On vacation, we're usually looking to get a little R&R. But, often, instead of restful, our sleep feels way more restless when we travel.
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While jet lag can definitely disturb your snooze schedule, other fundamental factors can also affect your forty winks. Here, sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD explains why you can't sleep away from home, plus offers tips to overcome traveler's insomnia.
What Causes Insomnia While Traveling?
Whether you're hopping across time zones or just staying across town, here are the top things that deter you from dozing off to dreamland:
1. Jet Lag
It's a pretty good bet that we've all felt the wrath of jet lag after a long flight.
Most common when traveling east (where you "lose" hours), jet lag happens when your body's internal clock doesn't match up with the time zone of your destination, Breus says.
Put another way: Traveling across time zones throws off your circadian rhythm, which controls your sleep-wake cycle according to the sun, he explains.
And, as you likely know, this mixed-up sleep-wake schedule can seriously disrupt your slumber.
2. 'The First Night Effect'
It's tough to sleep in unfamiliar places because during the first night (or several nights) of your trip, your brain is basically on night watch in a new setting, a phenomenon called "The First Night Effect," Breus says.
"Your brain actually acts like a dolphin brain, sleeping uni-hemispherically (one half is asleep and the other is awake) as it constantly assesses the new environment for threats," he explains.
And this protective function — which serves to keep you safe in a foreign place — occurs whether you're traveling 20 or 2,000 miles.
3. Changes in Routine
When you travel, your daily schedule often shifts significantly. And these changes to your day-to-day routine can trigger travel insomnia.
For example, eating meals earlier or later than when you usually do has been shown to throw off your circadian rhythm, which, as we know, can zap your zzzs, Breus says.
Similarly, food choices also change with travel (many of us tend to overindulge on the local fare), and this can lead to acid reflux (i.e. heartburn), which may also hamper your ability to hit the hay, Breus says.
4. More Alcohol Consumption
Many of us let loose with liquor on vacay, enjoying a cocktail or two (or three). But gulping too much booze can sabotage your sleep.
Case in point: A 2013 review in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research found that drinking heavily interferes with REM sleep and slow wave sleep. This disruption is especially problematic because deep stages of sleep help your body build, repair and regenerate tissues and bolster your immune system, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
7 Tips for Sleeping Well in a New Place
These tried-and-true tips will help you overcome insomnia during vacation:
1. Plan Ahead
When you're visiting a different time zone, prepping your body beforehand is your best bet. A basic way to sync up with the time zone you're traveling to is by moving your bedtime an hour earlier (or later) in the week before you go. This simple strategy will help shift your rhythm to your new schedule, Breus says.
He recommends using a jet lag app like Timeshifter, which helps you recalibrate your body's internal clock when switching time zones.
Here's how it works: Once you plug in the details of your trip, the app provides a tailored plan, telling you exactly what to do and when to do it. For example, it may specify the exact times to get (and avoid) sunlight (more on this later), which is crucial for resetting your circadian rhythm.
2. Stay Hydrated
"This is easily the most important tip," Breus says. That's because dehydration can exacerbate the symptoms of jet lag and travel fatigue, he says.
And when you travel by plane, your dehydration risk increases due to the lower pressure and recirculated air in the cabin, Breus adds.
So, to offset this, remember to drink plenty of fluids throughout the day. A good general guideline is to aim to drink about half your body weight in ounces daily.
3. Cut Down on Caffeine
When you're in the throes of traveler's insomnia, reaching for a cup of joe for a jolt of energy seems like a no-brainer. But caffeine will just dehydrate you, and, as we know, being parched just compounds the signs of jet lag, Breus says.
Plus, if you drink too much coffee too close to bedtime, you can further screw with your sleep because it's a stimulant.
4. Limit Alcohol
While it's OK to have a piña colada or two on holiday, keep in mind that overdoing it with the drinks can disrupt your sleep.
What's more, it's not only how much booze you slug that can affect sleep quality, but when you swig it as well. In fact, an August 2019 study in Sleep found that drinking alcohol within four hours of bedtime increased sleep fragmentation.
Making matters worse, alcohol can dehydrate you and aggravate your jet lag symptoms, Breus says.
The takeaway: When traveling, keep your alcohol intake to a minimum, and cut off the cocktails at least four hours before bed.
5. Get Some Sun
Once you've arrived at your destination, soak up the sun. This tells your body it should be awake and helps reset your biological clock, Breus says. "But you need to do this on a very specific schedule, or it will make things worse," he adds.
Again, a jet lag app can help you determine exactly when you need to get sun exposure for the most seamless transition to a different time zone.
Conversely, for times when you want to limit light exposure, wear dark sunglasses outdoors or sleep with an eye mask.
6. Bring Your Own Pillow and Blanket
Even seemingly small details — like a different bed or pillow — can prevent you from sleeping soundly in a new place. Packing your own pillow and favorite blankie from home can help make a strange sleep environment feel more familiar, Breus says.
7. Use Earplugs
Wearing earplugs to bed can help block out any ambient noise, Breus says. This is especially helpful if you're visiting a big city where there's a lot of street noise (think: honking horns, sirens or chatter from nightlife) or unfamiliar sounds that might keep you up.
Try These Expert-Approved Products for Travel Insomnia
- Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research: “Alcohol and sleep I: effects on normal sleep”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Sleep Basics”
- Sleep: “Evening intake of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine: night-to-night associations with sleep duration and continuity among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Sleep Study”