The Strange Reason Your Sleep Suffers When You Travel & What To Do
With summer fast approaching, many of us have travels to look forward to in the next few weeks. And as exciting as it can be to spend days away from home, the novelty tends to wear off around bedtime. It's not in your head: It's really hard to sleep in an unfamiliar bed!
Here's the interesting reason sleep tends to suffer when we travel, plus some sleep-promoting tips to keep in mind for when you're on the road.
Why do we tend to sleep worse when we travel?
Even if you're not visiting a new time zone, sleep doctor Daniel I. Rifkin, M.D., explains that traveling can affect your sleep due to what's known as the first-night effect, or FNE.
Physicians first came up with the concept when studying clinical data from polysomnography1 (sleep studies). They noted that the first night of sleep wasn't necessarily indicative of a person's true sleep habits. It took patients at least one night to ease into their new sleep setup.
Rifkin says that this idea can be applied outside the sleep lab, too. Any time you're sleeping in a new or unfamiliar environment, it's safe to say you'll have a longer sleep onset time—aka it will take you longer to fall asleep. "You'll also forgo your first rapid eye movement (REM) period in many cases," he adds.
This disruption occurs because our brains are busy taking stock of any potential threats in our new environment—even if we're not consciously aware of it. "Our subconscious brain knows that's not our normal place, so there's probably a little bit of heightened awareness," says Rifkin.
In one fascinating 2016 study out of Brown University2, researchers found that the left brain hemisphere tends to be more vigilant than the right hemisphere whenever we sleep in new surroundings. (This brain splitting is something a lot of animals do, but this was the first time it was demonstrated in humans!) The greater the difference between these two hemispheres, the longer it will take for you to fall asleep.
While the Brown study found that the brain typically adjusts after the first night in a new environment, you may find it takes you some more time to get back on track—particularly if you're traveling somewhere that has an uncomfortable bed, a noisy room, or any of the many other sleep disrupters.
Since the first-night effect can keep you awake for longer and eat into a cycle of your REM sleep—which is essential for memory consolidation—you may find yourself feeling a little foggy-headed on your first few mornings at your destination.
How to combat the first-night effect.
While tricking your subconscious mind is easier said than done, Rifkin says that there are some steps you can take to sleep better in a new environment.
For starters, stick to the same bedtime and wake-up time you have at home to minimize disruption. If you adjust anything, go to bed a little earlier than usual to account for the longer sleep onset time. Or, allow yourself to sleep in to catch some REM on the back end.
He tells his clients to keep their new bedroom environment as cool, dark, and quiet as possible, as these are the conditions our bodies tend to associate with sleep. To further get into a bedtime state of mind, he says you can even try to take a few deep breaths and visualize your bedroom at home before snoozing.
Even better yet, bring some familiar relics from your sleep space with you on your journey. Your eye mask, calming essential oil of choice, and sleep-promoting supplement are all worth packing in your carry-on.*
Any time you travel to a new place, it might take your sleep a night or two to catch up to you. The more you can recreate your sleep environment at home, the better your shut-eye—and, by extension, your whole trip!—can be.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.