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  • Writer's pictureDr. Bill Hoekstra

How to Stop Travers Insomnia

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

You know how you never sleep well the first night in a hotel? You toss and turn. Noises startle you easily. It’s a pain in the neck.

Researchers curious about this phenomenon took brain scans of people attempting to sleep in a new place and discovered something curious. In the first few hours of trying to fall asleep, the left hemisphere of the default mode network (DMN), the seat of our internal monologue, maintained a relatively high level of activity. It “stayed up” and acted like a night watchman. It noted noises and bumps in the night more than the rest of the brain. It roused the person over small disturbances, at great frequency, creating the classic tossing-and-turning effect. Luckily, on the second night of the study, the left DMN did not activate. It is as if the brain acclimated to the new environment and felt safe enough to truly rest. So what can we do to stop it from ruining our night? If you find yourself sleeping someplace new, make your brain feel that it is a normal night by incorporating as much of your standard routine as you can. If you always drink herbal tea before bed, bring tea bags with you. If you have a trusty alarm clock you love, bring it and use it. Do one of your favorite guided meditations, that both calms you down and makes you feel like you're home. While it may sound ridiculous, these little touches can be enough to soothe the DMN and help you sleep. If your DMN, a.k.a. your inner monologue, won't stop, try taking a hot bath or shower. The reasoning is ironic. Our bodies naturally go through changes in body temperature over a 24-hour cycle. When initiating quality sleep, body temperature drops between 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. When you take a hot bath or shower, you draw out the heat in the core of your body by bringing your blood to the surface of your skin. Your hands and feet expel the extra heat, cooling off your core. This temperature drop tells the body it's time to get some good rest. Studies show that people who take a hot bath or shower for as little as 10 minutes can experience improved sleep duration and quality. In fact, a hot bath or shower helps people fall asleep almost as fast as the common pharmaceutical sleep aid Ambien. Whereas Ambien users fell asleep 16 minutes faster than the control group, people who took a hot bath or shower fell asleep 7 minutes faster. It can really stink to sleep terribly while traveling. Luckily, the DMN effect only lasts one night, so hopefully you can catch up on sleep during the rest of the trip.

References Tamaki, M., Bang, J.W., Watanabe, T., & Sasake, Y. (2016). Night Watch in One Brain Hemisphere During Sleep Associated With the First-Night Effect in Humans. Current Biology, 26, 1190–1194. Haghayegh, S., Khoshnevis, S., Smolensky, M.H., Diller, K.R., & Castriotta, R.J. (2019). Before-bedtime passive body heating by warm shower or bath to improve sleep: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 46, 124–135.

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