S2, E10: How to Sleep Better While Traveling
In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, sleep psychologist Anne Bartolucci shares her tips on getting comfy on a plane, using melatonin correctly, and the one thing you should bring next time you fly.
We’ve all been there: Tossing and turning on a long-haul flight or in an unfamiliar hotel bed. But it doesn’t have to be this way! Enter Anne Bartolucci, a licensed psychologist and a certified behavioral sleep medicine specialist, and author of the book Better Sleep for the Overachiever.
In this week’s episode of Unpacked, Anne shares the one thing everyone should bring on their next flight, the proper use of melatonin (turns out most of us don’t use it correctly), and yes, how to get a decent night’s sleep in a new destination.
Aislyn Greene, host: Anne, uh, welcome to Unpacked. Thanks so much for being here today.
Anne Bartolucci: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Aislyn: Of course. All right. First, I would love to just share a little bit more about you. Can you tell us about your work in the realm of sleep?
Anne: Sure. I am a clinical psychologist and I have extra specification and training and certification in behavioral sleep medicine. So basically I see, uh, a bunch of insomnia patients. I help people sleep without drugs, that’s my main thing. I also do general psychotherapy. And it’s something I really love doing because sleep touches every part of our lives, and I love being able to make such a big difference for my patients in such a short amount of time.
Aislyn: That’s amazing. And now here’s the million-dollar question: How do you sleep on a plane? Do you sleep well? Are you a good quote unquote, plane sleeper?
Anne: So I will say I sleep well really well generally.
Aislyn: Oh, good.
Anne: A lot of it depends on how much room I have to spread out because I’m tall—I’m five nine—so that can make a difference.
So I would say I’m probably a, we’ll say, moderate to OK plane sleeper.
Aislyn: I mean, you’re right. So much depends on, like, if you can, you know, get into business class, right? You have those great lie-flat seats. But I think for, you know, our purposes for our listeners, we’ll just focus on, you know, sleeping in economy or premium economy. So from your perspective, what would you say are kind of the secrets to sleeping well on a plane or the, um, the tips that you would share? Feel free to elaborate, get as detailed as necessary.
Anne: Sure. Well, of course a big problem with sleeping on planes is the noise. And you had commented on my headphones.
Anne: I absolutely love my noise-canceling headphones. And it was funny that you contacted me about doing this interview this week because I actually flew back from Florida on Monday. And I put my headphones on and I was doing my meditation. And my meditation sound is actually very similar to the white noise sound that I sleep with and I found myself dozing off because that sound is a trigger for me to sleep. So I would say it’s not just the noise-canceling headphones because then you have the noises that the plane or that the people on the plane are making.
Anne: So noise-canceling headphones, they’re good for that, you know, that certain frequency: that droning, plane engines—you still get a little bit of it—but they can actually make you more likely to hear, like, if somebody’s talking in the next row or, you know, if the flight attendants are chatting or, you know, if somebody’s got their movie sound turned up too loud.
So I would say noise-canceling headphones plus white noise, especially if it’s white noise that you have trained yourself to sleep with, would be super helpful.
Aislyn: That’s a great idea. And just for our listeners, I’m going to briefly describe Anna’s headphones. They look like a beautiful rose gold. And you said that they’re the Bose—
Anne: Yes, they’re the Bose Quiet Comfort 35.
Aislyn: OK, great. Uh, what else would you recommend that a traveler have [in] their plane sleep kit?
Anne: Definitely after you go through security, get some water because, of course, dehydration is another major, major issue with sleeping on planes. And of course you wanna balance out so you don’t actually, you know, have to pee every, every hour—
Anne: —which not only disrupts your sleep, but that of your seatmates as well.
So, yeah, be considerate, but you know, make sure that you have water or perhaps something to help moisten your mouth. Um, and then also Chapstick, because you don’t want to be uncomfortable that way.
Moisturizer, lotion, anything that you can do to help keep your skin from drying out, because that can be disturbing as well. And also you don’t wanna be itchy.
Aislyn: That’s so funny. It’s not something I would have thought about, but yeah, you’ll wake up if you’re itchy.
