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Why is it hard to fall asleep away from home?

We’re in a different bed, with or without our usual bed partners.

The lighting is different, the sound levels are different.

The bedding looks, feels, and smells different.

We could be exhausted from a day of traveling or attending a convention or visiting dozens of relatives at a family reunion, and yet, we know we will sleep poorly in this strange place.

What makes it harder for us to fall asleep in strange places?

Recent research shows that our brains are wired to be “on alert” as we sleep when we do so in unfamiliar places. These could be hotel rooms on business or vacation trips, suites in sleep centers for testing, or friends’ and family’s homes for sleepovers or visits. The beds and sleeping spaces could be extremely comfortable and conducive to sleep, and yet… our first nights in these environments are hard to fall asleep.

The science behind falling asleep in strange places

A study conducted by Brown University and published last April in Current Biology showed that the brain operates on a different level of alertness when we fall asleep in unfamiliar environments.

Brain activity in 35 people was collected and examined over two nights of sleep, a week apart, in a sleep laboratory.

During the first night, a specific neural network in the brain’s left hemisphere demonstrated more activity than that found in the right hemisphere while the subjects entered and sustained periods of stage 3 sleep, the period of deep sleep known as “slow-wave” sleep.

Slow-wave sleep is the deep period of nonREM sleep when the body releases human growth hormone into the bloodstream to repair damage at the cellular level. Most people enter stage 3 sleep in the earlier part of the night. Children generally have more stage 3 sleep than adults as they are still developing.

During the second night of the test, slow-wave sleep was examined to see if similar distinctions could be made between the subjects’ left and right hemispheres. However, data collected then showed no significant differences in activity in either brain hemisphere, including in the specific neural network that was shown to be so busy during the first night test.

Why do we sleep differently in strange places?

The findings suggest that our brains maintain an underlying default alertness a kind of night watch through “asymmetric sleep”during our first night in an unfamiliar place. Researchers theorize that this is reminiscent of a leftover evolutionary survival mechanism put in place to keep us vigilant in the presence of potential predators and other threats.

Sleeping with only half of the brain has also been demonstrated in rats, dolphins, seals, and some birds.

The researchers admit the study was small and more examination is needed to identify what happens during what is commonly known as “first night effect,” the phenomenon that explains unusual sleep study data for some patients due to anxiety or vigilance that occurs during the sleep test.

How to fall asleep in strange places

Scientists suggest that, as much as we all try to get good sleep while away from home, our neurological wiring will dampen those efforts. Still, there are some ways you can help yourself to fall asleep and stay asleep when you’re not in your own bed:

  • Wear an eye mask. The lighting in a strange place can be distracting; also, the eye, in a dark room, will always train itself on whatever light it can find, which could actually keep you awake and alert. Wearing an eye mask blocks out these kinds of distractions.

  • Wear ear plugs. You might be cursed with listening to the nearby elevator, or the sounds of train whistles, or voices in the adjacent room all night long if you don’t.

  • Bring your favorite pillow or blanket. The feel and smell of a soft, familiar object may help you find sleep faster.

  • Practice good sleep hygiene. Go to bed at your normal time and wake up at your normal time, being mindful of changes in time zones and adjusting accordingly. Watch the timing and size of meals (especially if you’ve traveled across time zones). Ditto your alcohol or caffeine intake. Put away your phone and avoid stimulating television. ( More sleep hygiene tips here.)

  • Find ways to relax. If breathing exercises or yoga poses or warm showers help, go for it. Sometimes a lavender pillow spray comes in handy, as does listening to soft music or reading.

  • Remember: it’s only one night. If you know you aren’t going to get the best sleep, then don’t stay up all night stressing about it. Promise yourself an added cup of coffee in the morning.

    Since you’re already “on alert,” any additional worry or anxiety over lost sleep becomes magnified.

    Accepting the situation often diffuses the pressure it puts on you to “try” to sleep. And if you’re staying over another night, your body and brain will have adapted to the new environment by then, so you’ll be back to sleeping soundly in no time.

For people who must travel frequently and to several different locations in a short period of time, here’s an additional piece of advice:

When you’re finally home, make sure you don’t add to any acquired sleep deprivation
by shortchanging yourself good sleep in your own bed. Use your time there to catch up
on lost Zzz. You may even consider sleeping extra in anticipation of upcoming trips to
accrue added slumber in your “sleep bank.” Your brain and body will thank you later!

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