Why You Don’t Sleep as Well on Vacation—Plus, What to Do About It
Even if you’re an avid traveler who thrives on hitting the road, the one thing that never gets easier is the sleep deprivation that can strike when you’re away from your own bed. No matter how comfy the guest room or how soft the sheets, you just know that scoring enough shuteye is going to be a bumpy ride.
“When people sleep away from home, they often have difficulty with initiating and maintaining sleep,” says Kathryn Williams, MD, ABSM certified sleep specialist with ProMedica Physician Group in Ohio. “The body craves consistency, and when you’re in a bed that’s not the same, in a room that’s a different temperature, and in a location with a different set of noises, the brain has difficulty falling and staying asleep.”
A recent survey by hotel company IHG revealed that lack of sleep is a primary concern for travelers, with 80 percent of those surveyed stating they have trouble sleeping when they’re out of town, so at least you’re not alone. But that doesn’t mean you have to take it lying down, either (okay, technically you do, but only with this one thing).
Why Is It So Hard to Sleep Well on Vacation, Anyway?
Because sleep is such a rhythmic activity, travel can easily send our natural rhythms off the rails, says Alex Dimitriu, MD, founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry & Sleep Medicine in California. And this is true even if you’re not switching time zones in the process.
The combination of being in a new environment and the disruption to your go-to routines can make chilling out in general a challenge, but especially at night—changes in ambient temperature, bedding, noises, and even smells tend to keep us alert instead of sleeping easy.
“When we’re at home, we wake up 4-6 times per night, but we usually fall back asleep so fast that we don’t even notice,” says Lutz Graumann, PhD, sleep expert and member of the Dagsmejan sleepwear scientific advisory board. “In a new environment, we often struggle to get back to sleep, causing our sleep quality to suffer.”
Experts agree the first night of sleep is typically the worst. They call it First-Night Effect, where one half of our brain stays awake to protect us from potential threats; hence why every random noise seems to jolt you awake at the start of your vacation.
We also tend to switch things up in the diet department when we’re away from home, where saltier foods, alcohol, and caffeine often have recurring roles. “Salt retention can lead to increased fluid intake and frequent urination (especially at night), disturbing sleep,” says Williams. Meanwhile, alcohol can help us conk out faster, but once it’s metabolized by the body, can have a stimulating effect and cause you wake up way too early. Caffeine (including chocolate) can also have a stimulating effect that can make travel-related sleep drama even more difficult to overcome.
Finally, for those of us who vacation in other time zones, there’s jet lag to add to our sleep woes. “When traveling to different time zones, the brain’s natural mechanism for falling asleep can be disturbed,” says Williams. Sleep patterns depend on light cues and certain brain chemicals (like melatonin) for sleep to happen on a regular rotation, and time zone changes confuse the body’s circadian rhythm.
It can take up to several days for the body to adjust to a new time zone, and “as a result, we’re jet lagged and can wake up in the middle of the night and want to go to bed when it’s early afternoon,” says Graumann.
More on sleep:
How to Sleep Better on Vacation
Fortunately, there are plenty of things you can do to amp up sleep quality—and duration—while you’re on vacation. If jet lag’s going to be an issue, Graumann recommends selecting flights carefully and choosing one that won’t alter your regular sleep patterns. “Avoid red-eye or late-night flights whenever possible,” he says.
Shifting your wake and bed times towards the new time zone in advance can also help. “Once at your destination, use sunlight in the morning to fall asleep earlier at night, and light in the evening if you need to push your bedtime later,” says Dimitriu. “Dark sunglasses can help manage sunlight when you don’t need it.”
Eating light meals and drinking plenty of fluids (excluding alcohol, obviously) can ease your metabolism, and in turn, help your body to relax, says Graumann.
As for your sleep environment itself, experts recommend making it as close to your bedroom back home as possible. Here’s how:
If you’re staying in a hotel, find a room that promotes sleep and relaxation, says Graumann. Where possible, make sure the bed system (type, mattress, blankets) and room location (quiet, not facing the street, not near the elevators), light, and temperature, are all in line with your preferences.
Turn Off the Lights
To keep your circadian rhythm in tact, scoring shuteye in a dark room is everything. In case blackout shades aren’t an option, always travel with an eye mask to show that pesky light who’s boss.
Crank the Air Conditioning
Your room needs to be cool at night for you to enter—and stay—in the restorative deep sleep stage. If you have control over the thermostat, 65-70 degrees is ideal, says Dimitriu. If you don’t, packing lightweight sleep clothes can help, says Williams, and portable fans can sometimes be requested in hotels.
If unfamiliar (or straight-up annoying) sounds are a problem, using a white noise app, such as White Noise Lite or Noisli, can help drown them out. If all else fails, ear plugs to the rescue. “The silicone (putty-like) ones are best, but try using a smaller piece for a good fit,” says Dimitriu, say, 1/4 to 1/3 of the whole blob.
Bring your own sleep kit with you to make you feel at home, including your comfiest pajamas, your own pillow and pillowcase, a soothing scent, such as a sleep-inducing lavender spray or lotion, and maybe even a cute photo for your nightstand.
“Where you can, try to bring your own healthy snacks, and rely on ‘nap foods’ before bed that can help to encourage sleepiness,” says Graumann, such as nuts, bananas, cherries, eggs, green leafy vegetables, and salmon. And make sure to steer clear of these 13 foods that can affect your sleep.
Before bed, plan out your schedule for the next day, says Graumann. Not only will you enjoy a less stressful day, but your brain will also be more relaxed at night. Win-win.