We all go on holiday for some rest and relaxation… and then often find we can’t sleep.
The bad news is that there's a biological reason why most of us won’t sleep very well on the first night. Scientists have discovered that we sleep poorly when we first arrive at an unfamiliar place because one half of our brain stays more alert to “keep watch” in case of danger.
“It goes back to our evolutionary past,” says Dr Guy Meadows, clinical director of The Sleep School and brand ambassador for Bensons for Beds. “It’s a natural survival tendency. We see it in wild animals and birds too. Dolphins will sleep with one eye closed while the other is looking out for sharks. On the first night in a hotel, our brains are more vigilant, looking out for 'lions and tigers'. It’s the same area of the brain that we see activated in chronic insomnia sufferers.
“The key is to try to dilute the sense that it’s a foreign environment. Humans are very routine-based. If you have a pillow that you’re quite particular about, pack it - it'll give your body a sense of recognition. Or take a family photo to keep by your bedside to give a sense of home away from home.”
For the best chance of catching some holiday shut-eye, Meadows talks us through the techniques that work best.
Before you go
Pre-empt jetlag by tweaking your sleeping patterns in the lead-up to your trip. “Jetlag is a confusion between your internal body clock and the actual time, and it gets much worse when you’re travelling east as you’re losing time," says Meadows. But you can adapt your body clock before arrival. Adjust the time you go to sleep and wake up in the days before you leave, so that you're moving towards your new time zone. Even if you're flying longhaul, and can't sleep to your destination's schedule, getting closer by a few hours will take less time to adapt.
On the flight
Sleeping tablets may seem oh-so-tempting when you’re desperate for a quick fix. But they’re not always ideal to take on flights as you need to be awake when you land. “It’s increasingly becoming a really big problem for cabin crew, who have to try to wake up drugged individuals who are out for the count,” says Meadows. “I would not advise taking them, especially if you’re not used to them.” Instead, he advises upping your comfort levels. “I'll wear comfortable clothes, a top with a big hood, an eye mask and ear plugs, to make myself a little cocoon,” says Meadows. “I’ll tell my neighbour that I don’t want to be disturbed, so I don’t get woken up every time the cabin crew comes round offering drinks.” He doesn't indulge, either. "Planes can be incredibly stimulating. I know it makes the flight more boring, but it’s best to avoid caffeine, alcohol and watching films, as they keep your brain more awake.”
To get some shut-eye, Meadows says it's best to recline your seat - just know that the person behind you might hate you. The British Chiropractic Association recommend leaning back at a 135-degree angle to help reduce pressure on the spine. Window seats obviously mean you have less chance of being disturbed if you want to nap. And if you’re willing to look utterly ridiculous on the plane, try an 'ostrich pillow', which envelops your head.
Don't leave things to chance - if you're easily disturbed by noise, you should tee up your hotel room when you book it. Midway down a corridor is usually the safest bet - that means you're away from lifts and exits. In large hotels, try a room on a higher level, reducing the chance of being kept awake by the sound of large groups, restaurants and ballrooms. For low-rise hotels, rooms towards the back are often quieter - even if you do have to sacrifice a view. But above all, try not to worry. “If the noise is really bad, you can always ask reception if they can move you,” says Meadows. “But often the thing that keeps people awake isn’t the actual noises from outside - it’s the chatter in the mind around that. It’s your mind telling you, ‘I’m never going to sleep here’ and the anxiety around that.”
Don't go all out with a big dinner on your first night, either. Heavy meals aren't ideal before bedtime, as your body has to work harder to digest them. Try to have protein with your last meal of the day - one that’s rich in tryptohan, an amino acid that's used to make melatonin, the hormone which regulates our sleep cycles (turkey has it in high quantities, as des fish, seeds, eggs and tofu). Omega-3 fatty acids (in fish, nuts and seeds) can also help to relax the mind and muscles.
In your hotel room
“The amount of light stimulation is a problem these days,” says Meadows. “Especially when you’re away for work, it’s tempting to be on your laptop until you go to sleep. But I’d recommend switching off phones and laptops 30-40 minutes before you go to bed.” Light from screens and outside sources can affect melatonin production. “Keep your room as dark as possible - this includes switching off standby lights and televisions if you have to,” says Meadows. It’s also worth checking whether your hotel has blackout blinds, and if it has a pillow menu, don't feel guilty about requesting several options.
Be careful with the air conditioning, too. "We tend to sleep better when the temperature is 16/17 degrees,” says Meadows. “It can be challenging when you’re away. If you have the air con on, then the air can be really dry and you need more humidity, so it’s about striking a balance between the two.”
Mindfulness is one of the techniques used by the Sleep Centre to successfully cure insomnia. “It helps calm those threat-detecting areas of your brain,” says Meadows. “Practise it on the plane or when you’re in bed ready to sleep. You might lie there just focusing on the movement of your breath, as a way to notice and let go of thoughts in a non-judgmental, accepting manner. This is also why you should stay away from your phone and computer: the physical act of sending emails and texts, he says, can increase stress levels, which is also counteractive to getting a restful sleep.
Photo: Rex Features