Fatigue, impaired memory, inability to concentrate, change in mood, digestive issues … all symptoms of jet lag, all no fun. While it’s impossible to prevent jet lag, there are ways to minimize its effects.
“The fundamental definition of jet lag is that there’s a misalignment between the internal clock in the brain that drives our daily performance, alertness and the abilty to sleep and the timing of when we want to do these things,” states Dr. Charles A. Czeisler, current chairman of the board of directors for the National Sleep Foundationand director of the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Basically, when your body moves from one time zone to another, your brain cannot initially register the change because it’s still in the old sleep-wake cycle, explains Dr. Michael J. Breus, a clinical psychologist and author of "The Sleep Doctor's Diet Plan."
On top of that, “most people are usually running around a day or two before their trip, so they tend to be preloaded with sleep deprivation even before they step foot on the plane, which will further complicate the condition,” says Czeisler.
If you don’t take measures to counter the jet lag, it could take the body, on average, one day per time zone crossed to adjust, says Breus. Who has time for that? To help you make the most of your trip, here are some tips on tricking your internal clock.
Change your bedtime before the vacation begins
A few days before departure day arrives, Breus suggests slowly moving your shut-eye time closer to the current time of your destination. “I suggest to people to get halfway there before they leave,” adds Czeisler. For example, if you’re heading to California from New York, go to bed about one hour and 30 minutes later than your usual time so that you’ll only need to adjust to a one-and-a-half-hour time difference.
While taking the red-eye or a late night flight may be less expensive, it may cost you in other ways, like dozing off during a guided tour. Czeisler suggests booking an afternoon flight if you’re flying west and a morning flight if you’re flying east. “The airlines have finally woken up to this issue, so there are now plenty of earlier flights to Europe,” he says. Breus advises a travel schedule that also minimizes waits and delays, especially if you’re traveling with little ones. “That off-hour or layover flight may save you a bit of money, but it may not be worth it if your family is too tired and irritable to enjoy your time once you arrive.”
If you have no other option than booking an overnight flight, Czeisler says, you should snooze at some point during the day before pulling an all-nighter. “Taking a nap before you’re exhausted can actually reduce the adverse effect of being awake at the wrong time of day,” he says. “This is what we refer to as prophylactic napping.”
If sleeping in public is an issue for you, he suggests investing in a pair of earplugs, as well as a soft eye mask that conforms to your face and allows you to blink. “And forget the food,” he adds. “Would you normally have a lavish meal in the middle of the night? Enjoy the sweet sleep of your vacation. After all, it’s your time to catch up!”
Try a supplement
Just recently, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological studies announced that they have identified a gene responsible for sleep and wake rhythms. This new discovery leads experts one step closer toward a new treatment called cell regenerative therapies, which they say will help night shift workers and jet lag travelers adjust to time differences more quickly. That’s soon to come. Until then, if you’re facing sleeping nights, there’s the option of taking melatonin 90 minutes before bedtime. “What this does is fool your body into thinking it’s later than it actually is,” says Breus. However, he advises checking with your doctor first since this supplement is a hormone that has not been regulated by the FDA.
Let the sun shine in
“Exposing yourself to direct sunlight will help reset your body clock and slow the jet lag feelings down significantly,” says Breus. As much as you want to stay in bed the day after your arrival, he suggests heading outdoors for 15 minutes shortly after the alarm clock rings.
Consider sticking to “home standard time”
“If you’re on vacation, you should ask yourself this question, which many people never bother to do: Is there any reason I should adjust to this new time zone?” says Czeisler. For example, if your typical bedtime is 11:30 p.m. and your typical rise-and-shine time is 7:30 a.m. and you’re heading to a time zone that is two hours earlier, consider hitting the sheets at 9:30 p.m. vacation time and waking up at 5:30 a.m. Think about it: Do you really have to stay up late? “People feel compelled to change their routine once they change their wristwatch, but it’s not always necessary — and not always a good idea.”