Often work and jobs take us away from our home and our usual routines and rituals–perhaps you don’t get your normal homemade meal with the family, your dose of Netflix on the couch, or your go-to pre-bedtime drink. This deviation from what your body expects makes it hard to get a good night’s sleep. We’re going to focus on some sleep aid tips to help you keep your routines and rituals in place even when you’re out of your element, so you can get the best sleep possible.
Our tips are backed by science and our researchers have combed through hundreds of medical, neuroscience, and psychology journal articles to provide you the insider knowledge into helping you find the best sleep aid tips.
Our sleep aid tips for how to get consistent sleep in different places include,
- Sleeping while traveling
- Sleeping away from home
Before we get into those tips, we’ll first talk a little about why our bodies have a rough time adjusting to changes in our schedule and routine.
The importance of rituals and routines
For many of us, our routines and rituals are sacred. When we get out of our element and our groove, things just seem to be a bit off. Well, it’s not just a feeling we get, there are both biological and psychological reasons for feeling just a bit off when we get out of our routines.
Biology & neuroscience – Homeostasis and the brain’s preference for consistency
Homeostasis is a physical state when interdependent elements tend towards a stable equilibrium, that is, a “consistent state.” Our brain attempts to keep this consistent state with different body mechanisms. The hypothalamus, for instance, helps regulate our body temperature by causing us to sweat or shiver, food intake making us hungry or full, and even out sleep causing us to yawn or wake up.
The hypothalamus is one of the most important structures in the brain. Its main job is to maintain homeostasis for the body, but is implicated in other major functions such as sleep cycles/circadian rhythms, hormone regulation, and healing. Because the body wants to maintain a consistent state, the hypothalamus steps in when there is any disruption.
For example, when you get a paper cut, there is a disruption to your bodies’ expected state. While the immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems are important here, the hypothalamus recognizes when the body isn’t in equilibrium and signals the nervous system to activate all of these other systems!
As you can see above in figures A and B, the hypothalamus is situated in the midbrain to be a major activation point for other brain areas. It sits just under the thalamus, which is known as the switchboard or control center of the brain and just above the pituitary gland, which is called the ‘master gland’ and controls the endocrine, or hormone system.
In short, we have a biological desire for consistency in the brain.
When your consistency gets “off”–whether due to a paper cut or change in your routine– the hypothalamus goes into high gear and tries to figure out how to get back to equilibrium.
Your rituals and routines are biologically desired! They’re not just idiosyncrasies, they’re something your body likes and wants. Our sleep schedule is one of the most important routines, and we’ll dive a little bit more into the science of why our body likes consistent sleep.
Consistency for sleep’s sake!
Sleep is no different! The hypothalamus oversees our circadian rhythms, which govern our biological clock. So even our sleep-wake cycles look for a certain level of consistency.
When we get into a routine or ritual our body expects it, so when we have to sleep away from our normal environment and our routine is disrupted our sleep can be disrupted too.
We’ve previously looked at ways to alter your sleep schedule and how to create a good sleep hygiene routine, and now we’re going to talk about what happens when you can’t keep things consistent because you’re sleeping in different places. Our sleep aid tips will help you rest and get high quality sleep no matter where you’re sleeping.
When you get off your sleep schedule it can cause shifts in mood, weaken concentration, give you that ‘always tired’ feeling, make you less alert, weaken memory and slow your body down.
Sleep aid tip #1- Sleeping when traveling
Traveling is a huge part of our lives, but our bodies aren’t built for constant travel. When we travel it disrupts our bodies’ expected states, so it can be difficult to function and sleep. We’ll talk about how to sleep during air or ground travel.
Sleep aid tips for air travel
Traveling by plane is essential. However, flying is also a huge disruptor to sleep. Often we are waking up earlier than usual to get to the airport, navigate security, and wait to board, and all we can hope for is a chance to catch some Zzz’s during the flight.
Yet, it’s not always easy to sleep on a plane, and some people even say that it’s impossible for them. We’re going to talk about a few ways to help you get some rest during the flight!
- Properly situating your body
- Sleep environment & blocking distractions
Sleep Aid Tip #1.1 for Flying Properly situating your body during flight
Seat comfort is the key factor to help you get to sleep during a flight. Sadly, however, most airlines don’t use scientific analyses, but only subjective reports to make seats comfortable. However, no matter what airline you’re flying on, you can help control your posture in the seat to help you get better sleep.
The diagram below shows the correct positions that are most conducive to sleeping on a plane. Tan, Chen, Kimman, and Rauterberg from the Designed Intelligence Group from the Department of Industrial Design at the Technical University Eindhoven in the Netherlands directly attempted to investigate how people sleep.
According to their research, these positions are found to have the most comfort for long-haul flight passengers and even out the pressure distribution on your body from your weight. In general these are positions where the torso is slightly turned towards the seat in front of you, and when your head is perpendicular to the backrest.
Sleep aid tip for Flying #1.2 Sleep environment & blocking distractions
There is no doubt that being in a crowded aircraft can cause a lot of distractions when you’re awake, let alone when you’re trying to get to sleep. One of the key ways to help get some sleep on a plane is to eliminate as many distractions as possible.
We’ve previously talked about how you can set up a proper sleep environment, and trying to recreate the environment you usually have is a good way to keep that consistency in your body.
