a noted sleep expert whose Manhattan Beach, Calif., clinic focuses on sleep and health. “Your circadian rhythm, which makes you sleepier, likes routine.”
With that in mind—and in honor of World Sleep Day, on March 16—Dr. Breus shared some sleep tips for travelers that you can use no matter where in the world you find yourself.
The scenario: You’re exploring northern Alaska in winter, where it’s dark for months. Or you’re touring Norway, land of the midnight sun.
You can’t control what’s going on outside your window, but you can control your immediate environment. In places where the sun never fully dips below the horizon, draw blackout shades if your hotel is equipped with them. If not, use a sleep mask; some even come scented with soothing lavender or chamomile to promote relaxation. (Breus is a fan of the Sleep Essentials brand, which come in a wide range of styles and fabrics.) Aim to go to go to sleep and rise at the same time each day to help your body adjust to unfamiliar light cycles. “Consistent wake-up times are more important than a regular bedtime,” he says.
In places enveloped by total darkness come wintertime, the challenge is staying awake and alert. Lack of light increases production of the sleep-regulating hormone melatonin, which has the potential to make you feel drowsy throughout the day. Try to remain active to stay energized until it’s time to sleep, and adopt a routine around your normal bedtime to signal your body when it’s time to relax.
The scenario: You’re glamping in the desert—or trekking the freezing fjords.
Temperature, like light, has a profound effect on sleep quality. Your body and brain seek an internal “set point” temperature for ideal sleep, “and it’s kind of like Goldilocks,” Breus says. “It has to be perfect.” Perfect, of course, means something different for everybody, so thermoregulation—managing your body temperature—is key.
“I’m always telling people to layer,” the doctor says. “If it’s too warm, the layers come off. Too cold, you can add layers.” Between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit is optimal for sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. In a hotel room, setting the thermostat at a consistent overnight temperature will keep you from waking up in the wee hours to adjust the a/c or heat. Body temperature fluctuates through the night, so what feels comfortable when you went to sleep might not a few hours later. Most experts agree that a cooler environment—as long as it’s not uncomfortably cold—makes it easier to sleep than a warmer one.
The scenario: You’re in New Orleans, and the Mardi Gras party just won’t let up.
Earplugs are a must for anyone who wants to sleep better during travel. Breus recommends those with a noise reduction rating of 32 or below. “Otherwise,” he cautions, “you can’t hear a smoke alarm.” And he never travels without a portable sound machine. “Certain sounds, like ocean waves, can make you feel sleepy,” he explains. Plus, “white noise” features can help mask other disruptive noises. (Breus himself helped design the soothing sounds of iHome’s Zenergy “sleep therapy” machine.) Since most hotels these days offer docking stations for your phone, you can also use apps like TMSoft’s White Noise ($0.99 from iTunes or GooglePlay) or the free, Android-only ChromaDoze, which lets you adjust sleep-inducing sounds to your liking.
The scenario: You’re in Quito, and the soaring altitude is keeping you awake.
If you’ve huffed and puffed at your favorite ski resort, you’ve experienced how high altitude can hijack your lungs. But thinner air can also ambush you in bed, especially at altitudes above 2,000 feet. “High-altitude insomnia is real,” the doctor says, and lower oxygen levels are the culprit. His tip: supplemental oxygen. Brands like Boost come in travel-friendly four-ounce cans. Staying hydrated throughout the day also helps, though it may increase those nighttime bathroom visits.
The scenario: You’re trying to get some shut-eye on an overnight flight.
Go for a window seat. “It’s better if you’re trying to sleep; you can lean against the side of the cabin,” Breus says. Seatguru.com is his go-to-reference for seat maps. Another trick: If you use a U-shaped pillow to rest your head, turn it around before you nod off. “The middle of the U will sit under your chin,” he says. “It can prevent the head-bobbing that interrupts sleep when you’re sitting up.” Breus also carries a mini-sleep kit on flights, with eyeshades, earplugs, a blow-up U-shaped pillow, and meditation sounds on his phone.