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Controlling the sleep environment; At home or when travelling

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By Dr Ian Dunican

Lack of sleep and ongoing sleep debt is a significant factor in both cognitive and mental fatigue. The environment where we relax, and sleep can have a considerable impact on the quantity and quality of sleep we get each night. Environmental factors that may impact sleep include noise, light, temperature and the comfort of a bed/pillow. An individual’s routine (e.g. having the same room, the familiarity of environment, and going to bed and waking up at a similar time) also has an effect. This is often referred to as sleep hygiene or good sleep habits.

When we travel, we often change our sleeping environments many times. The quality of the sleeping environment may vary, as will the additional factors such as noise and light. The following items should be considered when changing sleeping environments in order to maximize sleep and recovery:

  • Are the windows blacked out?
  • With all doors closed can any visible light be seen through the windows.
  • If visible lights show through windows, use opaque materials (e.g. aluminium foil and tape) to blacken.

TIP: When placing aluminium foil over a window, cut out a piece that exactly fits the windowpane. Then wet one side of the aluminium foil and place the wet side over the window. This allows the aluminium foil to maintain a perfect seal with the windowpane and will not make noise if a fan or air conditioner is blowing in the room.

Are there any sources of distracting light (e.g. mobile phone, digital clock/radio, and standby lights from electrical equipment)? Tape over/turn off standby lights, direct light from the phone, and put digital clock/radios away from view.

Is the air conditioner set between the temperatures of 18°C and 24°C (ideally 21°C)? Is the air conditioner on a maintenance schedule to ensure correct functioning (i.e. right temperature, low noise/no vibration of motors, etc.)? If you cannot control the temperature, is there access to a fan for cooling or can you attain extra blankets for heating?

Athlete insight: Adam Gilchrist, former international cricket player for Australia

In a conversation with former Australian cricketer, Adam Gilchrist, he discussed with me the importance of sleep for recovery and performance. Adam’s credentials and performance highlights are too many to mention. A veteran and legend of the cricket game, Adam knows the importance of maintaining vigilance, cognitive and physical performance for extended periods in a 5-day test match. Whilst travelling internationally and domestically for cricket competitions, Adam adds that the sleeping environment is critical:

If you are sharing a room with someone who snores, is messy or likes to go to bed late, it can really disrupt your pre-game schedule or sleep during a 5-day test.”

Is the room insulated from external noise to allow quality sleep? Are there external building noise barriers (e.g. high fence)? Are there controls in place to minimise noise from other sources in the room (e.g. vibration from fridge motors)? Consider the use of earplugs to reduce noise whilst sleeping.

TIP: When travelling, always bring a bag of earplugs and an eye mask. I recommend the sleep master eye mask as it fits any size head, it is soft, will not cut the back of your head and makes a great seal around your eyes and helps to keep earplugs in place

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