Better Sleep Tips for Business Trips

Road warriors need sound sleep to be at their peak.

From the WebMD Archives

Business travel and sleep do mix; they have to, or you will be far less productive than you may think. Business travel demands high performance amid stress, hectic schedules, heavy meals, and late nights -- all a recipe for poor sleep.

If more of us realized the importance of sleep to performance, not to mention health, we would get a lot more done and feel a whole lot better doing it. Losing as little as one and a half hours for just one night reduces daytime alertness by about one-third. Excessive daytime sleepiness impairs memory and the ability to think and process information. Sleep deprivation also leads to mood alterations, attention deficits, slower reaction times, and increased risk for accidents. And sleep deprivation is cumulative, building a sleep debt that must be paid.

Alertness Solutions, headed by Mark Rosekind, PhD, a former director of NASA's Fatigue Countermeasures Program, conducted a study of travelers on trips crossing more than two time zones and lasting two to four days. It revealed some interesting findings and confirmed others:

  • A few hours of lost sleep combined with business travel significantly reduces performance.
  • Business travelers perceived themselves as performing at a much higher level than they actually did (a 20% drop).
  • Travelers actually performed best during mid-day, not early morning, which many consider to be prime time for productivity.
  • Of those who rated their performance highly, half fell asleep unintentionally on the trip.
  • Study participants slept, on average, only five hours the night before a trip, the lowest of the entire seven-day monitoring period. But they reported getting an hour more sleep than they actually did. "Any sleep period less than six hours a night begins to significantly diminish performance," Rosekind says. "Essentially, travelers are at a decreased productivity level before they even walk out their door."
  • Those who exercised during their trip performed an amazing 61% better than non-exercisers.
  • Study participants registered a total sleep loss of almost eight hours by the time they returned home, the equivalent of one full night's sleep.

Traveling Over Time Zones

Flying across time zones changes the principal time cue -- light -- for setting and re-setting our 24-hour, natural day-night cycle, or circadian rhythm. Our internal clock becomes out of sync or mismatched with our current day-night cycle. Our circadian rhythm greatly influences when we sleep, and the quantity and the quality of our sleep. It may also be altered by the timing of various factors, including naps, bedtime, and exercise.

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In general, "losing" time is more difficult to adjust to than "gaining" time. Traveling east we lose time; west we gain. An "earlier" bedtime may cause difficulty falling asleep and increased wakefulness during the early part of the night. Going west, we fall asleep easily but may have a difficult time waking.

Generally, it takes about one day to adjust for each hour of time change. A trip across one time zone for a couple of days should not cause much of a problem for most people.

You can re-set your internal clock to adapt more quickly to the time changes. Your circadian rhythm is internally generated but is influenced by the environment, behavior, and medications. It is important to expose yourself to the light during the waking hours as much as possible, and conversely, do not expose yourself to bright light when it is dark outside. Even the light from a computer screen or turning the light on in the bathroom in the middle of the night can adversely affect your sleep.

Pre-Flight

Take steps before your trip to ensure you'll get adequate sleep on the road.

  • Plan ahead. Packing your luggage, finishing presentations, family affairs, confirming flight and hotel reservations, printing your boarding pass, getting to the airport on-time ... a little planning goes a long way. Leaving things to the last minute increases stress and may cause a late-night bedtime, the last thing you need. You may also want time your flight to arrive in the morning when losing several hours of sleep to get that light cue to help re-set your clock.
  • Be sleep-ready. Get a sleep kit ready to go and leave it in your toiletry bag. Ear plugs, eye covers, some of your favorite soothing music, perhaps a vial of lavender oil -- they will come in handy on the plane or in your hotel.
  • Exercise and eat right the day before your trip to give yourself an edge for some sound sleep. (More on that below.)
  • Get some sleep. Don't start off on the wrong side of the bed. Make sure you are well-rested before you start your trip. It will pay big dividends.
  • Dress for success. Wear something comfortable, loose-fitting, and layered. You never know if it will be too hot or too cold on the plane.
  • Stress less -- expect travel delays. It's just the cost of doing business and it's beyond your control. So let go. If your expectations are in line with reality, you will be much less frustrated and upset. It is a good time to read that book that has been on your nightstand for the last few months.

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In-Flight

Long flights, poor seating, flight delays, turbulence, missed connections, recycled dry air, and the occasional rude or incessantly talking seatmate can all make for a less-than-pleasant experience. Here are few things you can do to help:

  • Get comfortable. Get a pillow or two and blanket. Bringing along a C-shaped pillow that fits around your neck is also helpful, as it keeps your head from bobbing around or getting a stiff neck. Take off your shoes or at least loosen the laces to improve circulation.
  • Drink water. This will help counter the dehydrating effects of the dry, recycled air. Carbonated beverages may produce excess stomach gas.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. They are diuretics, causing you to go to the bathroom frequently. This, along with the dry cabin air, will increase your chances of dehydration. Remember that one drink in the air can be act like two on the ground.
  • Relieve ear pressure. First, never fly with serious sinus/ear congestion, whether from a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection. If you do, you may experience severe pain and damage your eardrums. To get on the plane, you must be able to "clear" your ears by gently but forcefully exhaling against a closed mouth and nose. Antihistamines and decongestants may significantly help. While on the plane, chewing gum may help equalize your ear pressure as well. Pressure problems are generally worse on landing. So make sure your ears feel clear before you descend.
  • Nap carefully. Consider a short nap on a short flight and a longer one on a longer flight. On longer flights consider waiting until the latter portion of the flight. So when you wake and feel refreshed just as the flight as about to end. Do not snooze too long unless you have a long flight. Napping more than 30-45 minutes may put you into a deep sleep, making you feel more tired when you wake up. Also, close the window shade, if possible, or don your eye covers. Ear plugs will also help a great deal.

