Whether it’s by car, train or plane, it can sometimes be tough to get a good night’s sleep when traveling. You’re away from the comfort of your own bed, and you could be traveling with people who cry, sneeze, talk loudly or watch a movie without headphones. But you can still sleep well while traveling. Learn how traveling across time zones impacts your sleep, what causes jet lag, and how you can feel rested the next time you travel across the country.
Traveling through time zones disrupts the circadian rhythm, according to sleep expert Christopher Lindholst, the CEO and co-founder of the New York City-based fatigue management company MetroNaps and chairman of the National Sleep Foundation’s SleepTech Council.
“Humans have not evolved to deal with this rapid travel, as it is only in the last 60 years that commercial jet aviation has been possible,” Lindholst said. “The subsequent confusion you experience is likely to reduce the sleep you get in the initial days of your travel, as you struggle to sleep at the right time in your new time zone.”
This is often known as jet lag, where your sleep pattern or circadian rhythm is not aligned with the hours of sunlight from a different time zone, said Dr. Maximiliano Tamae Kakazu, who specializes in sleep medicine and disorders at Spectrum Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“It can make people feel tired or sleepy during the daytime,” he said. “This is usually temporary and may take a few days to adjust to the new time zone.”
Jet lag can affect sleep habits if the changes are perpetuated (irregular sleep, naps) or there is a predisposition, such as insomnia, health problems or stress, according to Kakazu.
“The best way to adjust your circadian rhythm to the new time zone is trying to correct your sleep habits with the new local time,” he said, noting that “approximately one time zone per day” is typical.
Therefore if you travel across two time zones, you can estimate adjustment at about two days; three zones is about three days, and so on.
Timing and planning are key
Insufficient sleep can have a major impact on cognitive functions, emotions and the ability to cope with stress, and even bowel movements, according to Lindholst.
“These issues disappear once you adjust to your destination, but long-term sleep deprivation has major negative effects on your physical health and cognitive abilities,” he said.
Lindholst added diet also may disrupt your energy while traveling, and what you eat and drink are vital.
“Hydration is important, and spicy meals are not recommended,” Lindholst says. “But the timing of your meals is even more important, as your digestive system is a co-regulator of your body’s rhythm. You can use meals to help ‘reset’ your circadian rhythm and help you cope with jet lag.”
To have the best travel experience, avoid last-minute preparations if possible, by planning in advance, said Dr. Ann Romaker, director of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center’s sleep medicine center.
“Try to maintain adequate sleep in the run up to the trip,” Romaker said. “Wear comfortable clothes, carry snacks — high protein, some carbs — and maintain hydration. Know how many time zones you are crossing, and what time you will arrive, taking into account both the local time and your own biological time.”
She also suggests following the sleep schedule of the destination time as closely as you can, and try to have a quiet, comfortable sleep environment.
“If traveling by car, by all means, take your pillow and your weighted blanket, if those are important to you,” Romaker said. “If traveling by boat or air, space and weight limitations apply, and the individual has to make the call as to what to pack. It always helps to travel with a sleep mask and ear plugs, just in case.”