Sleep Tips for Travel: How to Adjust to a Timezone Change
Melissa Halas, MA, RDN, CDE
Use these tips for a good night's sleep while traveling and adjusting to new time zones.
Sleep is so beneficial and critical to short and long-term brain health, mood, and productivity! But how much you move, your nighttime habits, and what you eat and drink all significantly impact your sleep.
So, if you feel like traveling might be hindering you from catching all the zzz's you need, here are some steps to be naturally active, wind down when needed, and evaluate your food choices ... all to get a better night’s sleep. Then, with a few adjustments to your routine, you’ll be saying “Good Morning” bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
Why Is Sleep So Important?
High-quality sleep helps lower the risk of inflammation associated with chronic disease and problems like hypertension, obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, impaired immunity, mood disorders, and loneliness.
Did you know your brain has a macroscopic waste clearance system that efficiently eliminates toxic metabolites while you sleep? Impressive! It’s called the glymphatic system, and it is primarily disengaged while we are awake—making restorative sleep absolutely essential so we can perform our best and keep our brains healthy while aging. (2)
Without enough restorative sleep, our bodies’ natural patterns are not operating at our best performance for optimal health. As a result, we can experience many detrimental effects on our brain’s performance impacting our choices.
What the Research Says about Sleep
Research shows that compared to those who sleep more than five hours, those who only sleep for four hours per night are more likely to eat and weigh more. Additionally, those who sleep fewer hours are more likely to report greater hunger and an increased desire for high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods. This can lead to late-night snacking, which negatively impacts your zzzs.
Also, after a restless night, life tends to be a s-t-r-u-g-g-l-e. With the brain on snooze, it can be challenging to think clearly, ultimately leading to increased stress levels and stress hormones. Being in a frequent state of stress can worsen symptoms, which then cycles back to yet another sleepless night.
While traveling may not be your normal pattern, it's still just as important to prioritize sleep when you're out of your usual nest. So, follow these steps to improve your sleep, and master the art of time zone changes while traveling!
7 Sleep Tips for Travel
Here are 7 key things to help you prepare for a timezone change and to adjust while traveling to maintain sleep quality. Keep reading for more about each.
Get some sun exposure early on.
Be aware of ambient light.
Unplug from electronics at bedtime.
Pay attention to caffeine.
Stick to normal mealtimes.
Evaluate alcohol intake.
1. Stay Active While Traveling
Skipping the moving sidewalks and walking the airport (in the right shoes, of course) is an excellent start to getting more activity. Exercise helps you release endorphins, creating a feeling of happiness and peace. Plus, moving burns up more energy, so you’ll be tired and not antsy at bedtime. In addition, exercise can help reduce feelings of anxiety and depression, which negatively impact sleep.
Sitting too much, regardless of physical activity level, is bad for your health. So whenever possible, get some movement in before heading to a business dinner. Even 20 minutes of weights, a walk outside, or on the treadmill can help!
2. Let the Sunshine In
Sun exposure will help you reset to new time zones, feel more energized, and boost your mood, making sleep time easier later.
When you wake up at the hotel, open the blinds and boost your exposure to natural light! Then get in some sunshine breaks whenever you can throughout the day.
When possible, walk part of the way before hailing a ride. Stick to the sunny side of the sidewalk to catch some rays.
Eat outside or by a window or skylight.
3. Dim it Down and Keep it Quiet
Pay attention to how ambient light affects your ability to dose off or disrupts your sleep throughout the night.
Create an environment that fosters better sleep quality by eliminating light that can contribute to unwanted wake-ups. For example, you may need to unplug or dim the hotel alarm clock.
Pack some black post-it notes for any lighting you find disruptive. Use a white noise app or turn on the bathroom fan if it’s noisy. The light transmitted by these devices keeps your brain from producing the hormones you need to sleep.
Avoid looking at screens before bed which keeps your brain wired and prevents it from shutting down.
4. Unplug and Disconnect
Your emails will still be there in the morning!
