Summer is almost here, and many of us are planning to get as far away from the office as our passports will take us. Jet lag, however, can make the first day of vacation an exhausting drag. Here’s how to fight it.
Know your enemy
We all have a “master clock” in our brains, the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. This region of the brain uses light and temperature to set an internal schedule that keeps us active and alert during bright, warm times, and makes us sleepy in cool, dark ones. Over time, your SCN gets used to a certain activity pattern—a circadian rhythm—and sticks to it by releasing hormones such as melatonin and cortisol.
Jet lag happens when travel disrupts that rhythm. If your SCN detects daylight, it’s going to try to keep you awake, even if you’re exhausted. Minor cases can bring headaches, indigestion, and irritability, but the effects can be so bad that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned flight crews and travelers that regular jet lag may cause health problems.
But not all jet lag is created equal. A 2017 study found that traveling east affected the performance of sprinters for up to three days after they arrived at their destination. On the other hand, it appears that heading west and winding back the clock a few hours isn’t as hard to deal with; you’re just more likely to wake up early.
So should we just accept that we will snooze on the beach for a day or two? Not exactly, and it’s important to know the right way to deal with the lag.
Before you leave
If you can, book a flight that lands relatively close to your bed or meal times, adjusted for local time zones. Consider a flight from New York City to San Francisco, for example. if you usually go to bed at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, you’ll want to touch down on the West Coast around 9 p.m. Pacific Standard Time.
Landing and going straight to bed, or eating a meal when your body expects it, will help you adjust. Don’t book an overnight flight and gamble that you’ll be able to sleep through it. Even a fancy first-class seat can’t hold a candle to your quiet, dark bedroom.
Once you’ve planned your flight, start getting a sense of your existing rhythm. If you’ve had a rough couple of weeks and your preferred schedule is out of whack, take some time to get back in sync before your vacation. Try to eat at roughly the same time every day, find ways to get out in the sun, and stick to a regular sleep schedule.
If you’ve got to alter your sleep pattern for travel, start adjusting a week or so before you leave. Sleep is only one factor of jet lag, so forcing yourself to stay awake or trying to sleep right up until you leave for the airport isn’t going to fool your body. Instead, change things gradually. If you’re heading west, for example, shift your bed and wake times an hour earlier each day. There are limits to this, especially if you’re going to the other side of the globe, and you shouldn’t try to sleep during daylight hours, at home or at your destination. But even an adjustment of a few hours can make a big difference.
Better-quality sleep helps too. Shut off nearby screens, remove any distractions, make sure your room is dark and comfortable, and give yourself time to wake up, preferably without an alarm. Like shifting your sleep schedule, ease yourself into these changes and try to keep it up for about a week. Don’t worry if you’re not drifting off within minutes; even beginning the adjustment process will make things easier when you land.
Finally, tweak your meal schedule. You shouldn’t be eating breakfast at midnight, but you can use chow time to gradually shift your internal clock forward or backward by eating earlier or later, respectively.
During your flight
Beautiful passenger on plane
Once in the air, you can prevent jet lag in other ways. Dress comfortably, and in layers, which will allow you to control your body temperature by adding and removing clothes as necessary. Neck pillows help keep you comfortable too, especially if you’re taking a long flight.
Don’t eat any big meals right before, or during, your flight, unless they match up with your expected eating times. Food is a major metabolic cue for your body, so stuffing yourself when your system expects a snack will throw it off.
“Fasting while traveling can help. Once you land, you should wait to eat when lunch or dinner roll around,” says W. Chris Winter, a neurologist and sleep specialist.
When you’re thirsty, drink water instead of ordering a beer or wine from the beverage cart. Alcohol, especially in large amounts, can disrupt your sleep patterns. Similarly, because it doesn’t really matter how much sleep you get, there’s no need to knock yourself out with medication, or worry if a drug you need will make you drowsy.
After you land
Once you’re on the ground, your desire to sleep or stay active comes down to light and melatonin. Light is the main factor, so you should get used to local time as fast as possible. If your body expects it to be nighttime, and it’s late afternoon or early evening, try pulling the curtains and getting the first big sleep of your vacation.
Conversely, if your internal clock thinks it’s near dawn, and you land in the early morning, light boxes can help you get caught up. These imitate daylight’s intensity and color and are usually used to treat seasonal affective disorder.
Also consider taking a small dose of melatonin. Your body typically secretes this hormone at night, regulating sleep, so if your brain won’t produce any if it’s convinced it’s daytime. Fortunately, melatonin supplements can provide a bit of a nudge and work best when paired with rest in a low-light environment. One 2002 study, for example, found the supplements were effective even after users had crossed five time zones.
For people with sleep disorders, or who regularly travel for work, modafinil or armodafinil—known as “wakefulness” medications—may make sense if you absolutely must stay awake when you land. Early studies indicate these drugs may increase dopamine in the brain, but research is ongoing and experts have warned of potential addiction. You should never take medication without discussing it with your doctor first, so if you’re considering this route, book an appointment to learn about it. Professional athletes, however, are likely out of luck: these drugs are banned substances in many, if not all, major sports organizations, Winter says.
Finally, remember you’re on vacation, and taking a day or two off is the whole point. Give yourself some unstructured time, possibly a paperback or two, and just relax.