Anne: Exactly. And then, of course, temperature because airplanes tend to be very cold. And even if you don’t have a little thingy blowing on you, it can be uncomfortable. So I would say don’t necessarily count on airlines’ blankets, because they tend to be kind of thin. They’re nice and solid, but they’re thin. So make sure that you have, like, a sweatshirt. And also, you know, some comfy socks. Some comfy thick socks.
Aislyn: Do you use a neck pillow? If you were on a long flight, would you—do you use those?
Anne: Uh, I used to not, but I probably would if I were to go on a long international flight at this point. Because, yeah, that’s the other thing, because there’s really no good place to put your head.
Aislyn: Right. Yeah. I mean, unless you have one of those window seats where I feel like you can kind of create a little bit more pillow support, but yeah if you were in the middle seat, what would you do? Would you say a neck pillow is key to that?
Anne: I would say neck pillow would be, or something that you can use to support your head and keep it straight, or at least not tilted too far to one side or the other. Yeah. It seems like the middle seems to be perfect for my patients who tell me that they basically sleep like vampires, you know, like straight up with your arms crossed. It’s like that’s your best middle seat sleeper.
Aislyn: For side sleepers or stomach sleepers, what do you think the best positions are?
Anne: Yeah, probably neck pillow or some other small pillow where you can lean to one side and curl up a little bit. But again, yeah, that would be really hard, the middle seats. So make sure that you like your seatmates.
Aislyn: Yes. Um, you mentioned, uh, hydration and dehydration, and I know that, you know, everyone always says don’t drink on the plane. So A, is that what you would recommend? And B, I’m one of those people who loves to have one of those little, like, plane cocktails. Alaska has the little Stowaway Old Fashioned. So say you did indulge in a cocktail, is there any way to recover and still sleep relatively well?
Anne: I’d say, definitely do just one—
Anne: —and then go ahead and watch a movie and sip water through the movie to balance yourself back out. But yes, definitely don’t go overboard. And also maybe don’t go overboard then on the airplane food, which is of course is super salty. So perhaps bring something that you could eat that would not be super high in sodium.
Aislyn: OK. Would that be like the best, your best recommendation for food in terms of sleep? Um, avoiding the high salt.
Anne: Food is one of those things that’s very individual for—so it would be, be aware of what your nighttime food needs are, because you want to have that balance between, like, you don’t wanna be super full and you also don’t wanna be hungry when you go to sleep. So in general, it’s finding that happy medium.
And so for sleep in general, we suggest having something that is, that has both carbohydrates and protein. So the carbohydrates, so it’s satisfying and the protein so that you don’t end up with a blood sugar spike
Aislyn: Got it. OK.
Anne: And adapting that however it needs to look for you on an airplane—like some people need to have a bedtime snack, other people can’t have a bedtime snack because they have reflux or some other medical issues.
So it’s more knowing what your body prefers, but in general, yes, staying away from the super high salty food. You maybe even being aware of what you eat that day would probably be a good idea. And also, you know, people often ask me, “Well, what about taking sleep medication on planes?”
Aislyn: Yeah. What do you think?
Anne: And again, that is a very individual thing because brains are weird. You know, you could give the same drug to two different people that have two different reactions, so if you are curious about that, talk to your physician and definitely don’t let on the plane be the very first time that you’re taking this. And also be aware that things hit you harder in the air. Not just alcohol, but also medications.
And so if you’re taking something regularly on the ground, you might not need that dose when you are in the air. And of course, I’m not a prescriber, so I can’t make specific recommendations, but these are just general guidelines. So yeah, definitely talk to your prescriber.
Aislyn: OK. Uh, no, that’s really good advice. I know that in your practice you, you know, you try to help people sleep without medication. What are your thoughts on melatonin and using that as like a kind of a jet lag, more of a jet lag supplement or assistance?
Anne: That’s basically what melatonin is for. It’s actually a horrible insomnia drug. It’s more for helping to adjust circadian rhythms.
The thing to remember about melatonin is that the bottles often tell you to take it completely wrong. You want to take it nine to 10 hours before your desired wake-up time, whereas a lot of them will tell you to take it like a half hour before you go to bed.
