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How to Sleep Anywhere in the World

July 09, 2018
6 min read
Sleeping man inside transport terminal
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Traveling is great for many things: experiencing a different culture, eating new foods and breaking out of the monotony of your daily routine. The one things it’s not good for? Sleep.

Whether you’re on a plane, a cruise or even in a hotel, getting some quality shut-eye can seem nearly impossible. And that’s on top of the almost 60 million of us in the US who suffer from chronic sleeplessness.

“Sleep can be deep and restorative when we feel safe and aware of our surroundings,” sleep expert Rebecca Robbins told TPG. “However, when we travel, we can simply be on higher alert and fundamentally more attuned to noise or sound in our environment.”

We develop this relationship between sleep and our environment as babies, according to experts. And when we don’t have those comfort items — a sound machine, soft pillow, a nightlight — to make for a conducive sleeping environment our brains have a hard time adjusting. But not all hope is lost.

Here’s precisely why you can’t sleep on vacation — and what you can do to get a little R&R.

How to Sleep in the Air

Between the cramped seats, airline announcements, lights going on and off, carts moving up and down the aisles, and change in air pressure, it’s a miracle that anyone can fall asleep on a plane. But there are some ways to combat the symphony of annoyances.

“If you plan to sleep on a plane, try getting a window seat so you can rest your head against it,” said Rafael Pelayo, a sleep expert and advisor to Adaptive Sound Technologies, Inc. “You can also try using a travel pillow and eye mask.”

There’s even a weighted sleep mask that some travelers swear by to help them Zen out at 30,000 feet. Not only does it block out the light, but it’s also heavy (about one pound) and designed to hit particular relaxation pressure points.

And speaking of pressure: if the air pressure bothers you, try EarPlanes, which are pressure-regulating earplugs.

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Don't underestimate how much it helps to wear leisurely clothes, too. Even if you're not flying in first with a crisp set of pajamas, many frequent flyers tout the simple joys of changing into a set of sleep clothes — a cozy top, stretchy leggings — and sliding into a pair of slippers. You'll simply be more comfortable, and the change in clothing can help you psychologically switch into sleep mode, too.

Once you land, get plenty of blue light exposure by running or taking a walk outside. “This can help align your circadian rhythm to your new destination,” Robbins explained. A helpful app to aid in resetting your body clock is Jet Lag Rooster. It uses a calculator to say when you should be forcing yourself to stay awake and when you should be trying to sleep to minimize jet lag.

How to Sleep at Sea

Even if you managed to stave off seasickness and are soothed by the sound of the waves (hello, natural sound machine), you still could find yourself having trouble sleeping on a cruise ship. Why?

The cruise ship may be starting at a different time zone than your home sleep environment, according to Pelayo. It could also cross through several time zones on some voyages. To combat this, consider arriving a couple of days early to help ease the time zone change.

“You need to make sleeping a priority on a cruise and not something that is squeezed in between other onboard activities,” Pelayo said. “Keep to the same wake-up time every day on the cruise as much as possible. This will also help maintain your natural circadian rhythm.”

Oh, and those all-you-can-eat buffets you’re eyeing? Try not to go overboard. “Eating a diet higher in saturated fat and added sugar, and with lower amounts of fiber, can hurt your sleep,” Amy Gorin, a registered dietician nutritionist and owner of Amy Gorin Nutrition in the New York City area, told TPG. “It can lead to lighter sleep and more awakenings during the night.”

And the same goes for booze. Gorin recommended limiting alcohol in the evenings, since it can disrupt sleep and make it harder to stay in a deep sleep.

How to Sleep on the Ground

Cars, trains and especially hotel rooms offer you more personal space than other forms of transportation making it easier to fall asleep, right? Not exactly. Even if you’re in the most luxurious of accommodations at a resort, you could still have trouble getting some quality rest.

In fact, most healthy sleepers sleep worse in hotels than in their own bed, unless they have insomnia, according to Robbins. The reason is something called “first night effect.” According to neuroscientists at Brown University, half of a person’s brain stays active during the first night sleeping in an unfamiliar location.

“You will sleep best when you feel safe and comfortable,” Pelayo said. “If the hotel is not providing a sense of safety and comfort you are sleeping in the wrong place. It can take a night or two to trust your new sleep environment.”

A sound machine can help increase your comfort by masking the effects of the unwanted noise and provide a better sleeping environment, according to Pelayo. Of course, you don’t need to pack an entire machine. Apps like Just Noise do the trick by playing a variety of background noises to promote sounder shut-eye. Plus, you can use it on a train or road trip by popping in headphones.

Also, a significant disruptor for sleep anywhere in the world — on a plane, at sea or in your hotel room — is your cell phone and television screens. The blue wavelength of light from electronics temporarily stops the release of melatonin, the hormone we need to feel sleepy and to stay asleep during the night. So, try not to pick up your phone when you can’t sleep. Or, better yet, avoid electronics for about an hour before bed to help you get into sleep mode.

Featured image by Getty Images/iStockphoto