Adaptive Sound Technologies. Courtesy photo

Sleepless in Boulder: How to Sleep Better When Traveling


You’re exhausted from traveling, but you just can’t sleep.

Maybe your mattress or pillow are uncomfortable — or just different.

You can hear someone walking around in the room above you. Are they throwing around bowling balls while wearing steel stilettos?

Your patterns are off; the time zone is different; your belly is rolling; the air is too thin.

There are so many reasons you might not be able to sleep while traveling.

Even if the conditions are perfect and you’re sleeping in the cloud-like beds at the St Julien Hotel & Spa, a study in Current Biology reports there’s a good chance you won’t sleep well the first night in a new place — and it’s hardwired into our survival instincts. It’s called the “first night effect.” Researchers think this well-documented tendency may have evolved to keep one side of your brain awake to stay on watch for danger in a new environment.

Sometimes the tossing and turning may last even longer than a single night, and then you start feeling anxious about sleep, and that anxiety about not sleeping can keep you from sleeping. And the travel-induced sleepless spiral takes over.

But sleep is crucial on so many levels for your mental and physical health.

Luckily, there are many things you can do to help improve your sleep in Boulder, whether you are visiting or you live here.

In honor of March, which is Sleep Awareness Month, here are some tips to help you improve your shut-eye. Some you may know about, but we bet you haven’t tried them all.

Adaptive Sound Technologies sound machines to help you sleep. Courtesy photo

1. Pack right.
Set yourself up for sleep success by packing for it. Consider packing:

  • Earplugs
  • An eye mask (can also come in handy on the plane)
  • Lavender essential oil, which can help relax you
  • A familiar blanket to make your new bed feel like home and can help keep the temperature around you at an ideal 60 to 67 degrees (especially when on a road trip or in the plane). Pack a blanket big enough to cover your body but compact enough for travel, in a washable and breathable material like lightweight fleece.
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • A travel white noise machine, like the Adaptive Sound Technologies LectroFan EVO or the smaller LectroFan Micro2. The latter is super small and barely takes up any space, rechargeable and has 11 different sounds (five fan sounds, five brown/pink noises and two ocean sounds — the waves are our favorite). This simple device transforms your room into a relaxing oasis (and keeps out your neighbor’s disturbances) with its high-quality speakers that swivel, allowing for multi-directional audio. The battery charge lasts 40 hours. Since it’s wireless, it can go anywhere with you.

2. Eat right.

What you eat can affect your slumber. Avoid processed foods, too much alcohol and caffeine close to bed. Pick foods high in magnesium and potassium to relax you (such as dark, leafy greens, fish, bananas, avocado and fish). You might even consider taking a magnesium supplement before bed.

Other foods that experts say may help you sleep: oats, ginger, rice, cherries and tomatoes, as well as food that contains the amino acid tryptophan (you know, the thing in turkey that makes you sleepy after Thanksgiving dinner). You may also consider foods high in dopamine, such as fermented dairy (kefir), blueberries and grass-fed meat.

A T-shirt in Boulder. Photo by Aimee Heckel

3. Be wary of weed.

Certain strains of cannabis can definitely knock you out and help you sleep, but the THC can reduce the amount of REM sleep you get, according to one study. REM is an important part of your sleep cycle. Other studies have found that regular marijuana use can actually impair sleep.

Instead, consider taking CBD, which is not psychoactive and advocates claim can help you relax or sleep. The National Institutes of Health found CBD has anti-anxiety potential but not “acute effects” on the sleep-wake cycle of healthy people. According to the NIH study, it seems “CBD has an adequate safety profile with good tolerability and does not affect psychomotricity or cognition.”

A pot of tea. Courtesy photo

4. Sip relaxing tea.

If you want a relaxing substance with plenty of history and research, sip some caffeine-free chamomile tea (but not so much that it’ll keep you up all night going to the bathroom). Valerian root tea, passion flower and lavender teas can also be soothing. Celestial Seasonings is based right here in Boulder County and it makes a special Sleepytime Tea.

The Alpha Theta Neurofeedback machine at the Salt Spa. Photo by Aimee Heckel

5. Visit the Salt Spa.

Louisville’s unique Salt Spa offers halotherapy, or salt therapy. Some people visit the dim salt room after a bad night’s sleep because the room is relaxing, healthy and a great place to take a quiet nap, not to mention other health benefits from inhaling the salt. But the best bet for more serious sleep issues is the Salt Spa’s Alpha Theta Neurofeedback sessions. This equipment is specifically designed for people with sleep and anxiety issues.

The ClearMind Neurofeedback machine is painless, relaxing and honestly, kind of fun.

The experience starts with a brain map (which is fascinating in and of itself, to see how your brain functions). This shows which areas of the brain aren’t working optimally, where the issues originate and what protocols to use in the training. Electrodes will be connected to your head to measure your brain activity.