Aislyn: Oh, interesting.
Anne: And also with melatonin, it really is true that less is more. Like you’re likely to get more benefit from a lower dose, like even as little as a half a milligram, than you will from a 10 milligram pill. Because what happens is if you have too much melatonin, your body metabolizes it through the sleep period, which then throws off your internal clock rather than at the beginning of the sleep period, which is when it would be mimicking more of when your body is releasing its own melatonin.
So our melatonin comes out of our brain in a flood. It’s called the Dim Light Melatonin Onset. And so continuous release melatonin definitely does not work like that, and for a lot of people it can actually mess them up.
Aislyn: How long do you—and, of course, everyone is, is different and, um—but how long would you recommend that they use it? Is this something that just [want to take on] like the first couple of days, like on the plane and then the first couple of days as you’re adjusting or…?
Anne: Oh, that’s a great question. Definitely you don’t want to use it every single night for 20 years, which is how a lot of my patients end up using it. And so we work, we work them off of it. Yes. So it would just be for a few days to help you to get adjusted.
Aislyn: I see. And then stop, you know, would you stop when you’re feeling relatively like, “OK, I’m on this time zone, I’m not falling asleep during the day anymore.”
Anne: Yeah, it would be more like monitoring your own, yeah, your own reaction to it. But generally, most people are able to adjust both with melatonin, but then also with light exposure because a lot of circadian rhythm management is light management and light, of course, being natural sunlight. That’s our body’s main signal for when it’s time to be awake.
So if you’re going to be, for example, traveling to the West Coast, you would want to put on sunglasses and have less light in the morning before you leave your eastern time zone, and then more light in the afternoon to help adjust later. And then the opposite for when you’re coming back.
Aislyn: And then would you, as part of that, kind of recommend that people get on the sleep schedule of their time zone?
Anne: Yes. Aligning as much as possible when you, when you start your travels, that would be ideal. And of course, on airplanes, they serve meals at all the wrong times for that. But just do the best you can.
Aislyn: OK. Um, uh, you mentioned light exposure and so I was just curious in terms of, you know, our devices and of course everyone’s watching movies on planes. Do you have any tips for using screens wisely and realistically?
Anne: Ah, yes. The Venn diagram of wisely and realistically is—it’s a very narrow middle part there. Yeah, that’s a hard one. I would definitely say if you’re traveling west, where you’re going to be on a later schedule, then using screens later is fine on the plane because you’re helping yourself. However, if you’re traveling east, you would want to minimize that.
Aislyn: What if you have, like, blue light–blocking glasses? Does that do enough to balance out the harm?
Anne: It will probably help. I don’t know if it would completely negate it, but then again, one night of watching the screens on the plane is also probably not going to screw you up entirely for your, for the rest of your trip.
Yeah, it’s one of those things, you don’t wanna be super anxious about sleep, because the more anxious you are about it, the less likely it is that you’re going to be able to sleep. So, like you said, do it wisely. Do it in moderation, maybe. One movie rather than binging an entire TV series on the plane, for example.
Aislyn: Yes. I tend to be that type of plane sleeper. I have to admit I don’t sleep well, and then I just have those crazy zombie eyes when I watch all the TV. Um, so yes, the moderation. I love that. That’s really good advice. Is there anything else about—OK, well actually if you could just pick one of those things that someone were to do, is there one that you think helps more than any others?
Anne: That’s a hard one to answer because it would depend on the person. Like, what bothers them the most?
Aislyn: Mm-hmm. Like what prevents them from sleeping the most if they were at home?
Anne: Right. Or you know, if in their experience what prevents them the most from sleeping on planes. Like maybe some people are fine with the noise, but if their head isn’t aligned, they’re just not able to, to go to sleep. Or, you know, maybe if somebody is, you know, they’re fine with sleeping in a very weird, curled up, uncomfortable position like my cat, but they end up, but you know, they can’t be itchy.
So yeah, it’s, you know, pick which one you think will disturb you the most. But I think for most people it probably is the noise.
