Sweet Dreams

by Tina Manzer

As you head to Art Materials World, remember that travelling can wreak havoc on your sleep. An unfamiliar bed or pillow, and noise from the street or room next door, can totally upend your normal rest routine – leaving you unmotivated, unexcited and dopey when you need to be alert and dynamic. And that’s not including the effects of changing time zones and jet lag.

The first night away is always the worst. Studies have shown that only half our brain sleeps when we go to bed in a strange environment. The other half remains alert for “predators” or their modern equivalent, says Jane Chung, a self-professed “sleep geek” and a software engineer at Calm, the world’s most popular sleep and meditation app. “Even before I started working here, I was more interested in sleep than most people,” she wrote on the calm.com blog. “I am not a medical professional or expert, but I have a degree in bioengineering. I like to keep up with the latest scientific sleep studies because I know the foundational importance of sleep to our general health.”

Jane recalls a terrible night she spent on a trip to Singapore from Calm’s headquarters in San Francisco. The air conditioning in her hotel room didn’t work and synthetic light seeped in from the hallway. In the morning Jane was a wreck, but she learned from her experience and put together a Sleep Travel Kit. Here’s what’s in it.

1. Sunglasses and blue light-blocking glasses

“Light exposure plays a role in our circadian rhythm,” she explains. “It’s important to get enough sunlight during the day, and then to get less light – especially blue light that comes from screens and digital devices – close to your bedtime.”

The decrease in light exposure helps your body produce melatonin, aka the “sleep hormone.”

To block sunlight outside, Jane starts wearing her sunglasses about four hours before her bedtime. Inside, two hours before bedtime, she dims the lights in her room and puts on a pair of blue light-blocking glasses. “You can find them online for $10 to $100,” Jane says. “The cheaper ones work the same as the expensive ones. It’s the aesthetics of the frames that change with the price.”

The glasses come in handy for fighting jet lag. “If I’m leaving in the morning but it’s already 6 p.m. at my destination, I will start wearing either my blue light or my sunglasses at my departure airport – even at the risk of looking strange.”

2. Electrical tape and travel scissors

Hotel rooms are filled with small lights that can’t be unplugged, like the red one that blinks on the fire alarm. To cover them, Jane cuts small piece of electrical tape. “I fold over the end of the piece for easy removal,” she says. “To block the light that seeps under the door, I use towels or a pillow if necessary.”

3. Room thermometer

Your core body temperature needs to drop slightly in order for you to relax and fall asleep easily. Taking a warm bath or shower before bed is a good way to achieve that.

The best room temperature for sleep is 65º F, but hotel-room thermostats are often inaccurate, Jane discovered. She brings a standing thermometer (“any thermometer will work”) that she bought for $12.

4. Sleep socks

Wearing socks actually helps lower your core body temperature. It sends the blood supply to your feet, away from your core.

5. Something that generates pink noise or white noise

Both colors have been shown to deepen sleep and can be used to block noise from neighboring rooms or from the street. Studies have shown that pink noise may also improve memory in older adults. “I use my Calm app when I travel to play pink noise,” says Jane. “Portable machines that play white noise are also available for $10 to $30.”

6. A sleep mask and ear plugs – just in case

“I’m generally not a fan of sleep masks because waking up to natural light is best for your circadian rhythm, but I’ll use them as a last resort,” explains Jane. She finds earplugs uncomfortable, but necessary, especially if construction is going on outside or there’s a loud party next door.

7. Melatonin pills for jet lag (optional)

For Jane, jet lag is a struggle. She follows a separate jet-lag protocol when necessary that includes taking melatonin pills. “The pills don’t help me fall asleep – melatonin doesn’t affect sleep generation,” she explains. “It’s a hormone released by the brain at night when it’s dark. It acts like an internal alarm clock to tell us that it’s time to sleep.”

Melatonin in low doses (Jane takes 0.5 mg about two hours before bedtime in her destination time zone) signals the body that it’s shifting time and helps sync the body’s circadian system with the new time.

8. Pillow (optional)

If Jane is travelling for more than three days, she brings her own pillow – a simple $80 down pillow. “The brand is less important than the ‘fill power,’ or the volume inside the pillow that 1 ounce of down will fill,” she says. “A pillow with higher fill power is both softer and higher quality, and I also find that it lasts longer.”

If you use a foam or bamboo pillow at home, bring it or one like it. The key is to minimize changes in your sleeping environment.

High-quality sleep is a key part of Jane’s longevity plan. The senior iOS software engineer enjoys helping others sleep better and live longer and healthier lives. To read more of her advice, and other recommendations for wellness, mindfulness and happiness, visit calm.com.

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