Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE
Author: Dr Sarah Jarvis, MBE, General Practitioner (GP)

Sarah is the Clinical Director of the Patient Platform, an active medical writer, broadcaster, and is the resident doctor for BBC Radio 2.

Originally posted: 17th Jun 2022

Holidays should be all about unwinding – while some intrepid holidaymakers are set on high adrenaline activities, most of us want to relax, recharge and come back feeling invigorated. Sadly, all too often, sleeping difficulties both before and during your holiday get in the way of a really restful break.

Before you go

Holidays involve organisation – and that can be stressful in itself. In addition to anxiety about getting all your paperwork in order and booking travel, transfers, and accommodation, you may also find yourself fretting about getting all your work done before you leave or work emergencies that might come up while you’re away.

Stress and anxiety very often lead to disturbed sleep. By leaving plenty of time to get everything in order, you’re less likely to be worried about it.

Read our guide on travel anxiety for more tips and try the tips below:

  • If you regularly suffer from insomnia when you go on holiday, take into account any time differences in your venue when booking. Staying in a similar time zone to the UK doesn’t mean you have to miss out on exotic locations – for instance, the time zones of the Canary Islands, Seychelles, Dubai, and Mauritius are all within 3 hours of UK time.

  • If you are going somewhere with a significant time difference, try to adjust your waking and bedtimes to your new time zone before you leave. If possible, start a couple of weeks in advance and move your timings by an hour every few days.

  • Make a list at work, ideally a few weeks before you go, of all the items you need to get finished before you leave. Dedicate some time each day to ticking one or two off.

  • Let your colleagues know well in advance when you’ll be absent and ask them to avoid last-minute requests.

  • Nominate a work colleague you trust to contact while you’re away – and ensure they’re not on holiday over the same period! Make sure they know what their responsibilities will be.

  • Set up an out-of-office message on your email (you can usually schedule them from a date in the future) with details of who to get in touch with in your absence.

  • Try to avoid staying at work late in the run-up to the holiday. Disruptions to your work routine can also put your sleep out.

  • Sit down with your travelling companion(s) a few weeks before you leave and work out a complete list of jobs to do to ensure a smooth holiday. Delegate some for each of you – you could try a shared online list where you can each tick off tasks. These include:
    • Check which (if any) travel vaccinations you need and book appointments to get them, ideally 2 months before you leave.
    • Find out if you need anti-malarial tablets, and contact your pharmacist to get these.
    • Make sure you order repeat medications well in advance.
    • Make sure your passports are all valid (some countries require passports to be valid for at least 6 months on the date of departure for your trip).
    • Arrange specialist travel insurance which will cover you for any medical conditions you may have.
    • Pack an eye mask, ear plugs, and lightweight nightclothes in natural, breathable fabric for when you arrive.
    • Check COVID-19 regulations for the country you’re visiting.
Beach Hammock

While you’re away

Sleep can be affected by a huge number of factors – temperature, noise, and light. If you find your room is facing the street or right next to the lifts, you may want to speak to the hotel staff to see if you can change it.

Check out the temperature controls in your room during your first day, and ensure the room is at a comfortable temperature when you head for bed. If you’re in a hot country and don’t have air conditioning, your hotel may be able to provide a portable fan. Alternatively, you can request a sheet if the hotel has only provided duvets.

If you’ve brought an eye mask with you, pop that on before you go to bed. Bear in mind that even if your room is quiet when you go to bed, you may be disturbed by other guests or hotel staff in the morning. Fortunately, if you’ve followed my tips above, you’ll also have brought some earplugs.

In many Mediterranean countries, it’s traditional not to eat until late at night. But if you’re prone to heartburn or indigestion, a heavy late evening meal can play havoc with your sleep. Consider eating earlier so you have time to digest your food properly.

Exercise can be an excellent way of ensuring you’re tired enough to sleep well. But don’t be tempted to exercise too close to bedtime – ideally avoid all but a gentle stroll to the restaurant for at least 3 hours before bedtime.

Caffeine calling?

People use caffeine to perk themselves up with good reason – it is well proven to delay the onset of sleepiness.  When you’re away on holiday, you may well find yourself lingering over your evening meal, perhaps having an extra cup of coffee to round the evening off. But you may also be indulging in more fizzy drinks, including colas, if the weather is hot. And many of my patients tell me that when they’re on holiday, they feel they ‘deserve’ more treats such as chocolates and chocolate desserts.

In fact, it’s not just coffee that contains caffeine. Standard tea is also caffeinated, albeit not to the same extent: an average cup of brewed coffee or mug of instant coffee has about 100mg of caffeine, while a cup of tea contains about 50mg. A double shot of espresso contains around 125mg of caffeine. But colas contain caffeine too (35-50mg in a standard can) and many energy drinks are even higher. Chocolate contains smaller amounts of caffeine, but eating chocolate on top of other caffeine-containing drinks all adds up.

Avoiding colas and energy drinks, and switching to decaffeinated coffee may help you get to sleep – decaff coffee isn’t entirely caffeine-free but has only about 3% of the caffeine of caffeinated equivalents. It’s widely available in most countries these days.

Hotel Switzerland

Alcohol – the enemy of sleep

You may think that a couple of drinks will help you sleep. In fact, this myth is so common that it’s one of most commonly used non-prescription ‘sleep aids’. However, while you may drift off more easily, alcohol severely disrupts the quality of your sleep, particularly during the second half of the night.

If you drink alcohol, you’re more likely to have disturbed sleep, wake early and feel unrefreshed. You’re likely to spend less time than usual in the important Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is essential for restoring energy and health.

You’re also likely to wake up more frequently. Because alcohol is a diuretic, you’ll find yourself having to get up to visit the bathroom more often, and may find it hard to get back to sleep.

Drinking alcohol will also make you an unpopular bedfellow. Alcohol relaxes the muscles around the head and neck, making you more prone to snoring. These floppy muscles can also block off your airways, leading to ‘obstructive sleep apnoea’ – where you repeatedly stop breathing for short periods and then jolt awake.

So if you’re struggling to sleep, don’t reach for the bottle – treat yourself to a mocktail instead.

First night effect

Humans are creatures of habit. In evolutionary terms, staying in the same environment is safer as we are more likely to know where threats come from. And that means any new environment often triggers our brains to stay alert for potential trouble.

One half (hemisphere) of our brain is more vigilant than the other, acting as a night watch. In some people, this difference in levels of alertness between the two halves is particularly marked – and if you’re one of them, you’re more likely to experience sleep disturbance and unrestful sleep on your first night away.

If you do find you always struggle to sleep on your first night in a new environment, reduce the disruption by:

  • Choosing mid-daytime rather than overnight flights, so you don’t have to stay in a hotel before you go or try to sleep on a plane.
  • Considering a single rather than multi-centre holiday.
  • Take some home comforts (perhaps a pillow or a favourite scented body lotion) with you so your surroundings feel more familiar.
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