One spring several years ago, I took a trip to Spain. Although it was great to explore the Moorish ruins of Andalucía, it would have been better to have had more than four hours a day to do it. I just wanted to sleep until noon every day because I was so paralyzed with jet lag. Anyone who’s ever taken a transcontinental flight (or even one from New York to Los Angeles) knows that jet lag is one of the worst parts of traveling. When my boyfriend spent time in Sweden last year, he called every night at four in the morning Stockholm time, unable to sleep. Then, when he returned to California, he walked around like a zombie for two weeks because his body was so confused by the nine-hour time difference.
Traveling quickly across multiple time zones disrupts our circadian rhythms, the internal clock that controls sleeping, eating, and other involuntary functions. The human body will adjust naturally to a new time zone at the rate of about one hour per day, although it takes even longer for people who are middle-aged or older, are out of shape, or eat an unhealthy diet. Everyone hates jet lag, but most people simply accept it as an unavoidable part of traveling. But if you have a little knowledge and a lot of willpower, jet lag doesn’t have to put a damper on every vacation.
Jet lag can leave people lethargic, dehydrated, groggy, confused, anxious, and achy. Some evidence suggests that it can even make us more susceptible to colds, flu, and digestive woes. But the worst symptoms of jet lag are generally sleep disturbances—that is, you’ll want to sleep during the day and be unable to fall asleep at night.
In order to not be bogged down by jet lag, it’s important to begin preparing even before you leave on a trip. Get plenty of rest starting a few days before your flight. Some people try to tire themselves out and sleep on the plane, but it’s very hard to achieve the deep, uninterrupted sleep necessary to feel refreshed, so that plan doesn’t work out very well for many people. While it’s tempting to use sleep aids to get a full night’s rest on a plane, doctors advise against it because sleep aids (including antihistamines) can cause people to sleep motionlessly, which constricts circulation and contributes to deep vein thrombosis and other blood-clotting problems. When you’re on the plane, simulating your usual bedtime routine can help convince your body it’s time to sleep. Try washing your face, taking out contact lenses, and brushing your teeth, if that’s what your pre-bedtime ritual usually entails. Sleep masks, travel pillows, and earplugs can also be helpful in making the seats more comfortable and blocking out sounds and lighting changes on the plane.
Regular exercise is very important for our circadian rhythms, so make sure to stay active before you fly (as well as afterward, if possible). There’s no convincing evidence that so-called “jet lag diets” work to curb symptoms, but drinking as much water as possible has been proven to help both stave off jet lag and prevent dehydration, which can lead to illness.
The single most important thing to do to avoid jet lag is to begin acclimating to your new time zone immediately—ideally, even before you get on the plane. That means sleeping and eating according to the schedule at your destination, trying to establish a new routine as soon as possible. Then comes the hardest part: sleeping only at the appropriate time. It can be excruciatingly difficult, whether you’re trying to stay awake for an entire day after a night flight or trying to make yourself sleep after arriving in the evening, but forcing yourself to adapt to the new pattern is one of the biggest ways to help your body adjust. Flying east tends to cause more jet lag symptoms than flying west, and most people believe arriving at their destination during the day is easier than landing at night. If you land during the day, expose yourself to daylight right away; doing so inhibits your body’s production of melatonin, a chemical that contributes to sleepiness.
If you’re trying to keep yourself awake until an appropriate bedtime, small naps can be helpful, but be wary of sleeping too long. Sleep research conducted at NASA found that the most successful naps are either shorter than forty-five minutes or longer than two hours. Waking up within this time frame can mean rousing yourself from a much deeper phase of sleep, which leads to even more grogginess and sleep inertia. A day or two of forcing your body to follow a sleep schedule, drinking water, avoiding caffeine and alcohol, and exercising (if possible) is usually enough to overcome the bulk of the discomfort. Of course, coming home after your trip requires the same commitment to the new time zone.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Unfortunately, there is no single miracle remedy to cure jet lag—no pill, no herbal supplement, no homeopathic treatment. The only cures for jet lag are time and the willpower to reset your sleep schedule. Overcoming jet lag boils down to your ability to control when you sleep, whether you’re keeping yourself awake a while longer or making yourself sleep when you’re not terribly tired.
The funny thing about jet lag is that you don’t even have to travel to experience it. People who work night shifts or unpredictable hours suffer from the same disruptions of their body clock. Every year when we set our clocks ahead in the spring, the rate of automobile accidents increases by about 10 percent the next day, and that’s after a difference of only an hour. The above methods for alleviating jet lag are also useful for people whose work schedule requires them to keep odd hours.
Our bodies function best on a regular schedule, but even the threat of jet lag isn’t enough to keep some people from traveling. There’s no way to eliminate jet lag altogether, but with a little planning and preparation, we can make it a minor discomfort instead of a major inconvenience. At the very least, it will be more bearable than airport security.
Updated June 4, 2010