Whether you have an important business trip or you're finally taking your dream vacation, don't let jet lag symptoms -- like insomnia, fatigue, daytime sleepiness or mild nausea -- drain your energy and ruin your time abroad.
Jet lag is caused when your body becomes misaligned with its exposure to light and dark, and can result in physical and emotional distress. Symptoms are the direct result of traveling across numerous time zones in a short time period. This is especially bad news for coast-to-coast or international business travelers.
Luckily, you can manage your jet lag. By exposing yourself to light or darkness at strategic times upon arrival at your destination, you can help your body to gradually ease into the new time zone and minimize these symptoms.
If you are traveling to another time zone for up to four days, or traveling across five time zones or less, you may want to let your body operate in its native time zone. Try to keep light exposure and meal times as close to normal in your own time zone as possible. That way, you will avoid repeatedly confusing your body's rhythms.
On the other hand, if you are traveling for more than four days or across more than five time zones, you will probably benefit from planning how you can adjust to the new time zone the fastest, using the clues below.
Keep Tabs on Your Home Clock: Before you arrive at your destination, figure out what time it is back home. Keep in mind that your body thinks it's still that time. You'll need to gradually align your body with the new time zone. So set your watch to the new time as soon as you get on the plane, but don't lose track of what time your biological clock is keeping.
Be Bright about Light: Light is one of the biggest influences on your body's natural clock, so use natural light and sunshades to your advantage. Regulating light exposure can help you feel better and adjust faster. But it's not as simple as being in the light during the day and in the dark at night, at least not initially. You need to know your east from your west.
- Traveling East: For these trips -- which usually take place overnight -- you'll want to avoid light in the early morning for the first few days, and then seek light once your body clock thinks it's about 4:30 a.m. For example, if you are flying six time zones east on an overnight trip, you will usually land a bit sleep deprived. If possible, it is best to not be too ambitious this first day. Don't go to sleep on arrival, but rather avoid bright light (by shading your eyes, staying in dark rooms or using sunglasses) until 10 or 11 a.m. in your new time zone. Try to expose your eyes to bright lights in the afternoon for four hours. That night, make sure to sleep in a dark room. Upon awakening, avoid light until 9 or 10 a.m., followed by four to five hours of bright light. Continue to move this process one or two hours earlier than the day before each day until your inner clock and the local clock match up. Following this process requires a little planning, but you will feel and perform better.
- Traveling West: The general advice is to avoid light in the very early morning and seek a dose of it later at night to nudge your inner clock later (as these trips usually take place during the day). For example, if you are traveling west six time zones on a day flight, when you arrive at your destination your body clock will be functioning at a later time. You will probably feel sleepy, while locals are just thinking about dinner or an evening out. Upon arrival, try exposing yourself to light from 5 to 10 p.m. This will put pressure on your inner clock to move more in line with the others. Try to stay awake until about 10 p.m., then sleep in a dark room, avoiding light until awakening. Seek light exposure again late in the evening until about bed time, and repeat this until your inner clock and the local clock matchup.
Sleep, Drink, Eat: It will probably take you about a day for every time zone you cross to get fully adjusted -- but following these tips can help your body cope and may speed up the adjustment:
Start Well-Rested: Going into a trip already tired and sleep deprived will seriously hurt your chances of beating jet lag once you arrive at your destination. Get consistent quality sleep before your trip.
Water, Please: Flying on a plane is dehydrating, which can lead to headaches and irritability. Drink plenty of water, and skip the alcohol and coffee during the flight.
Light on the Food: Eat small meals to get on the local dining schedule as soon as possible. Some recent studies show that fasting from food for 12 to 16 hours prior to your planned wake time can seriously speed your adjustment.
Melatonin Can Help: Studies show that taking melatonin 0.5 milligrams around the planned new-time-zone bedtime can help move our biological clock a little faster.
Troubled sleep due to jet lag is somewhat normal. If you are a frequent traveler and these tips are not enough, your sleep specialist can help. In addition, if you consistently experience poor sleep in your normal routine, you should be evaluated by a board-certified sleep specialist to determine if you have a sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, that can seriously impact your health and quality of life.
Visit sleepeducation.org/healthysleep for more information.