Anyone who has experienced jet lag knows this: It can make or break your entire trip. And falling victim to the travel-induced grogginess can be a waste of time (i.e. snoozing instead of sightseeing) and money.
I once flew from Atlanta to Indonesia, which took nearly a full day of travel, and when I arrived it was nine in the morning. I should have had a whole day ahead of me enjoying a new country, but instead, thanks to jet lag, I spent all day in bed ... sleeping.
Our bodies are 'set' to our home time zone even though we are physically in a different time zone. The experience of jet lag is our body being confused about its sleep/wake rhythm.
Dr. Julie Grant, Ph.D.
Dr. Julie Grant, Ph.D., sleep psychologist at Atlanta Insomnia & Behavioral Health Service, says the reason this happens is because “our bodies are 'set' to our home time zone even though we are physically in a different time zone. So the experience of jet lag is our body being confused about its sleep/wake rhythm."
Grant says symptoms of jet lag are typically extreme fatigue, reduced concentration, headaches, irritability and daytime sleepiness. “It is helpful to think of what you may feel like if suddenly awakened in the middle of deep sleep,” she adds.
If you're flying across multiple time zones for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure or important business trip, then you certainly don't want to spend prime time daytime hours snoozing or have to get through the day like a walking zombie. The good news is, mitigating the effects of jet lag can be quite simple, if you know how to prepare for it.
Start by building a pre-trip routine
Experts suggest that you should get acclimated to the time zone of your destination a few days before you depart by eating, sleeping and doing other activities on that new time zones schedule. Depending on whether you are flying east or west, exposure to additional light in the morning or afternoon a number of days before departure will help shift your internal rhythms. The same thing goes for meals. Try fasting until the breakfast of your new time zone, then eat the following meals accordingly.
One caveat when adjusting your schedule: don't sacrifice the amount of sleep you get. “Travel is stressful and we often wait until the last minute to get all our to-do's done. Try to avoid that trap and aim for a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night in the nights leading up to departure,” Grant says.
In addition to setting your sleep schedule, frequent traveler Scott Eddy, who takes up to 35 trips a year, says he does things to boost his immune system, too. “The day before my flight, I always take vitamins and drink twice the normal amount of water I would normally drink.” Grant says “hydration is a big key." Dehydration can compromise your immune system, which opens you up to getting sick.
And you may want to make other lifestyle adjustments as well. Travel writer Sue Reddel of the “Food Travelist” says that she “walks a lot on most of our trips. So we start walking several miles a day [ahead of the trip] so that our feet, back and legs are ready to go.”
What you can you do on the plane
Eddy says this is when he really regulates his sleep. “If I know I'm arriving somewhere in the morning the last thing I want to do is arrive tired, so I make sure to sleep on the plane so I wake up feeling fresh and I don't lose the whole day. Also the opposite if I land somewhere and it's 8 o'clock at night ... I want to make sure to not sleep on the plane.”
Reddel recommends that you “change the time on your watch to match the new time. It will help make a mental, as well as physical, shift easier.”
Change the time on your watch to match the new time. It will help make a mental, as well as physical, shift easier.
But, getting a good rest in-flight is easier said than done. Most people fly economy, so sleeping in the crammed upright seats are not ideal. Grant suggests that if If you do take sleep medication during flight, take it early. "Choose a type and a dosage that is as mild as you can take but will still help you sleep. “However, do not take a medication that you have never tried before," she says.
You also want to drink plenty of water on the airplane. Many people avoid this so they don't have to keep running to the restroom, but airplanes are very dehydrating. Grant recommends drinking 8 ounces of water every hour you are on the plane. “This can be challenging for overnight flights, so try to hydrate even at the gate and continue upon boarding.” She also says to avoid caffeine and alcohol. “Alcohol actually disrupts our sleep quite a bit. It is also dehydrating.”
In-flight accessories that will help you sleep
Having the right in-flight accessories can go a long way in setting yourself up for a restful flight. I personally always carry a scarf or blanket because airplanes are always too cold for me (comfort is key in getting some rest!), noise-canceling earphones paired with relaxing music or sleep stories, and an eye mask.
Joanna Franco, co-founder of the travel global media platform Shut Up and Go, says she loves the Cabeau Neck Pillow, which she says she wears backwards: “The trick is to put the clip at the back of your neck so you can lean forward on the pillow.” The additional raised layer allows for a comfortable rest no matter which way your head falls while in a standard airplane seat (whether that's back, front or to the side). Reddel says, “I never leave home without my Bose noise-canceling headphones. They help diminish the airplane sounds and the other passenger noises. I'm a big fan of compression socks and never travel without them. My favorite brand is Travelsox; they provide great support and the light padding lets you walk easily for miles and miles.”
Once you’ve arrived at your destination
Reddel says “depending on what time you arrive, act according to the natural activity of that time. If you arrive late night, go to sleep. If it's morning or day time, try to stay up and start exploring. If you lie down for a quick nap you may fall into a deep sleep. This will make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep and adjust to the new time in your destination.”
Grant agrees: “We adjust better and quicker to new time zones when we expose ourselves to the natural light cycles at our travel destination. This means getting early morning light exposure, letting our bodies experience sundown live and in person, and keeping a dark environment in our sleep quarters at night (especially avoiding electronics!). If you can override your desire to sleep during the day in your new location, your body will sync much faster to your vacation time zone.”
Continue to avoid alcohol before bed as it does not induce a natural sleep that allows your body to recover. And avoid drinking coffee after 2 p.m. to mitigate its impact on the quality of your sleep.
On the flight home
You’ve probably heard people say, “I need a vacation from my vacation.” If you don’t have a day or two to rest and recover once you return home, Grant says you need to start adjusting your body clock and daily habits at least a day before you catch your return flight.
“When possible, travelers should avoid alcohol in excess the night before travel back home. Set your watch to the time it is at home and form your travel plans around that,” she says. Follow the same advice on your flight home as you do on the way there. Many of us want to soak up every minute out of our vacation, but it may be in your best interest to turn in early on the last night of your trip and skip the booze on the flight home if you’re going to be thrown right back into your normal daily routine upon arrival.
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