Whether you're crashing in a hotel or are staying over in someone's guest bedroom, there's something about sleeping away from your bed at home that makes the night's sleep just not right.
Researchers from Brown University monitored the sleep of 35 healthy people and discovered why sleeping in a strange bed causes you to toss and turn all night long (and is exactly the reason why sleep scientists often discount the data from a sleep study participant's first night in the lab).
In the study, published in the journal Current Biology, researchers observed the brain waves of their participants. The two brain hemispheres showed stark differences. The left displayed signs of wakefulness while the right showed signs of sleep.
It is this left side—the one that remained alert—that acted as a "night watch" patrolman during the sleep, leading to an unfulfilling snooze session.
"The environment is so new to us, we might need a surveillance system so we can monitor the surroundings and we can detect anything unusual," says Masako Tamaki, one of the study's authors.
It's a habit that's often displayed in larger animals, the scientists noted. The left side of the brain remains vigilant and observant of the new surroundings while the right side snores away. But the imbalance between the two is why you wake up feeling much groggier and tired than after a night at home.
Good news, homebodies: Now you have an excuse to head back home.
Tips for nodding off
Meriton Suites has some great tips for travel insomnia.
- Check out the hotel before you book. It may be “convenient”, but is it between a freeway and a railway and under a flight path? Remember that “hotel accommodation” can mean a five star hotel room or a room above the bar at the local pub. Traveller reviews can be very helpful, especially the most recent ones.
- Once you’ve found a suitable hotel there are a few commonsense ways to securing a sleep-friendly room. Ask for a room a few floors up from common areas such as the dining room or the swimming pool. Check to see if there is any building work going on in the hotel, and if they do then avoid those nearby rooms. Ask for a non-smoking room if you are a non-smoker.
- If you’re travelling to the same destination regularly and you find a hotel you like, don’t keep keep shopping around. When it comes to getting a good night’s sleep, familiarity is the path to contentment. If the hotel has rooms which are very different to each other, try and get the same room every time.
Packing for a good night’s sleep
- Earplugs may be uncomfortable at first, but they’re less annoying than being kept up all night by noises around you. Earbuds and soothing music can also drown out those sounds and take your mind to more familiar places.
- Bring an eye mask in case your room doesn’t have blackout curtains. These are especially useful if you are also trying to readjust to a new time zone.
- Bringing your own sheets can help you sleep better. If that isn’t practical, bring your own pillowcase.
- Scented candles or a fragrant spray can make your hotel room smell more like home. Lavender is also well-known for helping with insomnia, and may ameliorate the effects.
During the trip
At the hotel
- Once you’re in your hotel room, try and make your before bed routine as much like home as possible.
- Resist the urge to flop on the bed until bedtime. Many a quick siesta has destroyed a full night’s sleep.
- Don’t overeat at dinner, as a full stomach can make getting to sleep uncomfortable and harder than it has to be.
- If you need to use a laptop, work at the desk rather than on the bed and turn off the screen at least 90 minutes before bedtime to take your brain out of work mode.
- If you normally have tea before bed, make yourself a cuppa before bed. Chamomile is believed to be a relaxing tea.
- Ask for a Do Not Disturb Sign and for the front desk to take messages for you.
- Take a bath to relax.
- Adjust the thermostat to a comfortable setting for sleep.
- If you can’t sleep, get out of bed. Read a book or listen to a podcast until you feel like falling asleep again. Don’t lie in bed wishing you were asleep, as that strategy seems to scare the sleep gods away.