A bad case of jet lag can ruin the first day of your vacation. Getting to a beautiful destination and then waking up the next day feeling like you were hit by a truck is not how anyone wants to start their trip, but it’s the unfortunate situation for many who travel 3 or more time zones away.
Beating jet lag isn’t that hard though, and a little effort up front can go a long way towards making sure you don’t lose a day to fatigue. By adapting some of the techniques I’ve discussed before for waking up and passing out, you can start adjusting before you arrive and not have to worry about jet lag ever again.
Preventing Jet Lag While Planning
The first opportunity you have to prevent jet lag is when you’re planning your trip. If you have the luxury of choosing what time to fly at, pick a flight that will arrive in the morning at your destination. This helps because planes will dim the cabin lights to simulate the light conditions at your destination, and this is the easiest way to put yourself in an environment where you can start adapting your sleep. Our bodies determine when its time to go to bed largely on how light or dark it is outside, but those times will obviously be different at your destination. If you’re trying to fall asleep while it’s still light out you’re going to have a very hard time doing it, and the darkness of the plane will help a lot.
The Day Before the Trip
You want to start your adjustment the day before you travel. If you have to pick a day to waste being groggy and unhappy from poor sleep, it’s better that it’s your travel day than your first day of vacation. What you do to prepare yourself will vary depending on if you’re going west or east, with west generally being easier.
Traveling west is naturally easier because you’re just pushing back what time you have to fall asleep at. It’s easier to stay up later than to fall asleep earlier, and when traveling west you’re really just staying up late as if you were out with friends on the weekend. The day before the trip what you want to do is sleep in as late as possible. If you normally wake up at 7 every day, and you’re traveling from the east coast to the west coast, try sleeping until 10. This will give you more energy to stay up later that night, and make it easier to sleep until 7 west coast time tomorrow (which will be 10 back home).
The difficulty with traveling east is that you need to make yourself fall asleep earlier than you naturally would. If you go three time zones east, then if you normally go to bed at 10 you’ll suddenly be staying up until 1. To counter this, you need to make yourself tired at 7 your normal time which is 10 at the new time.
The best way to do this is to exhaust yourself. Only sleep 4.5-6 hours the night before you travel, and don’t take any naps until it’s time to go to sleep based on the time at your destination. You’ll feel a little crummy during the day, but you’ll have a much easier time falling asleep when you need to.
Once You Arrive
Now that you’ve arrived at your destination there are two very important things to do in order to make sure that you don’t have jet lag and that you can adapt quickly. Make sure you get a lot of sunlight, and eat at the local times.
Our natural circadian rhythm is entirely dependent upon the sun. This is why people who have to live on nocturnal schedules have so much trouble–it’s impossible to change their circadian rhythm to match their lifestyle, they end up living out of sync with the sun, and being unhappy and unhealthy in the process.
The sun tells our body when to raise and lower our internal temperature and controls our release of melatonin (the sleep drug). If you can get a lot of sunlight at your destination, especially during times when you would otherwise be asleep or when it would be dark back home, you can help your body adapt much quicker to the new location.
Your body also regulates its melatonin production based on when you’re eating your meals. One of the best ways to have a very regular sleeping schedule is to have a very regular eating schedule, and by making sure you adapt your meal schedule appropriately you can make avoiding jet lag much easier. When you arrive, instead of eating when you’re hungry, eat at the normal meal times. Don’t have dinner at 4pm or 10pm, try to have it as close to the normal 6-7pm as possible. This will give your body an even better idea of when it should be getting tired and make adjusting much easier.
Melatonin, When You Need the Extra Boost
Last but not least, if you really want to fall asleep at the right time but you’re not tired in the slightest, taking the over-the-counter supplement melatonin can really help. If you take it ~30 minutes before you want to fall asleep you will pass. out. hard. Just be warned–you won’t sleep quite as well, and if you keep taking melatonin long term you can develop a dependency on it. I only ever use it for one night to help myself adjust when I’m going west to east and need to fall asleep earlier, and it makes the process much easier.
Want to Get Fancy?
Another thing you can do if you really want to get fancy with preventing jet lag is to buy a device like a Phillips goLITE which emits light very similar to that of the sun. If you’re traveling west to east, you can start waking up early and sitting in front of your goLITE before the sun comes up, to trick your body into thinking that the sun is rising earlier than it actually is. This is especially useful if you’re making a bigger timezone transition, as it will make the difference much more manageable.
Lastly, Don’t Use Alcohol or Caffeine
Alcohol and caffeine are the “go-to” resources for falling asleep and staying up, but I don’t recommend using either of them. Both will give you very shallow and non-restorative sleep, and will still cause you to feel out of it the next day. If you have to stay up late try staying active and drinking a lot of water, and if you have to fall asleep early try pre-exhausting yourself. The results will be much better.
For more info on sleeping better, check out my eBook Sleep Mastery!
photo credit to Paullus23 on Deviantart