How to sleep on the road

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Lois A. Bowers
Lois A. Bowers

Next week, I'll be flying to Denver for Argentum's annual meeting (shameless plug: follow me on Twitter, @Lois_Bowers, for news and updates from the meeting).

I look forward to learning new information and connecting with others in the industry. Between the hours spent traveling and the longer workdays due to the meeting, you'd think sleeping would be a cinch in the Mile-High City. But I suspect I may be tossing and turning on my first night.

It turns out my experience is not unique. None other than Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institutes of Health, recently wrote about the phenomenon known as “the first-night effect,” which he said plagues him as well. Collins detailed recent NIH-funded research, published in Current Biology, through which scientists studied brain waves and learned that “the first night when a person goes to sleep in a new place, a portion of the left hemisphere of his or her brain remains unusually active, apparently to stay alert for any signs of danger.”

You can read the study if you're interested in the fascinating science behind the finding. With the Argentum meeting looming, however, I am most focused on practical matters, such as how to get a good night's sleep.

And catching those Zs is important for many reasons. Recent research, for instance, says lack of adequate sleep is a contributor to heart disease and other health problems.

So how can we all up our odds of getting more than a few winks? Fortunately, the NIH is helpful in that regard as well. Its guide to healthy sleep (PDF) offers several tips, including advice for those changing time zones, as several of us will be next week as we head to Denver.

“If you are going to be away for just a few days, it may be better to stick to your original sleep and wake times as much as possible, rather than adjusting your biological clock too many times in rapid succession,” according to the guide.

Its other advice:

  • Make sure to get sufficient sleep on the two or three days before the trip.
  • If traveling west, adjust your biological clock by delaying your bedtime and wake time progressively by 20- to 30-minute intervals for a few days beforehand. If traveling east, move up your wake time and bedtime by 10 to 15 minutes a day for a few days. To help, decrease light exposure at bedtime and increase light exposure at wake time.
  • At your destination, spend time outside to help your body get the light cues it needs to adjust to the new time zone. Take a couple of 10- to 15-minute catnaps if necessary, but do not take long naps.
  • Avoid alcohol, because you're more likely to sleep lighter and wake in the middle of the night when its effects wear off.
  • Except in the morning, avoid caffeine. It can help you stay awake longer but also can make it more difficult for you to fall asleep if its effects haven't worn off by the time you are ready for bed.

And in the name of not depriving yourself of sleep — at least sleep when you want it — you also may wish to deprive yourself of fatty foods. Recent research has shown that they can lead to sleep problems at night, and they also may make it more difficult to stay awake during those daytime conference sessions.

I can't say whether any of these steps will address “the first-night effect,” but I suspect that following them will make it easier for me to get some shut-eye on the road. Maybe they'll help you, too.

Lois A. Bowers is senior editor of McKnight's Senior Living. Follow her on Twitter at @Lois_Bowers.

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