Travel can seriously mess with our sleep.
The jet lag that disrupts our body clocks may be the most obvious reason, but it’s far from the only one. Even without any time-zone changes, the unfamiliar hotel room or Airbnb, with its strange bed and pillows, not to mention the noise from the next room or the lift in the corridor, can all throw out our normal sleep patterns.
Our first night away is usually the worst of all, since the strangeness of the new environment signals to the primitive part of our brain to be on guard against ‘predators’ or their modern counterparts – not a recipe for sound sleep.
Jane Chung, from sleep and meditation app Calm is not a medical professional. In fact, she’s a software engineer, but she also has a degree in bioengineering and a passionate interest in sleep.
"Even before I started working at Calm, I was a self-confessed ‘sleep geek’, with a strict routine, designed to optimise my sleep, and a fondness for devouring the latest scientific sleep studies," she says.
Chung is also a keen traveller, but one who hates to lose sleep when she travels. Here are her seven tips to help you snooze better on holiday…
1. Bring your own ‘Sleep Travel Kit’
"The fact that sleep and travel are two of my favourite things – and that they often seem to go badly together, has led me to develop my ‘Sleep Travel Kit’, containing various things I always bring with me when I travel," notes Chung.
"It’s the sleep equivalent of a first aid kit – except not just for emergencies. It contains everything from my sleep mask and earplugs to a room thermometer, melatonin pills (for jet lag), blue-light-blocking glasses (for regulating light exposure) and electrical tape to cover any blinking lights in the hotel room."
2. Make the room familiar
If the unfamiliarity of your new hotel room is keeping you awake, the answer is to do whatever you can to make it more familiar.
Chung advises: "I bring my own pillow, if practical, or – if not – just my own pillowcase and my favourite pyjamas. Bringing a familiar scent can help, too. I also use my Calm app to play white or pink noise, which blocks out annoying sounds and has been shown to aid sleep, but also helps recreate what I have at home. If that’s not enough, I use ear-plugs."
3. Get enough light during the day
Exposing ourselves to daylight helps regulate our circadian rhythms, which in turn, helps us sleep better.
"When I’m travelling," says Chung, "I try even harder than normal to get plenty of natural light during the day. From about three to four hours before bedtime, I try to reduce my exposure to both natural and synthetic light from digital devices. Regulating your light exposure in this way is even more important if you’re trying to adjust to a new time-zone."
4. Avoid light at night
Equally important is avoiding light, she says – especially blue light, at night time. Darkness helps us produce melatonin, ‘the sleep hormone’ that tells our body it’s time to sleep.
"Starting from roughly three hours before bedtime, I wear my sunglasses when I’m outside, or my blue light glasses inside. When sleeping, I keep the room as dark as possible. I bring travel scissors and electric tape, for use, if needed, in blocking small, annoying lights. If the room still isn’t dark enough, I wear an eye-mask."
5. Keep it cool
"A low core body temperature helps with falling and staying asleep," says Chung. "To achieve this, the room temperature should be around 65°F (18°C). I find hotel thermometers are often unreliable and therefore bring my own travel thermometer to make sure the room is the right temperature. I adjust it if it isn’t.
"[On a recent night away,] the air-conditioning was broken and I had to be creative. I lowered my body temperature by taking a warm shower, wearing sleep socks, and using a fan. Other tricks to stay cool without air-conditioning include opening the window, placing a cold, wet towel on your neck, and only using a top sheet for blanket."
"Meditation can help you sleep by lowering levels of cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. I’ve noticed a definite difference in my sleep quality between nights when I meditate and those when I don’t – even more so when I’m travelling. I usually do a 10-minute unguided meditation before bed, but others may prefer a guided meditation on an app like Calm."
7. Limit liquids before bed
"I stop drinking liquids one hour before bed when travelling," notes Chung, "to lessen the need to visit the toilet at night. Having to find my way in the middle of the night is bad enough at home – but in a dark, unfamiliar place, it needs added alertness and keeps me awake afterwards.
Jane Chung is a senior software engineer at Calm, the sleep and meditation app. She is a self-confessed sleep geek and longevity enthusiast. Her goal is to live to 150 – and high-quality sleep is a key part of her plan. Visit calm.com.