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Steven Y Park, MD  
Male, 46
New York, NY

Specialties: Sleep-breathing disorders

Interests: Running, Baking, origami
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212-315-9058
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5 Simple Ways You Can Sleep Better While Traveling

Jun 10, 2010 - 0 comments
Tags:

Nasal congestion

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pillow

,

sinus problems

,

sleep

,

Travel

,

vacation



There are many resources available regarding tips for travel while on vacation, but one thing that can definitely ruin your vacation is poor sleep. You may never think that you will suffer from sleeping problem until it happens, and by then, it’s too late. Besides the various stresses of travel, including delayed flights, misplaced luggage, or traveling with children, the last thing you need is to lay down in your hotel bed, and start tossing and turning, unable to sleep. If you are a poor sleeper to begin with and especially if you normally can’t sleep on your back, then the following travel tips could prevent your vacation from turning into a disaster.

Tip #1. Keep your nose clear. If you have a history of ear or sinus discomfort while flying, or if you have any degree of nasal congestion due to allergies or colds, then take preventive measures to open up your nasal breathing passageways to prevent ear, nose or sinus problems which can keep you up at night. Your ears and sinuses are connected to your nose through very narrow passageways. If you have any form of nasal congestion or inflammation, these passageways can become more narrow, and the rapid pressure changes during your flight (usually when descending) can aggravate more swelling and a partial blockage of your sinuses or ears.

The simplest way of preventing ear, nose and sinus problems while flying is to decongest your nose using generous amounts of nasal saline (which is a mild decongestant), or over-the-counter decongestants, such as Sudafed tablets or Afrin nasal spray. If you have high blood pressure or are sensitive to Sudafed, it’s not a good idea to take. Afrin, on the hand, can only be used for 2-3 days if you have persistent ear fullness after the flight. For most people, taking a decongestant in the middle of the flight (before descending), should be enough. There are various ear “plugs” marketed for flying. They can be helpful for some people; if it works, keep using them.

Now that you’ve made it safely off the plane without any problems, you finally make it to your hotel at 9 PM and check in. You’re really hungry and stop by the restaurant to grab a sandwich. Bad move.

Tip #2: Don’t eat before bedtime. Eating late before bedtime, while on vacation or at home, is the single most common habit that could potentially ruin a good night’s sleep. On vacation, it’s tempting to eat later or binge at a great restaurant, but you’ll pay for it that night. For many people, if you have food in your stomach when you lay down, some of the stomach juices can regurgitate up into your throat, causing irritation and inflammation. This can wake you up more often, diminishing deep sleep quality. The general rule of thumb is to eat your last meal about 3-4 hours before bedtime. This also means no snacks before bedtime.

It could also make you gain weight as well, since any degree of inefficient sleep can make you gain weight. This has been proven in many studies that hormonally, sleep deprived people undergo hormonal changes that promotes weight gain and increases appetite, mainly for fatty or sweet foods.

You’ve stopped your late night snacks, and so far so good. You make arrangements to meet your long-time friend at the hotel bar, but the earliest he can meet is at 10 PM. The two of you meet and decide to have a glass of wine. As you take your first sip, you remember the newspaper article that reported that red wine has an ingredient that could keep you young. Afterwards, you to back to your room to rejoin your wife, and you go to bed. The next morning, for some reason, you feel like you only slept for 3-4 hours. What happened?

Tip #3: Avoid alcohol before bedtime. There are numerous studies that tout red wines’ beneficial health effects. But one aspect of red wine, and all other forms of alcohol, that could be detrimental to your health is its’ relaxing effects on your throat muscles. If you already have a slightly narrowed upper airway passageways (like most people), sleeping on your back can cause mild collapse of your tongue backwards. But when you add deep sleep, since all your body’s muscles relax the most, adding alcohol can tip you over the edge and cause you to stop breathing. You may wake up subconsciously, or completely awake.

I think you’ll agree with me that stopping breathing and depriving your brain and body of oxygen, along with sleep deprivation, is much more detrimental than any potential theoretical benefit from red wine. The bottom line is that you should avoid drinking alcohol 3-4 hours before bedtime.

Tip #4: Bring your own pillow. You’ve stopped your late night eating and drinking alcohol, and you are ready to go to sleep. You lie down to sleep, but something doesn’t feel right. After a few minutes of tossing and turning and fluffing the pillow, you realize what the problem is: you miss your own pillow. Yours is much firmer, and the hotel’s pillow is too soft. Thinking about the your pillow is not something that most people consider before taking trips. You can’t bring your own mattress, but you can bring your own pillow, if space allows.

Don’t wait until you are ready to go to bed to find that the hotel’s pillow isn’t "just right." When you first arrive in your room, after you unpack, test drive your pillow. If it doesn’t feel right, ask the concierge for a different type of pillow. Some may even have the memory foam contoured pillow that I like, and some Asian travelers may prefer a roll-like buckwheat-filled pillow.

If you like to sleep on your back, and feel less than refreshed in the morning, try sleeping on your side. If that’s not possible, experiment with the roll-like pillow that I mentioned previously, or roll up a towel to just the right thickness. The reason this may help you sleep is that when your head is cocked back slightly when sleeping (unlike softer, down pillows that end up bending your head forward), the space behind the tongue opens up significantly, preventing frequent awakenings at night.

Tip #5: Don’t sleep in late. When you’re on vacation, it’s tempting to stay up late and sleep in in the morning. RESIST THE URGE. I’ve already covered in the past few lessons why it’s important not to eat late, and why you must go to bed at a reasonable time to allot for your normal sleep duration. If you go to bed late and wake up later in the morning, you’ve shifted your sleep clock, which will make you want to go to bed later. Once you’re back home, along with the clock shift from changing time zones, you’ll be doubly affected: time zone shift and a sleep clock shift (see accompanying article on time shifts). This is why it’s so hard to get anything done when you get back to work.


To make the most of your vacation, plan your sleep times accordingly so that you can maximize your fun during your waking hours. Spend time outside in the sun, walk, jog, cycle, swim, and relax! If possible, remember to give yourself a day or two to wind down after you come back before you go back to work.

Even if you don’t suffer from any problems during your trip, many ear and sinus problems occur AFTER your return trip, usually aggravated by the return flight. You’ve had a great vacation, but now you’re paying for it when you come home. If you had followed my advice during your vacation, you wouldn’t have to see a doctor about your ear problem.


Steven Y. Park, MD  is a surgeon and author of the book, Sleep, Interrupted: A physician reveals the #1 reason why so many of us are sick and tired. Endorsed by New York Times best-selling authors Christiane Northrup, M.D., Dean Ornish, M.D., Mark Liponis, M.D., Mary Shomon, and many others. http://doctorstevenpark.com

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