Technically speaking, jet lag should occur when you’ve crossed at least two time zones, says Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center clinical faculty member David Neubauer. So whether you’re traveling from Toledo to Taipei or LAX to JFK, the threat of jet lag is there.
To get you back in shape on your next trip, here are some expert tips for traveling against your internal clock.
Prepare in advance for the misery of jet lag
Your effort to lessen the blow of jet lag can start before you get on a plane (or boat, or whatever). You can try adjusting your schedule by “moving your target sleep and wake times in the direction of your new time zone by about 15 minutes each day,” says Robbins.
To help you with this endeavor, Neubauer recommends downloading Timeshifter, an app designed for shift workers and travelers facing jet lag. “It compares what your circadian system is going to do and whether you want to shift your clock earlier or later,” he says.
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Neubauer says the app can also give you specific advice on when you should expose yourself to light, when you should take melatonin and when you should avoid caffeine, depending on the destination. Follow Timeshifter’s advice as much as possible and “it will probably help reduce jet lag to some degree, not necessarily eliminate it,” says Neubauer.
Finally, “don’t start your journey already sleep-deprived,” says Neubauer, acknowledging that many of us stay up too late to pack or get ready for flights too early. “You’re just more likely to have significant symptoms,” he says.
Take your flight there seriously
When booking flights, keep your sleepy future in mind. For example, if you have the time and money, “avoid red-eye whenever possible,” says Robbins, saying that even if you can sleep, it won’t be good quality or sufficient rest. Instead, you sign up for fragmented sleep interrupted by meal services, kids kicking the back of your seat, cabin lighting, takeoff and landing.
If you’re going to sleep on the plane, be strategic in doing so according to your new time zone. Fight the temptation to work (or watch “The Shawshank Redemption”) if everyone in your destination is sleeping.
You can also be strategic about sleeping with your seat assignment. Chloé Abidos, stewardess for low-cost airline French Bee, recommends choosing a window seat (for better recline and less disruption) as far from the kitchens as possible. Do you know what else is near the galleys? The bathrooms.
“You probably don’t want the sound of hot flashes to interrupt your sleep every five minutes!” Abidos said in an email.
To further improve your sleep on the plane, Abidos recommends comfortable clothing and packing equipment such as a neck pillow, hoodie, favorite blanket, eye mask, earplugs and oils essential.
Don’t plan anything important on your first day
Avoid putting anything big on your calendar on the first day of your trip unless you’re ready to go with your worst foot forward. The splendor of the Sistine Chapel will be lost on the zombie version of you.
While on a business trip to Rome, Neubauer supplemented his itinerary with extra time before a big meeting. “The next day, everything was fine,” he says. Follow her lead and give yourself a night or two to adjust before your keynote speech, tuba recital, or destination wedding ceremony.
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Abidos’ most important jet lag tip is also one of the easiest: Stay hydrated. This means drinking water and skipping stuff that isn’t water.
As enticing as an airport beer or nightcap might be, your best bet for beating jet lag is to avoid alcohol at the start of your trip. “Alcohol sounds like a good idea, but it can backfire on you,” says Neubauer. “That doesn’t usually translate to better quality sleep.”
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Look for the right kind of light at the right time
You already know that being glued to your phone screen before bed is a sin of sleep, but you might not know as well how the sun plays a role. (Spoiler alert: this is important.)
“The sun is the most powerful input to the circadian system,” says Robbins. “Morning light is the most important to start this rhythm.”
Robbins’ advice for those traveling in time zones where the day begins earlier (eg, Los Angeles to New York), “if you arrive early in the morning, you don’t want to go out [right away],” she says. “What it does is actually expand your circadian system even further.” Instead, she encourages a morning nap and later evening afternoon exposure to help you synchronize with the new time zone.
Make your sleep space more sleepy
Not all accommodations are designed for restful sleep (think flashing electronics and noisy air conditioners). If you are staying at a hotel, call and ask how your stay could be made more comfortable.
“Never be afraid or shy to ask,” says Peter Roth, vice president and general manager of Park Hyatt New York, adding that it’s helpful for guests to voice their needs. A hotel or motel might (keyword: might) have a quieter room or different pillows.
Roth says the hotel keeps things on hand such as essential oils, sleep masks and white noise machines for better sleep. But ultimately, he recommends “being kind to yourself and to your body,” he says. “There’s nothing wrong with allowing your body to have some degree of jet lag.”
When all else fails, give in
When you’re in the throes of jet lag – feeling trapped on a physical and emotional roller coaster – just give in.
When you’re immersed in it, unable to get out of bed for that morning museum ticket or stare at the ceiling wide awake knowing your sleep time is bleeding, don’t despair. It’s like the same advice they give to people who fall into quicksand or grain silos: don’t panic. You won’t fall asleep or wake up easier while wallowing. Instead of struggling, stay calm and accept the fact that you will be tired. You will get over it.