Photo by Maya Li
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Don’t come back from vacation more tired than you were when you left.
A sleep geek’s tips on what to bring for sweet dreams on the road
Sleeping poorly throughout a trip can ruin a vacation. But since you have less control over your environment on the road, it’s likely that something—street noise, an overactive air-conditioner, or the bright light that creeps in around the edges of the blackout curtains—will disrupt your slumber. “In foreign environments [you] can feel very uncomfortable, or anxious, or so excited that it’s hard to fall asleep,” says Jane Chung, a self-professed sleep geek who jokes that she is more interested in shut-eye than in people.
While Chung isn’t a sleep specialist or medical professional, sleep, and its effect on longevity, has been her passion for years. She nerds out on the latest studies and research, and for fun, she likes to test newfangled gadgets geared toward better rest: Currently, she is taking advantage of 100-day free trials to test mattresses with the latest cooling technology. After following her interest in wellness to a degree in bioengineering, Chung shifted her focus to tech as a different way to help people live happier, healthier lives. She now works as a software engineer for Calm, a top-rated meditation and sleep-aid app.
“At Calm,” says Chung, “I can blend my two passions.” In addition to developing features that help users improve their well-being through relaxation, she writes regularly for the Calm blog and for Medium about her own sleep routine and tested tips. “Sleep is probably one of the most important things you can do to live a healthy life,” she says. That’s why she’s developed a detailed evening routine for herself that includes stopping food and drink intake at set times, monitoring her room temperature, and shutting off all electronics an hour before nodding off.
You may assume that such a rigorous sleep routine would be incompatible with travel, but Chung is an avid traveler. Over the past three to five years she has created a sleep kit to help her snooze well in Greece, Italy, Vancouver, Singapore, Thailand, and Hong Kong—or wherever it is that she’s adventuring to next. Here’s what’s inside:
These are some of the most important items in Chung’s sleep kit because light exposure affects our circadian rhythm. While you want to get sunlight during the day, experts agree that decreasing light exposure around bedtime helps promote sleep. Sunglasses can help dim most light, but blue light, in particular, is disruptive at night. “A lot of my travel photos are me wearing blue-light-blocking glasses at nighttime,” says Chung, who sports the Riot style from Gunnar. She notes that there are cheaper versions online, which she’s found work just as well.
Cover up those annoying blinking lights in hotel rooms—whether they’re on alarm clocks or wireless routers—with a little bit of electrical tape. As long as your scissors are less than four inches long from the pivot point, the TSA will allow them in your carry-on.
According to Chung, keeping cool is really important for good hibernation, and hotel thermostats are not always accurate. She travels with a small standing thermometer from Amazon. “I use that thermometer at home,” she says, “so even if it’s wrong, I know exactly what it needs to say on my thermometer for me to feel good.”
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Some people sleep with socks, others don’t. Chung does. Socks can help regulate your body temperature while you sleep, especially if you run cold. And they’ve also been shown to help you fall asleep faster because they cause the blood vessels in your feet to dilate, increasing blood flow to the feet, which helps signal to the brain that it’s time for sleep.
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Much like light, noises can be described using colors, named according to their frequencies. White noise is a combination of all frequencies at equal levels; pink noise includes all frequencies too, but the lower ones are more intense than the rest. Many studies have shown that white noise can help deepen sleep, and recent research suggests that pink noise may even help improve memory in addition to improving rest.
Chung uses the Calm app to play white or pink noise while she dozes both at home and while traveling, but she stresses that, while both help her, they don’t work for everyone: “Maybe a story or something else to help you fall asleep is better, as long as it turns off about 30 minutes to an hour into your sleep.” The app has a library of stories, music, soundscapes, and meditations designed to help users drift off.
Like socks, these items can be used according to personal preference. Chung brings them along in case there’s too much light in a hotel room or a noisy construction site nearby. She notes that they also come in handy when flying.
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Chung only uses her melatonin pills to help combat jet lag. In spite of what people may think, melatonin doesn’t actually induce sleep, it just promotes it. Melatonin is a hormone naturally released by the brain at night that tells the body that it’s bedtime. So taking a melatonin supplement merely aids the body’s natural process. In a new time zone, taking a low dose—after discussing it with your doctor—can help signal to the body that sleep time has shifted.
Even if you’re staying at a hotel with a pillow bar, you may want to bring your own along with you for comfort and familiarity. Many of us, like Chung, have tested different down fills or memory foam types to find a cushion that cradles our head just right, or keeps us cool, or does whatever it is we need for great zzz’s, so she suggests that, rather than risk a bad night due to lumpy padding, you bring your own.
Chung’s sleep kit started because she would occasionally forget the things she needed to get good shut-eye when traveling. She ended up using a toiletry bag to keep everything except her pillow in one place. You should too.
There is another item that Chung is testing out for possible inclusion in her kit when she goes home for Thanksgiving: a wooden clothespin. “I’ve noticed that some of the curtains, although they’re blackout curtains, don’t close in the middle. So I’m going to use a clothespin, and this increases my chances of not using the sleep mask.”
Chung notes that your sleep kit is personal and should work for your own style of sleep. “It’s all about mimicking the environment that you have at home in the hotel room. So if you don’t sleep with socks, you probably shouldn’t bring socks. If you’re used to sleeping with certain pajamas, bring those. I usually bring my pillow. Just bringing something that makes it familiar to you is more important than these specific items in my kit.”
Because temperature is so important for good sleep, Chung packs two different sets of pajamas, one that is for air conditioning and one that is not.
For the most part, Chung sticks to her sleep schedule when traveling. But she does tweak it so that she can make the most of a destination. “I would probably go to bed a little later so I can enjoy the nightlife in certain cities, but then I just shift it by a couple of hours, so I wake up a little later. [And] I do that for the whole time.” But she cautions against throwing the entire thing out the window: “I try to be strict because if you don’t sleep well, you’re miserable the next day. You took precious time off to go to this beautiful place and you can’t enjoy it.”
Don’t attempt to be a better sleeper starting with your Thanksgiving vacation. For many, travel offers an opportunity to reset, but in Chung’s experience, travel sleep is best when it’s as familiar as possible.
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