Aislyn: I would love to just segue more generally into sleeping while traveling. So say, OK, you, you’ve slept well on the plane (or not). Now you’re in this, in this new destination, how do you adjust to a new time zone once you’re there?
Anne: So again, it is all about light management. And hotels have these amazing blackout curtains, or most of them do, but if you’re trying to get on a new time zone, then having their curtains open at least a little bit in the morning so that you can get that light signal will be super helpful.
Aislyn: I think most people have been in a hotel with blackout curtains, and then you sleep until like 2 p.m.
Anne: Exactly. They’re like, “Whoops.”
Aislyn: “What happened?” Yeah. OK. So maybe leave them open a crack uh, so that natural morning light. Have you tried any of those jet lag—I’m going to use “hacks” for lack of a better word—like there are the ones . . . that kind of Gwyneth Paltrow grounding where you, I think you go outside and put your bare feet in the grass. And kind of ranging to the more reasonable ones, like adjusting your schedule before you leave.
Anne: Yes, I have definitely not gone and stood in the grass. I think the, the one that I have done is the, the trying to adjust the schedule prior to going with using melatonin even a few days beforehand to start tugging the schedule earlier.
Aislyn: Has that worked for you? Do you find that that’s helpful?
Anne: It has.
Anne: And it’s, um, I mean, you end up having maybe some tired nights, but it also gives you a chance to see how you respond to melatonin before trying it while you’re away.
Aislyn: That’s a good point. Um, how, how would you adjust that? Like, are you adjusting your schedule an hour each night or did you have a plan?
Anne: The way that I typically recommend is to take the melatonin at what will be your bedtime, but adjusted for the time difference. So for example, if you’re going someplace that is six hours ahead and you plan on keeping a 10 o’clock bedtime, you take the melatonin at four [p.m.].
Anne: Mm-hmm. So again, just a couple of days beforehand, and then the day you travel. It’s definitely something that has worked for me, that I’ve seen work for my patients as well. But as always, ask your doctor before starting a new medication.
Aislyn: Yes, definitely. So one thing that I often struggle with is actually sleeping in a new bed, especially the first night or two. And I read a story recently that had [said], um, that’s because our brains are wired to be in protection mode. Do you have any thoughts on that? Or kind of adjusting to a new just sleep environment beyond light.
Anne: I agree that is a, that can be an issue for some people, and I’ve noticed, especially as I’ve gotten older, not that I’m that old. I’m in my forties, but I have definitely gotten more sensitive to sleeping in hotels the first night.
Yeah. And I would say white noise is a big help with that because it will help to block out the doors closing and people in the hallway and other little noises that may not have woken you at home, but are more likely to wake you while you’re away because yeah, your brain is a little bit more on alert.
Aislyn: What white noise do you use?
Anne: I use an app that allows me to do a mix of white noise, and so it’s basically a bunch of very steady kind of water sounds and white noise. And just something really super soothing and simple, but that doesn’t have a loop, cuz sometimes if people are listening to a white noise that has a loop, they’ll start anticipating the loop starting over, which doesn’t help.
Aislyn: So like, anticipating it while they’re sleeping or if they’re struggling to fall asleep?
Anne: If they’re struggling to fall asleep.
Aislyn: Yeah. I see.
Anne: They’ll lay there and listen to it and get annoyed.
Aislyn: All right. No loops, no white noise loops.
Aislyn: Do you have any other kind of thoughts on just sleep as it relates to travel? You know, other suggestions once you’re in your destination that may help or harm—things to avoid.
Anne: OK. So my main hotel sleep hack is actually to bring a humidifier with you. And when you drive, it’s of course a little bit easier. But for this most recent trip, my husband found probably on Amazon or Target or something, this little bitty humidifier that you just fill up with hotel water and it worked great and that’s really good because, of course, hotels also tend to be super dry.
And if you are sharing the bed with a snorer, it can actually help. It moistens the airspace somehow and keeps it from getting as inflamed. It can make a big difference.
Aislyn: How have you noticed that that has changed your sleep?
Anne: If I don’t have it, I wake up so much more often with a dry mouth and needing to drink. And of course when you’re traveling you’re probably also having more salty food, so you’re more likely to wake up anyway.
