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Sleepless in Seattle? Or Philadelphia? Or New York?

January 23, 2019 by  
Filed under Uncategorized

By Nilong Vyas, MD

Here’s how to solve sleep problems while traveling.

Insomnia can be a critical issue when traveling, when you need to be somewhere important and need to be rested; or mentally prepared for a meeting at work the next day. Most people reach for the quick fix of an over the counter pill such as melatonin, ZzzQuil, or prescription medications like Ambien. These remedies work, but they have many negative side effects, including dependence on these meds in order to be capable of falling asleep.

Melatonin works well. It’s useful when traveling across time zones to help you increase the amount of natural melatonin that is released in the body based on its circadian rhythm that may be out of sync since landing in a new time zone. It helps with sleep initiation (as one is falling asleep) but not the continuation of sleep (keeping one sleeping through the night). That is when a medicine such as ZzzQuil can be beneficial because it can help with the initiation of sleep and also maintenance of sleep. Like melatonin, Ambien helps you get to sleep but not necessarily stay asleep if awoken in the middle of the night.

The active ingredient in ZzzQuil is diphenhydramine HCl, an antihistamine whose side effect is to cause sleepiness. But there are multiple inactive ingredients such as various artificial color combinations, high fructose corn syrup, and alcohol. Melatonin pills mostly have melatonin unless it is a flavored tablet with other additives such as lavender or mint. Ambien (active substance zolpidem tartrate), however, has lots of additional additives such as colloidal silicon dioxide, hypromellose, microcrystalline cellulose, and polyethylene glycol, to name a few. These may cause sensitivity or reaction in some in addition to not fully assisting in fixing the insomnia.

My preference, as a sleep consultant, is to advise the use of non-consumable sleep aids that don’t have a risk of dependency such as blackout curtains, sound machines, blue-light restriction devices, and a soothing sleep environment. These tools can be used anywhere and everywhere to allow one to fall asleep easier by creating a proper environment for sleep. If there are situations in which these tools are not available or accessible, it is fine to use a medicinal sleep aid as long as it is used for a very short period of time (over the course of a weekend of travel). Also, if having a bout of insomnia that is atypical, using one of the medicinal sleep aids described above is acceptable, again for a short period of time.

When good sleep habits are not used and one comes to rely on medicinal sleep aids, the dependency grows and it is then hard to go back to simple sleep aids such as good sleep hygiene.

About the author: Nilong Vyas, MD, is the president and CEO of Sleepless in NOLA, in New Orleans.


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