It really doesn’t matter whether you’re a road warrior or an infrequent leisure traveler. If you’re flying across multiple time zones, you’ll likely experience jet lag at your destination. Jet lag can disrupt your ability to sleep and your alertness while awake.
Each day, millions of air travelers struggle with jet lag, a condition resulting from an imbalance in air travelers’ biological clocks caused by fast travel across multiple time zones. Our bodies’ biological clocks have a natural circadian, 24-hour rhythm. Unfortunately, when we quickly travel across many time zones, that rhythm rarely adjusts quickly. Air travelers can remain stuck in their original time zone’s rhythm for several days. Their bodies’ rhythm may only creep toward their destination’s time zone.
As a result, when air travelers first arrive at their destination, their bodies can be saying it’s time to sleep, when it’s actually the middle of the afternoon, and sunlight says remain awake, even though it’s very late at night.
Most air travelers can’t preclude jet lag, but there are preventative measures to use to mitigate the condition, plus others to help you quickly acclimate your body to your new time zone.
• Pre-adjust eating. Many have a set eating schedule for eating and sleeping at home. Several days before you travel, try to adjust your eating and sleeping schedule to the time zone to which you’re traveling as much as possible.
• Pre-adjust sleep. I know some travelers who stay up all night before they fly long distance to beat jet lag, but most people tell me they feel better if fully rested before they leave on their trip. I know that’s true for me.
• Arrive in daylight. I try to plan my flights to arrive in daylight to help me fit into my new time zone, since I find it easier to stay awake after landing than getting to sleep quickly if landing in the evening. When traveling from the US to Europe, I very much prefer a night flight, which allows me to get a long sleep while over the Atlantic, then land in daylight. Some air travelers take the opposite tact. They select flights which have early evening arrivals and stay up until 10 pm to midnight local time to acclimate themselves to the new time zone. Either way, make sure to set an alarm to wake you on time, which helps you get over jet lag. Each traveler needs to determine which of these strategies works best for them.
• No booze, no coffee. Avoid alcohol, caffeine and other stimulants at least three to four hours before an evening flight to help you get to sleep while aloft.
• Change your watch. After you’re settled into your seat on the plane, change your watch to your destination’s time. While that may seem only psychological, it can help you get into the mind-set of your destination’s time.
• Sleep during your flight. Once aloft, especially if it’s a night flight, follow my tips from my column last week, “8 tips for sleeping well on long-distance night flights.”
• Reschedule your body. Once you arrive at your destination, you should immediately put your schedule in the new time zone and forget what time it is where your flight began. The more quickly you begin sleeping, waking, eating and scheduling activities according to your destination’s time, the more quickly your jet lag will disappear. Don’t fall into the trap of giving in to being tired from the jet lag and sleeping in. That will only prolong it.
• Crave sunlight. Try to get outside in the sunlight as soon as and whenever possible, especially in the first few days in your new time zone. Daylight is a powerful stimulant for regulating your biological clock. Moreover, staying indoors can deepen jet lag.
• Environment. When it’s time to sleep at your destination, try to make your hotel room’s sleep environment as good as possible, just like you did while flying to your destination.
• Melatonin? A controversial aid to get over jet lag is to take melatonin. According to the National Sleep Foundation, melatonin is a natural hormone made by the body’s pineal gland, which normally releases the hormone only after the sun goes down. Some people think because melatonin is part of the human wake-sleep cycle, they can use it to fall asleep.
According to research data which compared using melatonin as a sleeping pill versus a placebo, melatonin wasn’t much of a sleep aid. On the other hand, there is evidence that melatonin can help reset the body’s clock, and is therefore an aid to mitigate the length of time it takes to get over jet lag.
Despite melatonin being an over-the-counter medication in the US, prior to taking melatonin to help me recover from jet lag, I consulted my physician. Melatonin has side effects and cautions which shouldn’t be disregarded. Consult your physician before considering using it.