And so think about it as, not making it a miraculous sleep improvement, but anything you can do to help incrementally make sleep better will still help.
The other one I do is that I will bring—I either have, it’s a little pillow that I bring with me or a crocheted blanket that I bring with me, and both of those smell like home. And the blanket I really like because of course hotel pillows, there’s that joke that, you know, one is never enough and two is way too many.
Aislyn: Yeah. Yes.
Anne: And so having the blanket allows me to adjust the height of my sleeping surface.
Aislyn: Nice. Yeah. Unless you’re staying in one of those hotels that has the pillow concierge. I’ve only seen a few of those, but they can, they have like a pillow menu.
Aislyn: I know. It’s next level because I actually have seen—it seems like hotels are trying to get in on this sleep game to help travelers sleep better, and I’ve been actually been curious to know—I have not, I have not, you know, availed myself, any of those, but I’m curious to know how much it does really improve travelers’ sleep to use some of those services.
Anne: I don’t know. And I think it’s really interesting because one thing they’re taking advantage of is, if people have trouble sleeping, a lot of the time they’ll sleep better outside of their home environment because they don’t have all of the anxiety of insomnia associated with that novel place. And so I’m wondering if these hotels, especially the ones that are really heavily advertising “Come here and get a good night’s sleep” and, like, and that’s why you go there are taking advantage of these behavioral associations. And so I’d be really curious to see how that all pans out.
Anne: But when my colleagues and I saw that, we were like, “Yep, that’s exactly what they’re doing.”
Aislyn: That is so interesting. So people who have insomnia may actually sleep better in a new environment. That is fascinating.
Anne: Sometimes they sleep worse, but I think a lot of that is because they’re so anxious about their sleep already and so they’re anticipating they won’t sleep well. But this is a good opportunity to practice beginner’s mind. It’s like, OK, we don’t know what’s gonna happen. Let’s just see.
Aislyn: Do you find that, um, sleep meditations help some of your patients?
Anne: The thing with sleep meditations is if you’re doing them before bed, they can be great at winding down. However, you don’t necessarily want to listen to them as you are falling asleep because what you’re doing is training yourself to become dependent on them. And then what happens if—
Aislyn: Uh oh.
Anne: —the app goes away or if—here in Atlanta we have tornadoes, we have the occasional hurricane, we have the occasional ice storm, and the power goes out. What if you can’t charge your device? Typically, we prefer to make sleep as simple as possible.
Aislyn: Well, I was actually curious, and this is outside of the realm of travel a little bit, but how do you think we are sleeping as a culture right now? That’s a big question.
Anne: Very big question. That’s a very good question. We have this really interesting contrast of the fact that there has been so much more attention put on sleep. Like, for example, Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep and his TED talk has been really good about educating people on sleep—and also then making them super anxious about whether they’re going to die tomorrow if they don’t get eight hours every single night. I know the next sleep convention I go to with him, I’m gonna have to buy that man a drink. Yes. Because I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten some business because of that.
So we have this one, you know, super hyper awareness and of course all of the different devices to help you track your sleep, which by the way, are not accurate, or not super accurate, and can cause more anxiety.
And then on the other hand, we have screens and we have hustle culture, and all of these cultural things that are working against us being able to sleep. And so I, what I would say the biggest thing that has changed, especially over the last few years is that people are a lot more anxious about their sleep, but they’re not necessarily sleeping better.
Aislyn: So if anything, sleeping potentially worse—like, more aware, but sleeping worse.
Anne: Yes. And it’s kind of, it’s kinda hard to say whether they’re sleeping worse now, or that they were always sleeping badly. Now they’re more aware that they’re sleeping badly.
Aislyn: Yeah, because I think you’re right. You know, there has, I feel like everywhere I turn, there’s something about sleeping better. I have an Oura ring and, you know, it tells me my sleep score every day, and there’s so many books and podcasts, and yet I do feel like the way that most of us live doesn’t seem to jive with sleeping very well or peacefully.
Um, yeah, you, so you mentioned that you feel like devices aren’t super accurate. Do you wanna elaborate on that at all?
