Happy February! If you’re like most people, you’ve made a resolution to be healthier this year. Did you know getting optimal sleep is a big part of that? As a 26-year veteran flight attendant, I’ve tried every trick there is. If you want to optimize your sleep while traveling, this post shares all my best secrets.
Without adequate sleep, our bodies produce more ghrelin, the hormone that makes us hungry. Lack of sleep also reduces our bodies production of leptin, the hormone that makes you full. So, not sleeping well can sabotage your efforts to lose weight. Our bodies are designed to sleep so we can heal. You are putting your health at risk if you aren’t getting adequate rest. So what are some ways to optimize sleep when traveling?
Chances are if you’re a crew member, you’ll understand this photo. One of the first things I do when I get to my hotel room is to find a coat hanger with clips and clip the drapes closed. I’m a little crazy about getting my room dark. I also bring electrical tape to tape the edges of the drapes so no lights sneaks in. I’ll also place it over any small electronic lights such as the TV or the hotel phone. Whenever I get up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I never turn any lights on. The minute that light is on, I’m awake and struggle to get back to sleep. And I’ve always got my eye mask on my nightstand just in case I’ve missed something. Complete darkness can really make a big difference in your quality of sleep. Since I’ve started doing this, I’ve actually started dreaming again and wake up feeling so much more rested.
Your room temperature is also important for sound sleeping. The ideal temperature is anywhere between 60 and 67 degrees. Any warmer or colder can make it difficult to fall or stay asleep. (I can’t fall asleep without socks on.) Just before you fall asleep, your body temperature naturally drops. A warm shower or bath, especially with Epsom salts (which contain sleep inducing magnesium) is an easy way to speed up your body’s cooling off process once you get out.
I know some crew members who like to sleep with the windows open, but in some hotels this just isn’t possible. There is also the noise factor. A trick to drown out some of the surrounding noise is either ear plugs or a sound machine. You can use an app on your phone when traveling, but ideally you don’t want your phone on when you go to sleep. Speaking of your phone…
Electronics and WiFi
Almost everyone who travels uses their cell phone as an alarm clock. But did you know that one of the worst things for your sleep is having your phone plugged in next to your head!? Electromagnetic fields disrupt your body’s ability to rest. I like to unplug whatever I can, especially if it’s next to my bed, including the alarm clock and the hotel phone if it’s cordless. If my phone isn’t charged and I am using it for an alarm, it’s plugged in across the room and always on airplane mode when I go to sleep. When I’m at home I’m even more extreme. The phone is in another room, my WiFi is off, and I have my breakers turned off in the bedroom. I realize you can’t turn off the WiFi in most hotel rooms, but in some you can unplug the router, and you can always turn the WiFi off on your devices. If you wear an iWatch, Fitbit, or any other kind of tracker, be sure to take these off and ideally turn them off before you go to sleep.
Likely, you’ve read about blue light disrupting your melatonin production. What this means is that before bed you shouldn’t be watching TV or scrolling through Instagram on your phone. I know many people who cannot fall asleep without the TV on. Our bodies are designed to sleep in darkness. The light receptors in our eyes can pick up the dim light from the television preventing sound sleep and can even cause depression. Don’t sleep with the TV on.
Ideally, you’ll want to avoid electronics before bed, but if you have to be on your devices, there are a few ways to mitigate this. You can change the settings on your phone to have a red or orange tint. On the iPhone or iPad, go to: Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Color Filters > Color Tint. Then at the bottom, you can play around with the intensity and hue. On Android devices, you can install Twilight, and on your computer you can install Iris, which allows different filters for different times of day. If you don’t want to bother with any of those, you can wear blue blocking glasses. I like Ra Optics and Blublox. These glasses block the blue light that causes disruption in our melatonin production and will enable a better night’s sleep. Here’s a good article about blue light and your sleep.
Stay on Your Body Clock
I know this one is extremely difficult. If you have to travel internationally for work, it can be next to impossible.
In December, I was on call for the entire month. What this means to my non-airline friends is I need to be ready to go (essentially anywhere) within 3 hours of a phone call from crew schedule. My month started with a 3:30 am wake up call to go to Hong Kong in about 5 hours. I don’t like to fly long haul and certainly not without a little more warning and/0r preparation.
For most of us crew members, we try to stay on local base time wherever we travel. This particular trip involved a 16-hour flight, a 24-hour layover, and a 13 hour flight back to LA. Staying on your body clock is extremely difficult in situations like these. On the layover, when I was wide awake at 4 a.m. Hong Kong time, I decided to head down to the gym. This was about noon LA time, so there was no way I could sleep. I ran into the captain there, and I asked him how he managed his sleep flying this trip so often. He told me after his workout, he went upstairs for breakfast then slept until our pick up that evening. Essentially, he does stay on LA time while in Hong Kong. Of course I do fly with people that can sleep anywhere and anytime, but unfortunately I am not one of them.
Avoid Sleep Aids
I’m not going to lie and tell you I’ve never taken them. Back in the early 2000s, I flew exclusively internationally and took Ambien on a regular basis. Besides dependence and increasing tolerance levels, sleeping pills have lots of side effects and can even cause memory impairment and depression. Of course you probably know alcohol disrupts your sleep, too. As difficult as it might be, try to avoid that glass of wine before bed thinking it will help you sleep better. You may fall asleep faster, but your sleep won’t be as restorative.
Obviously I’m a big fan of natural and drug-free solutions. Putting your legs up the wall is a great yoga pose that can help relax you and calm your nervous system through gravity. The best part is that you can do it while you’re in bed! I love essential oils, and lavender has a lot of calming and sleep promoting properties. A few drops of lavender essential oil on your feet before bed can help you become relaxed and fall asleep more easily. Finally, a magnesium supplement (such as magnesium glycinate) or a spray taken or used just before bed can give you deeper, more restful sleep. Here are some more great natural hacks that can really make a difference in your sleep routine.
I know there is a lot of information in here and some of it can be overwhelming. Try one or two things at a time until they become as regular as brushing your teeth. I’ve managed to adapt all of these things and now I don’t even think about it. Since I’ve implemented these strategies my sleep has improved 99%! Of course I have an occasional bad night’s sleep but they are a rarity these days! Is there anything you do to optimize your sleep while traveling that I haven’t mentioned? Comment below and let me know!
Did you know that Four Sigmatic has more than mushroom coffee? They also have some great elixirs such as reishi and the hot cacao with reishi, which actually help promote sleep? These individual packets are perfect for travel. Just add hot water to get a delicious beverage to drink right before bed. Get 10% off your purchase with promo code Wendra.
Barb Young says
Hi Wendea! I enjoy reading your blogs. Trying to be healthier this year so I like your suggestions on getting sleep. I too have been hooked on ambien for too long. Hope you are doing well
Thanks Barb! The sleep thing can be really tough with our job! Hope some of the suggestions help and hopefully you can get off the ambient! Miss you!
Ha, I never thought of clipping the hotel curtains shut with a clothing hanger, love that!! Missing out on Z’s is one of the number one reasons I think that I end up getting more vulnerable to airborne flu/cold viruses on the plane because it stresses out my body so much. And feet on the wall pose…YES, I always forget about that one and its SO important. Thanks for this blog!
Mina, the clothes hanger trick is standard in the flight crew world! And you are right, not getting enough sleep can definitely make you more vulnerable to getting sick. The only time I get sick is when I’m run down. Legs up the wall is one of my favorites to help me when I need to relax and fall asleep.
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