Some possible ways to do this are:
- Wear an eye mask to block out the light
- Close the shade on the window to keep more light out
- Put on headphones and play soft music or earplugs for silence
- Open the air vent to keep your body cool
Some people use supplements like melatonin, kava, or valerian to get to sleep, and that’s fine too. We recommend that you don’t try it on the plane for the first time, and consult your doctor before use. Remember that flying at high altitude is unusual for our bodies and that we can react differently to supplements.
Sleep aid tips for land travel (trains and automobiles)
Sleeping on a train or in a car can also be tough. The rides are often less smooth and there are more sudden movements and stops.
Sleep aid tip for land travel #1.3- Cozy and snug
Sudden movements and jostling during travel can wake us up and even make us motion sick. Our bodies are used to being still during sleep. Naturally our bodies engage in muscle atonia or a state when our muscles freeze and aren’t able to move, so when our bodies feel movement, it disrupts our sleep patterns and our brains expectation for what is supposed to be happening when we sleep.
Sleep deprivation can also increase the susceptibility to motion sickness, so trying to avoid getting moved around while trying to sleep on a moving vehicle is a critical.
One way to prevent this is to snuggle yourself into a seat, or even wedge yourself between blankets or your personal belongings so that you are less likely to be moved around.
Another key way to prevent motion sickness and to keep your body asleep is to properly support your head. Using neck pillows are a great way to do this, but also be sure to keep the rest of your head as stable as possible.
You can do this by attempting to lean against something while sleeping (like the side of a door, or window) or even resting a second neck pillow just below your ears to help keep your head in place. This allows your head and brain to not be susceptible to what is called Coriolis force that can disrupt your balance and can cause headaches.
Sleep aid tip #2- Sleeping away from home
When you’re home you have your morning routine and your bedtime rituals that signal to your body it’s time to wake up and it’s time to wind down. Yet, when we travel and sleep in different places, we don’t always have the opportunities to do all of those “rituals”.
We’re going to look at ways to help maintain your morning routines and bedtime rituals to help keep your sleep at its best quality when traveling or away from home. We’ll talk about three scenarios for this:
- Sleeping in another bed- hotels, BnB’s, and other accommodations
- Sleeping in different timezones
Sleep aid tips for sleeping in other beds & rooms
When we sleep in a different environment, we might not have the same bedtime rituals or morning routines. As we’ve discussed above, it’s important for our bodies and brains that we maintain consistent routines and rituals, especially when it comes to sleep. Here are some tips on how to try to maintain those routines when traveling
Sleep aid tip 2.1: Bring home with you when you’re away
One way to keep your routines consistent is to bring things with you that you use or do before bed or when you wake up. These could be any number of things from journal writing, books, or even a usual beverage or snack food.
You should then try to keep your bedroom routine as close as possible to what you do at home. If you’re reading a book at home before bed, take that book with you and read it before you fall asleep in your hotel. If you eat early at home, try to keep the same schedule on the road. If you have a particular favorite coffee or tea, bring some with you to brew in the morning.
This helps your body and brain to recognize the pattern that helps you go to sleep or wake up in the morning.
Not everything is able to come with you, especially family and pets, but you can bring pictures or other reminders. Putting them around your room can help remind you of them and induce similar (though not as strong) emotional responses in the brain to actually seeing the person or image. You can even do this by taking a picture of your bedroom or a picture of the view from your window to look at in the morning or night.
Sleep aid tip 2.2: Sleeping in different timezones
We’ve briefly talked about how to adjust your sleep schedules due to jet-lag, but that doesn’t cover everything when it comes to sleeping in different timezones. Travel fatigue can be a major factor when traveling.
Travel fatigue is caused by the associated worry about, preparation for, and actual travel along with environmental adjustment. Other factors that matter here are elevation changes, sunlight exposure, and activity times.
When planning, try to keep in mind the timezone difference! If you can, adjust your trip so you can arrive in the morning if you’re going to leave late at night, and try to get a direct or non-stop flight.
If you’re traveling by car or train, try and adjust your arrival and departure to fit your regular daily schedule for eating, naping, working, and sleeping.
If that’s not possible, try to fly during the day and take stops in places that have intermittent changes in timezones. So for example if you’re flying from Los Angeles to London (8 hour time difference) try to look for a stop in Toronto, New York, or Boston (3 hours different from Los Angeles). Our bodies are better able to handle 2-4 hour time zone changes at a time, and even a brief stop can help your body get used to the environment.
Recap of Sleep aid tips for when your routine is disrupted
Traveling is a huge part of our lives and is becoming increasingly more popular and important. As much as we love or are required to travel, it takes a toll on our bodies and brains, especially when it comes to sleep. We’ve talked about sleep aid tips for traveling both while in transit and when you’re in your destination. Remember that our bodies love to keep consistent schedules, routines, and rituals, so trying to maintain those as much as possible is critical to getting high quality sleep.
- find the right sleeping posture by properly supporting your body in a plane seat, and
- shut out distractions by controlling light and sound exposure.
When traveling by ground transportation,
- keep your body still by creating a snug, supportive area, and
- combat motion sickness with proper head support.
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, you still have to try to get your body adjusted to a new environment and sleep setting. Our sleep aid tips here recommend
- bring routine items and pictures of home with you to elicit the same or similar bodily responses to your normal rituals, and
- when traveling across time zones, try to adjust travel to match your usual schedule or take intermittent stops to help adjust to large time zone changes.