Anne: They are good for some things. So for example, if you’re concerned that you move around a lot at night or you wanna get a general sense of how things are going, that’s fine. But as for the very specifics, like there is no way your Oura ring, for example, can tell you whether you’re in light sleep or heavy sleep, or definitely not REM sleep.
Because the only way something’s going to be able to tell if you’re in those sleep stages is if it’s reading your brainwaves. So these devices essentially are checking your movement, your position, and your heart rate and putting it into some proprietary algorithm that is associated with certain things.
Aislyn: I see.
Anne: And so for some people they can be helpful, but for a lot of people they end up causing more anxiety. Like, you know what, if you wake up and you’re like, “Wow, I feel awesome this morning. That must have been a great night of sleep.” And then you look at your device and it’s like—they’re gonna give you a 60. You got a D minus on your sleep last night. Then you start feeling bad or you start looking for, “Oh, well, do I really feel that good? I’m not sure.”
Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah.
Anne: “At one point, I woke up and I turned around for a little bit and it’s, you know—” so again, it depends on the person as to whether those things can be helpful.
Aislyn: OK. Yeah, that’s good to take this, these things with a grain of salt because it is very easy to take them quite literally. What do you think most people get wrong about sleep or sleeping well?
Anne: Ooh, the sleep myths. Yes.
The big one I see is that people, of course, hear that you should go to bed at the same time every single day. However, a lot of people will end up going to bed, whether they’re sleepy or not, but then they end up, if they’re not sleepy, lying awake in bed, which then feeds the underlying sleep problem or can lead to an underlying sleep problem. So we recommend that you wait until you’re sleepy before you go to bed, and then keep wake-up time consistent because that is where your circadian rhythm anchors.
Aislyn: OK. That’s a—I feel like every, every story about sleep is like “Go to bed at the same time.”
Aislyn: Anything else that you would want to share about sleeping or sleeping while traveling that you think would be helpful for listeners?
Anne: I would say that the important thing, especially with all of the sleep information out there, is to practice that beginner’s mind around sleep. To say, “OK, I’m not going to put pressure on myself one way or the other.” Because then, of course, a lot of what happens is that people get super anxious about, “Well, if I don’t sleep tonight, how am I gonna function tomorrow?”
And I can tell you at this point, from having looked at probably tens of thousands of sleep diaries, that how we feel during the day is not 100 percent correlated with what happens at night. There are other things that feed into how we feel during the day, so it’s not all sleep. So yes, sleep is important but stay balanced and mindful about it.
Aislyn: I love that. That’s a very balanced perspective. Um, you had mentioned the book, uh, are there any kind of resources for people who might wanna investigate sleep a little bit more that you recommend?
Anne: Oh, well, of course I have written a wonderful book. It is called Better Sleep for the Overachiever. Yes, because I have, um, I have seen that personality type so much in my practice. And so finally I decided to take, you know, 10 years’ worth of experiences and conversations and advice and distill it into a book.
And so it is partially about sleep, but it is also a lot about the other things that—people in general, not just overachievers—that feed into sleep problems. Like, for example, there is a chapter called Relaxation for People Who Can’t Relax. So, yes, Better Sleep for the Overachiever. You can find it anywhere books are sold. It is available in a paperback, ebook, and audiobook narrated by me. So if you find my voice soothing, you can listen to it before bed.
Aislyn: Your voice is very soothing.
Anne: Oh, thank you. And, uh, you can also find me on Instagram @psychupacademy where I talk a lot about sleep and also other daytime things like procrastination because, of course, helping people sleep is also helping with a lot of habit change. And so I’ve really dug into procrastination and even have a course now, so.
Aislyn: Wow, you are—you keep yourself busy. It sounds like you’re very passionate about your work.
Anne: I am. I love helping people to live and be their best selves.
Aislyn: Wonderful. Well, I mean, what a thing to overachieve, right?
Aislyn: Uh, well thank you, Anne. I really appreciate your time and all your wisdom. And yes, we will share links to your books and audiobook and everything in the show notes. So thank you again for being here.
Anne: Thank you so much, Aislyn. I really enjoyed it.