Why You Sleep Worse on Vacation

After a full day of traveling by road, rail, or air all you want to do is enjoy a blissful night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. Depending on how long your day has been, you may pass out the second your head hits the pillow. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean you’re going to sleep well. It’s actually quite common for people to experience a lack of satisfying sleep during vacation even when they’re technically getting 8+ hours of sleep each night. As it turns out, you aren’t imagining it. There is actually a scientific explanation for the grogginess you sleep worse on vacation.

Why You Sleep Worse on Vacation

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Blame Your Survival Instincts

The phenomena you identify as poor sleep when you’re away from home are called the First-Night-Effect (FNE). Researchers at Brown University conducted a specialized sleep study designed to examine the participants’ brain activity while sleeping in a new environment. Ultimately, they made a surprising discovery.

One hemisphere of your brain remains abnormally active the first night you sleep in a new location. Researchers have jokingly referred to this hemisphere as the “Night Watch,” as the extra activity seems to be focused on a heightened sensitivity to external stimuli. Put simply, half of your brain is paying careful attention to your surroundings. Your sleep is more likely to be disturbed by any sound or smell that catches your subconscious attention.

The current theory is that the FNE is a remnant of an earlier stage in human evolution. Scientists suggest that it’s an evolutionary safety measure developed to allow early humans to sleep without being entirely vulnerable. When you take yourself out of a familiar environment and attempt to sleep, your brain seems to re-activate this ability in an effort to keep you safe.

Getting the Sleep You Need Away from Home

Sadly, there isn’t a full-proof way to force your brain to shut down its survival instincts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t reduce the number of things that disturb your sleep overnight. Given that FNE increases your sensitivity to changes in light and sound, your first step is to limit changes in those categories. Pick up a pair of earplugs and choose a hotel with blackout curtains. You should also turn off any electronics that produce light, such as a digital alarm clock. You can use your cellphone’s alarm anyway.

In addition to limiting external stimuli, you should also strive to practice better sleep hygiene while away from home. Keeping a predictable schedule and avoiding blue light for at least an hour before bed are great ways that you can help prepare your body for sleep. This is even more important if you practice good sleep hygiene at home because your body will recognize the pattern.

What If it’s Not Just FNE?

FNE affects a lot of people, and it’s a perfectly normal part of being human. However, if you consistently feel poorly rested even when you are at home, then you may require the help of a professional sleep doctor. Sleep disorders can all lead to a person feeling unrested and groggy despite technically being in bed for at least eight hours. These include:

  • Including insomnia
  • Sleep apnea
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep paralysis

These conditions may sound minor. But they can lead to serious sleep deprivation, and that can be life-threatening, especially if you’re regularly behind the wheel or operate heavy machinery. To protect yourself and your loved ones from harm, it is important to have your sleep disorder diagnosed and treated. Your local sleep doctor will be able to take you through all the necessary steps to getting a good night’s sleep.

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