Turn off notifications on your phone. You can always choose 'focus' or 'do not disturb' and allow for any urgent calls to come through for select individuals.
Place your phone on the hotel desk out of your arm’s reach, making it less tempting for you to scroll through the news, answer emails, or view social media before sleep.
Consider winding down at night by reading a book, meditating, or journaling. Let go of the emotions you have from the day and focus on yourself by practicing a few minutes of deep breathing. This will help your mind and your body prepare for sleep.
Remember, while you may enjoy falling asleep to the TV, it’s best to be screen-free before bed for more restorative sleep.
5. Curb the CAFFEINE.
Don’t hate me. I understand! There are times I want to put coffee in my coffee. But consuming caffeine even six hours before bedtime can disrupt sleep, making it harder to fall asleep and prevent restful sleep. (3)
Gain awareness of your caffeine sensitivity and learn your cut-off time to evaluate how it’s impacting your sleep.
Evaluate caffeine sources. It may be in tea, soft drinks, energy drinks, ice cream, chocolate, and even some supplements and medications.
Try moving first before snacking. A 5-10 minute walk or stretch could be the answer if you need a mid-afternoon energy boost.
If you’re still hungry, reach for a healthy carb with a protein like an apple with string cheese or a banana with some nuts.
6. Eat on Time
As much as possible, try to stick to regular meal times. This way, you won’t be trying to find a restaurant that meets your food preferences at the last minute. This can result in a later dinner time, which can lead to poor choices from being hangry. It can also result in a later than reasonable bedtime, making you tired the next day. By choosing healthy balanced meals, your energy levels will be more consistent.
Figure out where you’re going to eat for dinner before you travel or during lunchtime. Use MyMenu Concierge for personalized guidance.
Eating too close to bedtime can result in indigestion and heartburn, which disrupts sleep. Aim to have your biggest meal at lunchtime and have a lighter dinner at least 2-3 hours before bed.
If a meal will be delayed significantly, buy a snack with fiber, healthy carbohydrates, and protein. Examples include a string cheese and a piece of fruit, a banana and some nuts, popcorn with olive oil, a hard-boiled egg, and some baby carrots, or a low-sugar yogurt and some fruit. Airports are offering healthier grab-n-go snacks—so set a goal to make sure you are prepared in case you are delayed and hungry. Avoid foods with excess saturated fat or refined sugar, which can slow blood flow to the brain and heart.
7. Evaluate Your Alcohol Intake
While alcohol may help you fall asleep initially, it can disrupt your deep sleep cycle.
First, pay attention to which types of alcohol and in what amounts impact your sleep. Then make the necessary adjustments.
For those who drink alcohol, many experts now recommend no more than one drink per day for both women and men.
Now that you have some new strategies ... choose one or two for your next trip – and soon you'll be a pro at getting high-quality sleep while traveling!
1. The Extraordinary Importance of Sleep: The Detrimental Effects of Inadequate Sleep on Health and Public Safety Drive an Explosion of Sleep Research, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6281147/
2. The Glymphatic System: A Beginner’s Guide. Neurochem Res 40, 2583–2599 (2015). doi: 10.1007/s11064-015-1581-6
3. Caffeine Effects on Sleep Taken 0, 3, or 6 Hours before Going to Bed, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (JCSM), 10.5664/jcsm.3170
Melissa Halas, MA, RDN, CDE, is CEO of SuperKids Nutrition and creator of the
Super Crew. She's a nationally recognized Registered Dietitian specializing in pediatrics, sports, and plant-based nutrition. Check out her books that promote plant-based eating for both children and adults, including The Plant-Based Boost, Nutrition Solutions for Athletes and Exercise Enthusiasts, The Plant-Based Boost Cookbook, 100+ Recipes for Athletes and Exercise Enthusiasts, The Super Crew’s Breakfast Cookbook for Kids, 50 Tasty Recipes + 100 Fun Nutrition Activities, and Healthy Eating for Families, The Ultimate Nutrition Guide for Kids, Parents, and Educators (in English and Spanish). Shop her books here.