Sleep is important whether you’re a traveler or not, but a traveler, especially one going to another climate range, time zone, or environment often has their work cut out for them. I sometimes despise sleep. Well, actually there are times when I just think that sleep is an annoyance; I often sacrifice sleep to get more things done in the day, be it sightseeing or partying, or simply catching up on work. We humans are fairly-strict diurnal creatures – we adapt to a set rhythm of sleep, and we have minimums and maximums in the temperature, humidity, brightness, noise levels, and time we can properly sleep. Any fluctuation or change usually results in the inability to sleep properly, because these changes signal our body to awaken, like an internal alarm clock. A general rule states that it takes about a day to adjust for each hour of time difference.
Traveling to Another Time Zone/Jet Lag
- Take Melatonin – When traveling to a different time zone, out body’s internal clocks are initially still set on the previous time zone. Melatonin, often wrongly assumed to be a sleeping pill, helps to cue the body of the change in time. It helps the body regulate day and night cycles for sleep, and our body actually produces melatonin itself. Less melatonin is produced during light, while more is produced in the darker hours; taking a pill will help your body adjust to the difference faster.
- Get Some Sunlight – Light is the biggest factor in the body’s natural sleep cycle, so getting fresh sunlight in the morning will help your body adjust faster. In the same sense, stay away from bright lights, or gradually reduce them, as it reaches the hour that you aim to sleep by. You can also fake it, in a sense, by turning on all the lights and opening the shades in the morning.
- Force Yourself to Stay Awake – When the end of the day comes in your new destination, you may feel tired earlier than the locals, but it is best if you can try to keep yourself awake as long as you can. That way you won’t wake up as early, and it will help your internal clock adjust itself quicker. Don’t nap within 6 hours of bedtime!
- Anticipate – Several days ahead of your trip, start adjusting your sleep schedule to the destination’s time zone. This will assist your body in acclimating faster to the time difference.
Traveling to Colder Climates
- Cover Your Head – If you are sleeping outdoors in the tundra, or just in a cold room, cover your head. Your head is one of two of your body’s extremities where heat through which heat gets lost (the other being your feet). Wear a light beanie or cotton-knit cap, or else cover the top half of your head with another empty pillowcase.
- Cover Your Feet – Your feet is the other area where heat gets lost, so make sure you sleep with socks. Many people don’t enjoy sleeping with socks, opting instead to rely on the blanket to cover them, but feet often get uncovered during the night as your body tosses and turns.
- Insulation Separation – If you are outdoors in a cold environment and sleeping on a cold surface, such as the ground, make sure that you lay down an adequate pad between yourself and the cold surface which has insulating properties.
Traveling to Warmer Climates
- Sheets – Thin, cotton bed sheets are the ideal bedding encasement; the cotton helps to absorb sweat and allow a bit more air to circulate than other materials, such as nylon and wool.
- Open the Window – This may seem to be the most obvious, but sometimes it is overlooked. Opening the window may help to create some airflow, aiding in sweat absorption.
- Open the (Right) Shades – If you are staying in a room where you have the control over the blinds, you should open them prudently. Close the shades on any windows where sunlight is streaming in, and open them on the shaded side. This may force you to switch the position of the shades halfway through the day, but you will thank yourself come bedtime.
- Electric Fan – A fan may be sometimes more ideal than opening the windows; some accommodations may not allow windows to be opened, others may not be so secure from potential burglars. Also, opening a window without a screen could let some pesky insects in. A fan will do when a window can’t be opened, allowing for circulation to at least help to evaporate some sweat.
- Stay Still – When lying in bed, try not to move. Moving, especially constantly, inhibits the body from cooling down to its potential.
Sleeping in Humid Environments
Humidity makes it much more difficult for sweat to evaporate, making for a potentially uncomfortable night, especially when coupled with warmer weather than you are used to.
- Open the Window – It’s already been stated, but for humid environments, especially hot ones, it is best to do so an hour before planning on hitting the sack, to allow enough time for circulation to regulate the temperature.
- Sleep Spread-Eagle – If you have the space, it is best to sleep in a spread-eagle position, with arms and legs spread wide and away from the body. This will help the body not retain so much heat and moisture, allowing you to feel cooler, longer.
Sleeping in Dryer Environments
- Stay Hydrated – In a very dry environment, such as a desert, staying hydrated is not only the key to survival, but it is also essential to helping you fall asleep. In a dry climate, you are more susceptible to becoming dehydrated, as your lose a tiny bit of moisture even with each breath you take. Dehydration will cause many people to wake up in the middle of the night, effectively destroying a restful slumber.
Traveling to Areas with More Daylight
- Set the Mood – In your room, filter out as much light as you can by shutting all the shades and turning off electronics. Light suppresses the secretion of the sleep-inducing melatonin, so places with extra daylight, such as the arctic regions in the summer, already have you at a disadvantage.
Traveling to Areas with Less Daylight
- Don’t Sleep Too Early – Oversleeping can be almost as devastating to your health and wellbeing as getting too little rest, so it is important when traveling to places with few daylight hours not to succumb to falling asleep soon after dark. Be active, and stay in a well-lit environment, tricking your body to not get tired as soon as the sun is down.
- Stay Positive – Many people in areas with short daylight hours experience depression, called Sleep Affective Disorder. Stave off this mood by exercising, being active socially, and getting just enough sleep.
Falling Asleep with an Active Mind
I’m sure that all of us have at one point or another had difficulty in falling asleep due to racing thoughts; I know that I have this almost every night. As a traveler, perhaps you are worried about how things are going back at the office without you, or back at home, or maybe you are just super-excited about the adventure that you are on. Whatever the scenario, an overactive mind will no doubt hinder the ability to fall asleep fast.
- Read a Book or the Newspaper – A good story may be just the thing you need to take your mind off of anything else going on in your head that may be causing you stress, anxiety, or excitement. Reading helps because it focuses the mind on one thing.
- Don’t Read an E-Book or E-Newspaper – Though reading may help you fall asleep, an e-reader and its bright LCD screen will delay your body’s winding down process. Any kind of bright light can impede your ability to hit the sack on time.
General Rules to Sleep Well Anywhere
- Drink Properly Before Bedtime – Dehydration will often cause one to wake up at night, disturbing the most restful state of sleep. Though going to the bathroom may seem to do the same thing, it is much better to be slightly over-hydrated, and actually provides less of a chance of a mid-slumber wake-up. However, we need to be careful of what we consume before hitting the sack. Caffeinated drinks, such as colas, coffee, and teas, will no doubt hurt your ability to fall asleep. Alcohol, surprisingly enough, can be just as harmful to a person trying to get a good night’s sleep; though the popular depressant may allow one to fall asleep quickly, it prohibits the sleeper from sustaining the state of rest all the way through the night.
- Bring Sleep Aids – Bring what you must so that you can make the most of your limited time while traveling. If you think an oral sleep aid will help, bring them and use them. Eye masks and ear plugs may also help if you are in a louder or brighter environment than you are used to. Put on some ambient music if you must.
- Exercise – Exercise will definitely help you get the blood flowing, and staying active will allow you to get a restful sleep and let you wake up feeling more energetic.
- Adjust Lighting – Light is probably the single most-important factor to sleep, which is why it has been mentioned often. When you wake up at the destination on your first morning, try to wake up early and go outside and get some sunlight immediately, to help your brain start adjusting. When you go to sleep, gradually dim the lights as it approaches bedtime, and stay away from bright lights because it will confuse your body’s internal clock and delay restful sleep.