At the Hotel

Sleeping facilities are as important as meeting facilities.

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When booking a hotel, ask for a room away from the ballroom nightclub, bar, or restaurant. If you are not with your family try to stay away from others with babies or small kids. And, above all, make sure the alarm clock in the room isn't already set to go off when you don't want it to.

Some hotels are now promoting sleep-friendly amenities. The Hilton Hotel chain commissioned the Alertness Solutions study noted above to incorporate the findings into their offerings. The Westin offers its Heavenly Bed for a good night's rest. The Benjamin Hotel in New York is all about sleep, and Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts is launching its Sleep Advantage Program next month. These hotels might provide:

  • Designated quiet areas: These are rooms or whole floors that are explicitly reserved for customers who want a good night's sleep, and may have certain restrictions against children, loud music, parties, etc.
  • Quiet rooms: These rooms may be located well off the street, have double-paned windows, soundproofed non-squeaky doors, quiet air-conditioners, and the like.
  • Room amenities: These make a big difference and can include:
    • A great bed and bedding
    • Ear plugs and eye covers
    • Blackout curtains
    • Relaxing, sleep-promoting music
    • Night lights for safety and avoiding bright light if you get up at night
    • Bath amenities such as lavender aromatherapy, potpourri, soaps, and oils
    • Menu of pillows, from down to full-body and C-pillows
    • Wake-up calls
  • Spa facilities: They may include steam, sauna, aromatherapy, exercise equipment, and massage to help guests relax.

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Lifestyle on the Road

With room service and late-night events and dinners, making good choices to promote sound sleep may be difficult. Travelers often eat and drink more and sleep less than they do at home. Alcohol is often erroneously used as a sleep enhancer and caffeine (coffee, soda) is used to boost performance. All of these have negative impacts on sleep. On the positive side, more and more travelers realize the value of exercise and do try to use it to enhance performance. Here are some additional tips:

  • Utilize your prime time. If you're on a two- to three-day trip that crosses multiple time zones, try to plan meetings on your home time, during the mid-day hours, because your body will not have enough time to adjust.
  • Let the sunshine in. During the day and meetings, let as much light into the room as possible and stay active, whether talking or just taking notes.
  • If you snooze you don't lose. If you are really wiped out, try to take a short 10-20 minute nap.
  • Cut caffeine. Simply put, caffeine can keep you awake. It can stay in your body longer than you may think -- up to 14 hours. Cutting out caffeine at least four to six hours before bedtime can help you fall asleep easier.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol may initially help you fall asleep, but as your body clears it from your system, it can also cause symptoms that disturb sleep, like nightmares, sweats, and headache. Drink one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage consumed to try to reduce these symptoms.
  • Relax before bedtime. Stress not only makes you miserable, it wreaks havoc on your sleep. Develop some kind of pre-sleep ritual like reading, light stretching, or taking a hot bath to break the connection between all the day's stress and bedtime. These rituals can be as short as 10 minutes.
  • Exercise at the right time for you. Regular exercise can help you get a good night's sleep. The timing and intensity of exercise seems to play a key role in its effects on sleep. If you are the type of person who gets energized or becomes more alert after exercise, it may be best not to exercise in the evening.
  • Eat right, sleep tight. Try not to go to bed hungry, but avoid heavy meals before bedtime. An over-full belly can keep you up. Also, try not to drink anything after 8 p.m. This can keep you from getting up to use the bathroom during the night.
  • Restrict nicotine. Having a smoke before bed -- although it feels relaxing -- actually puts a stimulant into your bloodstream. The effects of nicotine are similar to those of caffeine. Nicotine can keep you up and awaken you at night; it can stay in your body as long as 14 hours. It should be avoided particularly near bedtime and if you wake up in the middle of the night.

The bottom line is sleep is more important than you may think. So be aware of the critical role sleep plays in your performance, productivity, and health. You'll be healthier and happier.

Editor's note: SoundSleep consulted with Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts to help develop its Sleep Advantage Program.

SOURCES: Hilton Personal Performance Survey, January 2004, conducted by Alertness Solutions. Successful Meetings, Jan. 1, 2004. "We Are Chronically Sleep Deprived," Sleep, vol. 18 no. 10. "Excessive Daytime Sleepiness and Risk of Occupational Injuries in Non-Shift Daytime Workers," Sleep. vol. no. 3. "Dose-response Relationship Between Sleep Duration and Human Psychomotor Vigilance and Subjective Awareness," Sleep, vol. 22, no. 2. Sleep Medicine, Kryger, Meir, et al., Third Edition, 2000. Heart Disease, vol. 4 no. 5. "Peak Performance and Traveling Don't Mix," The New York Times, Nov. 4, 2003.

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