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I credited the healthy Fijian diet of fish and fruit with my new talent for nodding off. But a friend told me she'd experienced a similar phenomenon while in Paris eating foie gras and cheese. "Apart from caffeine and alcohol, diet doesn't strongly influence sleep," says Kelly Glazer Baron, PhD, assistant professor of neurology and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Northwestern University. I hadn't given up coffee, so how to explain my miracle transformation? According to experts I quizzed afterward, several things I did on my trip likely improved my sleep — and they're habits you can steal to snooze more soundly in your own room.
Change up your surroundings
Unfamiliar beds can give good sleepers a bad night, but for insomniacs, they can blunt the worry that contributes to sleeplessness. "The mattress and sheets are different from what you're used to, so you don't associate them with staying awake like you might at home," says Robert Oexman, a chiropractor and director of the Sleep to Live Institute in Joplin, Mo. In Fiji, I also enjoyed silence — a pleasure lacking amid the sirens in my Brooklyn neighborhood. (Another thing I didn't hear? My snoring husband, who stayed in New York.)
Pitch-black darkness is just as foreign to me. A study in the Journal of Environmental Management found that people who lived in areas with a lot of artificial light outside — from lampposts, bright signs — reported a decreased quality of sleep compared with those in less-lit areas. The reason: Light lowers our body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates our sleep-wake cycle and makes us drowsy. On the island, the only evening light in view was the moon.
Try this at home: Change your sheets a little more often. "New" bedding, even if it's your own, can defuse the fear of another sleepless night. And, invest in a white-noise machine (or download the SimplyNoise app for a buck) and hotel-style blackout shades.
Turn Down The Thermostat
Most hotel rooms are icy cold, and that's optimal, Baron says: "We sleep best when our body temperature is declining." It's especially true for insomniacs, who tend to have a higher core body temperature at bedtime, according to a study in the journal Sleep Medicine Reviews.
Try this at home: Set the thermostat between 60 and 68 degrees, Baron advises. "Another trick is to take a bath an hour before you go to bed," she says. "When you get out, your core temperature will drop."
Time for a technical term: Scientists refer to anything that keeps your circadian rhythms in sync as a zeitgeber. A powerful one is sunlight, which is usually in abundant supply on vacation—whether you're in a sunny locale or exploring a city. When researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder monitored a group of campers who were outside all day, they found that the vacationers awoke and drifted off at the same time every day by the end of the trip, no matter when they normally did at home.
Another vacation-friendly zeitgeber is exercise. In a Stanford University School of Medicine study, working out for 20 to 30 minutes every other day reduced the time needed to fall asleep by half. (One caveat: no vigorous exercise within three hours of bedtime or you might jack yourself up instead of knocking yourself out.)
Try this at home: Exercise outdoors, ideally early. Most of us spend our days inside; that throws off our sleep-wake cycle. "Morning sunlight helps you feel more alert," Baron says.
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Escape The Grind
"When you go on vacation, you're removed from the pressures of normal life," says Michael Breus, PhD. And when stress levels drop, he says, "we see a reduction in insomnia, too."
Ditching your tech addiction also helps. The wireless in Fiji was patchy, so I shut down my laptop. "Checking e-mail puts you back into your stressful life," Breus notes. "And, the screen's light disrupts circadian rhythms."
Try this at home: An hour before you go to bed, turn off all screens (TV included). "Watching shows before bedtime, even uninteresting ones, can be mentally stimulating," Baron points out.
Hang Out More
As a working mom, I don't go to dinner parties much. But, my fellow travelers and I laughed through every meal together. "Vacation conversation is light," Breus says. "At home, you discuss problems, which you can't stop thinking about once you're in bed."
Try this at home: Yes, we're all crazy busy, but scheduling time with your friends and your man may improve your sleep. (No talk about refinancing your mortgage, though.) Of course, you can't always avoid serious topics with your partner. "Hash things out early in the evening," Breus says. "You'll get along better when you're rested."
Which I was, by the time I returned from Fiji. The mystery of the missing pill vial was soon solved — I found it in a bag I'd ditched at the last minute — but I haven't needed it. To keep that going, I've been making a serious effort to boost my zeitgebers. That includes taking a 15-minute walk each morning and not blowing off girl time. The most effective change, however, has been turning off the TV an hour before bed. My husband and I use the extra time for bedroom activities that also happen to be sleep-inducing. Good night, indeed.
We've all trawled the internet at midnight wondering if our symptoms are normal, or if a bowl of cereal qualifies as dinner. To the rescue: The experts at Health.com will share everything from how to ditch that nagging cough for good to quick-hitting workout moves and how to actually eat "clean."