You sit in a comfortable recliner (with a pillow and blanket) and put on special glasses with a special blinking light designed to subtly provide photic stimulation.

Then, put on headphones and just sit back and relax. The program plays certain sounds designed to naturally train your brain to reduce brain waves associated with anxiety and stress and increase the waves associated with relaxation and sleep. It uses biofeedback via your own brain waves in live time. So when your brain waves shift (subconsciously), the sound slightly changes to provide tones that are more rewarding to your brain.

It claims to teach you how to self-regulate by building new neuropathways in the brain. These lead to cognitive, emotional and physical changes.

Ultimately, it increases the flexibility and efficiency of the brain. But it doesn’t happen instantly. You may need several or even dozens of visits before your brain begins shifting. Younger brains tend to reprogram faster than older.

ClearMind claims to be the only system that combines the photic (optic) stimulation with neurofeedback, which is supposed to speed up the learning process.

Each experience typically takes about 35 minutes.

A person floating at Radi8 Float in Boulder. Courtesy photo

6. Visit a float tank.

Boulder has two float tanks: Radi8 Float and the Isolate Flotation Center. These sensory deprivation tanks (or isolation tanks) are dark, sound-proof tanks filled with less than a foot of Epsom salt-filled water. Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) alone has been shown to help improve sleep.

The tanks are supposed to help you deeply relax, and there’s a ton of research on their effects. One 2018 study found even just one session could significantly reduce anxiety. Another study echoed that, also showing improvement in sleep and fatigue.

Need extra relaxation? At Radi8 Float, you can actually book an overnight float for $200 (because the staff has to stay up all night while you float).

7. Try cognitive behavioral therapy.

CBT has been shown effective in helping people deal with insomnia. Learn more about it and supplement your therapist visits with the self-guided, free CBT-i Coach app.

8. Meditate.

Meditation has been shown as an effective way to conquer insomnia. A Harvard Medical School article reports meditation and mindfulness invokes a “relaxation response” (the opposite of the stress response), which can reduce stress and help with sleep. The article recommends practicing mindful meditation 20 minutes a day during the day, so it will be easier to bring on that feeling at night when you can’t sleep.

In Boulder, there are many meditation and gentle yoga class to help you calm down. There are even nearby meditation retreats. You can also download a meditation app to listen to during the day and before bed. Our favorite is 10% Happier, which has a free week trial and a special “sleep” category. After a week, it’s about $15 a month or $99 for a year’s subscription. Worth it.

9. Adjust your light.

Turn off your phone and any screens well before you want to sleep. The blue light in your phone suppresses melatonin; set your Apple phone to enter Night Shift several hours before bed.

Get natural daylight as soon as you wake up. Go outside to stimulate your circadian clock, the thing in your brain that tells your body when it’s time to be awake.

Get outside and get some sunshine to help with jet lag. Photo by Aimee Heckel

10. Try to curb jet lag.

If you’re visiting from another time zone, take steps to reduce jet lag:

  • As soon as you leave, set your clock to the time zone of Boulder and stick to it. Sleep on the plane if it’s nighttime. Don’t let yourself fall asleep until the plane’s in the air. Allow yourself to swallow and yawn as the altitude changes, so you don’t end up with ear pain from ears that need to pop.
  • No matter how tired you are when you land, don’t sleep unless it’s bedtime. This will help you adjust quicker.
  • If the time change is significant, consider adjusting your schedule back home a few days before you depart, according to the Sleep Foundation.

11. Consider taking melatonin.

Some studies have found melatonin can help with jet lag and temporarily helped improve sleep when traveling.

According to the Sleep Foundation: “Melatonin is a naturally secreted hormone in humans that affects the body’s circadian rhythms. There is some evidence that when administered during the day, melatonin increases the tendency to sleep, but at night, the amount of sleep is unaffected.”

Consult your doctor before using it.

You may also ask your doctor about over-the-counter and prescription sleep aids.

12. Acclimate to the altitude.

Colorado’s high altitude can create additional sleep disruption, especially in higher-elevation mountain communities. The Sleep Foundation believes this is due to less oxygen and how it affects your breathing. Here are our tips to help you deal with Boulder’s altitude.

A cozy bed at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Boulder. Photo by Aimee Heckel

13. Reduce the “on-call effect.”

Another common contributor to sleeplessness while traveling is what experts call the “on-call effect.” This is caused by a worry that something might wake you up, like strange noises or the phone ringing. You can minimize this by making your hotel room feel as familiar as possible. Bring decor or a pillow/blanket from home. Ask the hotel to hold all calls. Do whatever you can to make your room feel serene.

14. Reach out to the experts.

If you still need help, reach out to a pro. Boulder County has plenty of sleep experts. Here are three options:

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