Can travel disrupt your sleep? – Jet Lag & More

Last Updated on August 11, 2021

Travelling is something that many people love to do. Whereas, for others, it is a core part of their work. Regardless of the reason why you are travelling, good sleep promotes wellness which lets you get the most out of any trip, no matter if it’s a vacation or a business venture.

It is not uncommon for travellers to struggle with sleep. There are many causes for poor sleep on holiday, but you can take concrete steps that might improve it both in transit and during the rest of your stay. In today’s guide, we’ll try to help you figure out ‘Can travel disrupt your sleep?’ and give you some tips on how to sleep better when you go on your next adventure.

How can travel disrupt your sleep?

Can travel disrupt your sleep?

Travelling abroad (or in the country) can lead to new and exciting experiences, but it can also bring possible drawbacks. For example, it can be hard to fully enjoy a trip when you can’t sleep and you aren’t well-rested. Here are the most common factors that can disrupt your sleep and make it harder for you to get the much-needed rest you deserve:

Travel Fatigue

Travel fatigue can be caused by both physical and mental stress on your body. The symptoms of travel fatigue are exhaustion, headaches, sleep loss, and other types of discomforts. There are many aspects of a trip that can contribute to it and they are the following:

  • Fear of flying on a plane or any other type of travel such as ships, trains, busses, cars, etc.
  • People might get anxious about issues arising during the vacation/business trip
  • Others may stress about problems associated with packing, arriving on time, missing your flight and other logistics regarding the stay
  • Motion sickness and jet leg are a thing which some individuals can experience during travelling
  • People’s rest can be disturbed by the lengthy travel days
  • Another factor that can play a role in someone’s travel fatigue is delays or interruptions to the itinerary
  • There are people who are unable to sleep while travelling because they need to be sitting upright in a plane, train, or car
  • Pressurized airplane cabins can contribute to your dehydration, bloating, constipation, and even respiratory tract infections when travelling in the air.
  • Some individuals consume large amounts of coffee and alcohol when travelling, which can also cause fatigue 
  • Leg swelling, stiffness, and reduced physical activity can result from extended periods in a seated position.

Overall, travel fatigue can occur during almost any type and length of travelling, and it might make you sick in the process.

Jet Lag

Long-distance flights that cross three or more time zones can often cause jet lag. Typically, upon arrival, an individual’s circadian rhythm is still anchored in their home time zone, which creates a misalignment with the local time at the destination they’ve arrived in.

The main symptom of jet lag is difficulty sleeping. There are other symptoms such as impaired physical or mental performance, daytime sleepiness, gastrointestinal problems, and overall malaise.

Usually, jet lag lasts for a few days but can go on for up to a few weeks until the person’s rhythm with local time is synchronized. Jet lag can be more severe when travelling east and over multiple time zones. However, today, you can take jet-leg supplements to make the experience less trying and intrusive for your body.

Schedule Changes

Alterations to a person’s schedule, such as their bedtime, can contribute to sleep problems. It may be hard to fall asleep or sleep through the night if there is an interruption to your regular sleep routine.

People tend to want to overload their daily schedule and squeeze the most into each day on vacations and business trips. Unfortunately, it is possible that this will lead to overstimulation and insufficient time for sleep, making you tired and sleepy throughout your stay.

Diet & Exercise Changes

Travel is often treated as a welcome break from normal routines, but changes to established habits may play a role in sleep disruptions.

Travellers can be inclined to drink more alcohol or eat heavier meals, both of which can affect their sleep patterns. Also, while travelling, regular exercise may be reduced or altered, which means changing your routine. This might have a negative impact on the quality of your sleep.

Sleep Settings

Generally speaking, people who spend the first night in an unfamiliar environment tend to have a worse sleep. This was first detected in sleep clinics, in which researchers discovered a consistent ‘first-night effect’.

It appears that this effect is not limited to sleep clinics. The research found that first-night sleep quality was reduced even in an inviting setting such as a nice resort. According to some experts, this is an evolutionary survival strategy that keeps part of the brain active when you’re sleeping in a new place.

