Travelling is often tiring in itself and when a journey involves a change in time zones, sleep problems — such as jet lag — can arise. According to McGill University, over 75% of air travellers whose flights pass through multiple time zones report having difficulty sleeping on the first night of their trip. 

Jet lag is a temporary sleep issue, but its symptoms can cause discomfort in the initial days of your stay as your body tries to adjust to a new timezone. While jet lag and other travel-related sleep issues aren’t completely preventable, there are steps you can take to mitigate their symptoms and sleep better while you’re travelling.

How can travel disrupt your sleep?

If you’ve ever travelled across several time zones by air, you may have experienced jet lag. Jet lag occurs when the body’s internal clock remains aligned with the traveller’s previous time zone, even after they’ve arrived at a destination in a different time zone. The more time zones a person passes through, the more likely they are to feel the effects of jet lag. 

The subsequent mismatch between the body’s internal clock and what’s going on in the outside world can result in the misalignment of circadian rhythms. Associated with the body’s internal clock, circadian rhythms are cycles of essential physiological processes — including the sleep-wake cycle — that take place over a period of 24 hours. Research indicates that jet lag can lead to shifts in waking and sleeping times, and it may have an impact on sleep architecture (the basic structure of your sleeping pattern).

What are the consequences of disrupted sleep during travel?

While it shouldn’t be surprising that long-term sleep deprivation is linked to a range of serious health consequences, even short-term sleep loss can have detrimental effects on physical, mental, and emotional health. When a person doesn’t get enough sleep due to jet lag or another travel-related sleep issue, they may experience symptoms such as impaired cognitive function, daytime drowsiness, and increased irritability.

Whether you’re travelling for work or leisure, getting a sufficient amount of rest is paramount to your comfort and safety during your trip. Being well-rested is especially important if your journey requires you to operate a vehicle. One 2018 study that explored the relationship between sleep deficiency and motor vehicle crash risk found that sleeping six hours per night was associated with a 33% increased crash risk compared to sleeping seven or eight hours each night.

Typically, the sleep-related consequences of travelling are temporary and short-term, but they can become chronic for those who travel frequently or are predisposed to other sleep conditions.

How to sleep better while travelling

Before your trip

If a journey is going to take you across multiple time zones, consider planning fewer activities for the initial days of your stay if possible. There are several factors that influence how long the effects of jet lag last, but many cases resolve themselves within a few days — giving yourself plenty of time to rest if you need to can help you acclimate to a different time zone.

Gradually moving your bedtime in the run-up to your travel plans can also help prepare your body for a time zone change. Three days before your journey begins, go to bed an hour earlier than usual (or later, depending on your destination’s time zone). Add another hour the following night, and another on the third. Slowly shifting towards a sleep cycle in line with the time zone you’re spending your trip in can make the adjustment easier on the body.

Organize everything you need (such as your tickets, baggage, and other travel documentation) in advance so you can go to bed with plenty of time for sleep the night before your trip starts. If you are well-rested when you begin your trip, you’ll be better equipped to handle the strain travelling can place on sleep and the body.

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While you’re travelling

In a 2014 survey, 48% of respondents said they were usually not able to fall asleep on a plane. The environment on a plane, train, or bus isn’t always conducive to high-quality sleep — but there are steps you can take to make yourself more comfortable and reduce the risk of sleep disruptions while travelling:

  • Wear loose-fitting clothing and carry an extra layer in case of temperature changes
  • Use headphones or earplugs to protect yourself from noise-related disturbances
  • Block out light with a sleep mask while you’re resting
  • Bring a travel pillow to support your head and neck as you sleep
  • Be conscious of your caffeine and alcohol intake, as both substances are known to disrupt sleep

If you simply can’t drift off on a plane or train no matter what you do, consider travelling in the daytime if possible to lower the likelihood of experiencing negative effects to your sleep.

Can sleeping pills help with sleep?

In randomized trials, short courses of sedatives have been proven to alleviate insomnia caused by jet lag. One study found that the use of zolpidem (which belongs to a group of medicines that slow the central nervous system) for three to four nights after travelling over multiple time zones significantly improved participants’ sleep time and quality.

For infrequent travellers, most sleep concerns that arise from travelling pass relatively quickly. While the symptoms of jet lag can be unpleasant, there are many steps you can take to ease their effects and minimize the impact they have on your trip. Over the long term, however, an ongoing pattern of disrupted or lost sleep can place unnecessary stress on the mind and body. If you are a frequent traveller who struggles to sleep while you’re on the go — or if travel-related sleep problems have become chronic — consult your doctor for guidance and treatment.