Recently, I slept at a friend's place. We had had a long day – going climbing, running around like crazy and then a jolly evening with lots of laughters. As I was working hard the week before, I was very very tired when we finally went to bed, and I was sure that I'd sleep deeply like a bear in its hibernation. Well, I thought wrong, and the next morning I didn't feel well rested at all. I felt as tired as the night before. Why did this happen? Why do I always sleep badly for the first night when I'm not sleeping in my own bed?

Being sleepy and drowsy when I'm at a friend's place might be unpleasant but as long as I have a day to recover, it doesn't have a big impact on me (rather on the people around me who have to bear me being sleepy 😉 ). However, when we compete, we often have to travel to other parts of our country or to foreign countries and sleep in hotels on-site. And being sleepy and drowsy during a competition is not only unpleasant, but can also have a negative impact on our performance. 

What do we know about this phenomenon – the "first-night-effect"? Why do we sleep badly outside home – at least for the first night?

Researchers have found out that the so-called "first-night-effect" is caused by one half of our brain only sleeping lightly and being more vigilant. This is a evolutionarily developed safety mechanism by our body in case the new place turns out to be unsafe. We have bigger troubles to falling asleep in first place. Then, the left side of the brain shows “reduced sleep depth”. Whenever there are unfamiliar sounds or other deviant external stimuli, a enhanced brain response can be measured. Our left brain side is on a night watch to make sure that we are safe. Smart mechanism, but irritating when we want and have to sleep in order to be well-prepared for a competition or important meeting.

Did you know that other animals show this behaviour as well? Several marine animals such as dolphins as well as birds show uni-hemispheric sleep, which means one side of the brain is awake while the other one sleeps. Well, animals show a way stronger effect way than humans (luckily!). Us humans only have a miniature system of what, e.g. whales and dolphins have, as Professor Sasaki, the lead author of this article, says. 

Generally, if we sleep in new places very often – e.g. because we travel a lot when competing or training, we might not necessarily always sleep badly in our first nights as our brains have the ability of adapting to the circumstances. 

So what can we do to reduce the "first-night-effect" and improve our sleep quality?

  • If possible, plan an extra night if you travel somewhere else to be able to adapt to your new surroundings. 
  • Bring your own pillow! 
  • If you can't fall sleep at night, don't get stressed and try to relax by e.g. doing breathing exercises or Progressive Muscle Relaxation (Jacobson). Remember that if you lie in bed, your body still rests – even if the situation is not ideal!
  • Often, when we can't sleep during the night, we start worrying about things (of course, it can also be vice versa: we have problems/ sorrows/ worries which hinder us from falling asleep). What we can do to get our thoughts structured, is writing all of these problems down. It will be easier to let go of these depressing thoughts! 

Another tip what we can do in advance to enhance our sleep quality:

  • Don't use your phone, tablets or computers before going to bed. Researchers have found out that when we are exposed to the blue-and-white light by our electronic devices at night, our brains are prevented from producing melatonin – the hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness and which we need to get tired. If we look into our devices for several hours before going to bed, the time when we finally fall asleep is delayed for an hour. Well, saying that we "shouldn't use our phones at all" before going to bed might be pretty harsh for some (most?) of us. Luckily, there are several apps for phones or tablets that help us deal with this problem (e.g. Twilight). They protect our eyes as the background colour of our phones turns to a smooth, red light instead of the blue-and-white light once the sun sets (based on the local sun cycle). Hence, it doesn't hinder our production of melatonin. Another solution to this problem is reading a book instead of being on Instagram or Facebook! 😉

What are your experiences with sleeping somewhere else? How do you improve your sleep quality? 

If you want to read more about the importance of sleep, read one of my latest blog posts! Stay tuned for more – next on my bucket list is how to deal with jet lag...