Even the most experienced travelers dread the inevitable misery of jet lag.
Our bodies normally follow natural cycles called circadian rhythms – internal clocks that dictate when we sleep, when we feel awake, when we get hungry, and all related biological conditions. Traveling, particularly flying across multiple time zones, throws everything out of balance, resulting in the classic jet lag symptoms: extreme fatigue, disorientation, gastronomical issues, and overall discomfort.
Over 95% of travelers report suffering from jet lag, and the older we get, the more we are affected.
Some sleep scientists conjecture that it can take up to one day per time zone crossed for your body to catch up to your new environment. For a three-day business trip, it might not even be worth the pains of adjusting – but for longer the prospect of spending half the excursion jet-lagged is disheartening.
Fortunately, there is a plethora of advice out there on how to minimize the transition time and decrease jet lag’s negative effects, as well as a growing body of scientific research on the topic (To Avoid Jet Lag This Summer, Travel Like a Scientist, The Wall Street Journal).
Of course, each body is unique; what works for one person might not work for another.
Here are some tips we suggest trying to manage jet lag:
Begin modifying sleep habits before you travel:
It’s generally recommended to alter sleep habits ahead of time. If possible: gradually pushing back your bedtime if traveling west, or heading to bed earlier than usual if traveling east (studies actually show that traveling east is significantly more taxing than traveling west).
Try regulating exposure to light (wear a eye mask when sleeping):
In most cases, your body won’t adapt that easily.
To further ease the shift, many experts advocate regulating your exposure to light. This is because light – natural or artificial – is the primary environmental cue that direct your biological clock.
By selectively controlling how much light you see when, you trick your body into following a new cycle. NASA uses sleep masks to help their astronauts acclimate to sleeping in new settings; sunglasses are another valuable tool (A Battle Plan for Jet Lag, The New York Times).
For shorter flights, consider arriving in the evening local time:
The time of day that your airplane arrives at its destination can also make a difference. If you’re one of the rare individuals who can sleep soundly on planes, consider taking a red-eye night flight.
Everyone else might benefit from booking a flight that touches down in the early evening, local time. This allows for a comfortable span of time to check into your hotel, eat dinner, and get settled before tucking in for the night.
Manage diet and caffeine in-take:
Speaking of which, it always helps to get a good first night of sleep in the new time zone.
Sleep experts note that unfamiliar environments can make it difficult to sleep – caffeine and alcohol could undesirably exacerbate that effect, so be wary. To ensure quality rest, medications such as sleeping pills and melatonin are an effective option, but be sure to discuss with your doctor ahead of time (Jet Lag and Sleep, National Sleep Foundation).
For the first few days, it’s advised that you manage your diet carefully. Try eating at local meal times, so that your body gets used to metabolizing in its new schedule, and limiting yourself to familiar foods, in order to minimize digestive unpleasantness.
Particularly large, heavy, or spicy meals are not recommended.
Plan and prepare your body ahead of time:
Overall, scientists agree that you should minimize other stressors however you can: plan ahead, pack early, stay hydrated throughout, take advantage of cabin aisles and layovers to walk around and stretch your poor, tired body.
Traveling will always have its ups and downs, but perhaps jet lag is one of the bad parts that can be overcome, leaving you with more energy to focus on the good parts – the remarkable experiences – instead.
Airplane photo by Alexander Estmo