Travel & sleep: how to save your sleep on the road and adapt to changing time zones.
Travelling can present significant obstacles to getting a good night’s sleep. The journey itself can lead to travel fatigue, while adapting to the time zone, new setting or other changes at the destination point can cause short-term sleep disorders that may even develop into long-term issues.
Disrupted sleep often takes a physical, mental and emotional toll on travellers, as well as compromising cognitive health, raising the risk of accidents. Not only can this make trips less enjoyable or successful, it may have lasting adverse health consequences, particularly for regular travellers.
This article will explore the main ways in which travel inhibits our ability to attain adequate amounts of good quality sleep and provides some practical tips for how to combat travel-related sleep problems.
Many find the process of travelling to be a stressful experience. Perhaps they struggle with the logistical challenges, such as prepping, packing and arriving on time, or they have anxieties, including a fear of flying or the anticipation of problems arising during the trip.
Travelling can also be physically demanding with lengthy journeys that may include motion sickness and limited opportunities for proper sleep. The pressurised environment in airplane cabins increases the risk of dehydration, bloating, constipation and respiratory tract infections, while sitting down for extended periods can cause swelling, stiffness and reduced physical activity. It is common for people to eat different kinds and quantities of food while in transit, as well as increasing their consumption of alcohol and caffeine.
No matter the type and length of the journey, these common travel experiences can result in what’s known as ‘travel fatigue’. This is characterised by exhaustion, headaches, sleep loss and other types of general discomfort, which usually pass once the traveller has had a sufficient amount of rest. Travel fatigue can also exacerbate underlying health conditions.
Travellers can minimise travel fatigue by following these steps:
- Limit pre-travel stress by planning ahead and scheduling enough time to reach various destinations en route;
- If you need to sleep while in transit, try to make your environment as comfortable as possible by wearing loose-fitting and breathable clothing, taking extra layers of clothing in case it’s cold, reclining your seat, blocking out your surroundings with headphones or earplugs and a sleep mask and using a travel pillow or something to support your head;
- By travelling at less busy, off-peak times, you are more likely to find a peaceful and quiet space to sleep while in transit;
- Resist the temptation to over-schedule the first few days of your trip and factor in enough time for sleep so that you have the opportunity to rest and overcome travel fatigue;
- Drink plenty of water and keep your hands sanitised to reduce the risk of picking up bacterial or viral infections, particularly if you’re travelling by plane.
Normally, a person’s 24-hour internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, aligns with daylight to promote alertness during the day and sleep at night. When our circadian rhythm is synchronised with the 24-hour day in this way it promotes good quality sleep, and supports our physical and mental health.
However, sunrise and sunset occur at different times in different locations. So, when we travel across 3 or more time zones, our circadian rhythm is radically out of step with the local day-night cycle. This mismatch between our circadian rhythm and the local time at our destination is known as ‘jet lag’.
When travelling eastwards, jet lag can be particularly debilitating, causing us to stay up really late, sleep at odd hours and feel extra tired. Eastward travel tends to result in worse jet lag symptoms because it is easier to delay our internal clock than advance it.
Jet lag has been found to exacerbate mental health issues, such as mood disorders like depression. Other common jet lag symptoms include: general feelings of discomfort, illness or unease, and stomach problems such as a reduced appetite, nausea, constipation or irritable bowel syndrome.
In rare cases, jet lag can impact our sleep architecture, increasing the risk of sleep paralysis — inability to move and speak while waking or falling asleep — and night time seizures. These effects are down to the fact that our circadian rhythm impacts how and when our bodies produce hormones that affect our sleep and other bodily processes.
Some people appear to be more predisposed to experience circadian rhythm disruption than others for reasons that are currently unknown. Although most people overcome jet lag once their circadian rhythm has synchronised with the time of their destination, jet lag can have long-term consequences for some.
Those who frequently travel across time zones can experience chronic circadian misalignment, leading to insomnia. This ongoing disruption to the body’s internal clock can raise the risk of health issues, including diabetes, depression and some cancers.
The most important part of combatting jet lag is matching the circadian rhythm to the local 24-hour cycle. This can be done by controlling factors that influence our circadian rhythm: light exposure and melatonin levels.
You can use the assistance of healthcare professionals or online resources, such as Jet Lag Rooster and the Timeshifter app, to strategically plan the optimal times for light exposure and melatonin supplementation.
Melatonin, the hormone that helps you feel sleepy and regulates your circadian rhythm, can come in the form of supplements or prescription medication. Along with other sleeping pills, you should consult a healthcare professional before using them.
By modifying your sleep schedule and using light exposure and melatonin supplementation in the days before travel, you can make the time zone change feel less dramatic. However, this is not always a practical option for everyone.
For eastward travel there is evidence that jet lag is reduced with afternoon arrivals compared to early morning arrivals. So, it may be worth considering the timing of your travel arrangements. Poor pre-arrival sleep and stress can also make it harder to cope with jet lag symptoms. Consuming alcohol and caffeine while in transit can also disrupt sleep and make it harder for you to adapt to a new time zone.
Travellers often want to overload their daily agenda in order to get the most out of their trip, but this can lead to overstimulation and insufficient time for sleep. When our normal sleep schedule is interrupted or altered, it’s harder for us to fall and stay asleep.
Travellers also tend to drink more alcohol and eat heavier meals when travelling, both of which have negative effects on sleep patterns. It is also common for regular exercise, which contributes to consistent sleep, to be reduced or changed during trips.
To increase your chances of getting good sleep, factor in plenty of time for sleep, practice healthy eating habits, stay physically active and use relaxation techniques like deep breathing and meditation.
New or uncomfortable sleep settings
People tend to have worse sleep on the 1st night they spend in an unfamiliar environment. This is even true in the context of inviting settings, such as a spa resort. Experts think this may be due to an evolutionary survival strategy that keeps part of the brain active when initially sleeping in a new place, in case of threats.
Travellers will usually find that sleep improves after the first night, but uncomfortable mattresses and excess light or noise can lead to interrupted sleep that lasts throughout the trip. This makes it even more important to pace yourself during daytime activities.
Whether it’s prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications or dietary supplements, almost all sleeping pills make you feel drowsy. This means that they can be effective for inducing sleep but they do have some undesirable side effects that you should take into consideration.
After waking from a sleep induced by sleeping pills, you may feel groggy and this effect could continue through to the next day. If you’re driving or partaking in activities that demand your full concentration and quick reaction times, then this grogginess could be dangerous.
By sedating yourself, you are probably increasing the amount of time that you spend in a seated position. If you remain seated for too long, you could increase your risk of blood clots. These side effects make it vitally important that you discuss sleeping pills with your doctor before taking them. This way, you can be sure that the balance of risk and reward is appropriate to your body and circumstances.
Naps can be refreshing if you haven’t managed to achieve good quality rest, improving your daily functioning. However, naps should be limited to 30–60 minutes in length and before 3–4pm to ensure that you don’t wake up even groggier and your sleep schedule is unaffected.