Sleeping improves after the first night, but keep in mind that it may not be the case when traveling. If the accommodations come with too much light or noise, it can be hard to get a good night’s sleep.

Tips for better sleep when you travel

Tips for better sleep when you travel

Let’s be honest, nothing can upset your sleep schedule quite like getting on an airplane and jetting off to a foreign land. In general, we all have an optimal period in which our bodies want to sleep – typically, that’s between 11 pm and 7 am. The medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, Charlene Gamaldo, calls it our ‘circadian window.’ 

She says that if you end up travelling across two or more time zones, it can end up wreaking havoc on your circadian window and disrupting your sleep. That’s why next, we’ll talk about a few tips that will keep sleep disruption to a minimum when you’re travelling for work or fun. They are the following:

Move your bedtime

Three days before you are scheduled to travel, move your bedtime an hour earlier or later, depending on the time zone you’ll be travelling to. Then, you can add another hour on the second and a  third one the next day. It will take one day per time zone for your body to adjust, so planning ahead can help ease the transition.

Try to sync with the local flow

If you land when people are awake in the middle of the day, that is the schedule you want to do as well (if possible). If you have to be awake for the whole day when you get there, try to sleep as much as you can on the plane. In comparison, if you are going to be landing at night, sleep as much as you can while in the air.

Keep your schedule the trip is short

Keep your schedule at home in mind if you are going to be staying less than two days on your trip. That’s because, by the time your body adapts to the changes, it’ll be time to come home. Therefore, when possible, request that any obligations or meetings happen during the equivalent of your peak waking hours at home. This way, you can prevent the disturbance in your sleep cycle.

Recalibrate your clock with light

If your flight lands first thing in the morning, bring along a pair of sunglasses to protect you from the sun’s rays. It is better to get maximal light exposure in the late morning and early afternoon as it will shift your rhythms closer to your destination’s time zone.

Your goal is to get your clock to recalibrate closer to your bedtime destination. If you are travelling west, your best bet is to try to get some light exposure in the early evening. If you want to push your rhythm a bit later, eat outside or take a walk.

Move your body and exercise

When you are ready to begin the day, Gamaldo recommends taking a warm shower and heading outside for exercise to signal your body that it is time to start working. This will increase your body temperature, which will trigger your circadian rhythm. 

Take melatonin supplements

Melatonin is the hormone that prepares your body for sleep, and it rises about two hours before nightfall. So your body might need a little nudge in that direction if you are travelling. Melatonin is a non-prescription sleep aid that can be used in doses of up to 10 milligrams.

When your schedule is off, melatonin supplements will help your body produce it. However, understand that melatonin is not a cure-all for jet lag. Light exposure during the day is more effective than light exposure at night for resetting your internal clock.

Can sleeping pills help with sleep while travelling?

Can sleeping pills help with sleep while travelling?

Sleeping pills include prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications and supplements. It is possible to sleep when in transit or at your destination because almost all of the formulas make you feel sleepy.

Sleep aids may be appealing, but it is essential to consider their downsides as well. They can make travelling problematic, especially if you need to drive because they might provoke significant grogginess. The risk of blood clots can be raised by the use of sedatives on long distance flights.

The effects of sleep aids can carry over to the next day, slowing your thinking and reaction time. In addition, falls or other accidents are more likely to occur when sleep aids are used. If you want to evaluate the benefits and risks of sleep aids, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about which sleeping pills are appropriate for you specifically.

Bottom line

To conclude our guide on ‘Can travel disrupt your sleep’, we would like to say that it can, but there are measures you can take to lessen the fatigue and to avoid messing up with your sleep schedule and routine.

Overall, you should consider the type of trip you’re having, its longevity, and how many zones you will pass when travelling in order to have a plan of action. Now it’s our turn to hear from you if any questions regarding the subject were left unanswered. If you want to share some information, we would gladly hear about it in the comments below.

Isabelle Harris
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