By Sharyn Alden
With millions of air miles behind me, I’m the first to admit jet lag is hard to master. I’m still working on it.
The problem is, there’s no cure-all for jet lag. You can change what you eat and drink before and during your flight, and look for flights that are nap-friendly, but you still might feel like you can’t get off the bed at 2 in the afternoon, no matter how loudly Lisbon might be calling.
And ultimately, you can’t control the number of time zones you fly through, which is what’s really important, since the more zones you cross, the more challenging it is to reset your inner clock.
Let’s talk about that inner clock. Have you ever wondered why you tend to wake up at the same time without an alarm clock, fall asleep around the same time, or get hungry about the same hour each day?
That’s your circadian rhythm (the Latin phrase circadian means “about one day”) which describes the human sleep cycle found deep in the brain’s hypothalamus. Our clocks are highly intertwined with physiological and behavioral processes like brain-wave activity, hormone production and cell regeneration.
All your life you’ve operated on a 24-hour cycle, and been programmed to react to light, darkness, and the daily departure of the sun. As night falls, our inner clocks prepare the body for sleep by lowering body temperature and releasing the hormone melatonin, which makes us feel sleepy.
Unfortunately, jet lag makes your body want to eat when you tell it to sleep, and want to sleep when you decide to go sightseeing. The results are sluggishness, insomnia, lost appetite, and an awful feeling of being “out of it.”
Some travelers push through the feeling. After their 10-hour flight to Stockholm they skip a mid-afternoon nap and immediately begin sightseeing until the wall of sleep hits them, hopefully around the local bedtime.
I used this strategy in Bali after crossing 14 time zones during a 27-hour flight. While my companions were nearly comatose in the hotel, I ventured out to the pool to enjoy a long-overdue refreshment when a fellow American swam over to the sunken bar. He said he recognized my Midwest accent and even guessed where I was from, since he’d gone to grad school there.
Even more amazing, his Balinese batik business had a retail store near my office – a store where I had shopped before. He and his wife were at the hotel just this one day visiting friends, but he had lived in Bali half a year and had a wealth of recommendations for me.
You can miss a lot when you give in to jet lag. You just never know.
Here are a few things you can do before you leave home to lessen the impact of jet lag.
- Gradually change your bedtime. If you’re flying east, try going to bed one hour earlier each night for a few days before you leave. Flying west, do the opposite.
- Pack an inflatable pillow, ear plugs, and eyeshades. Not everyone sleeps well with a mask on, but big shades do block light and can put you in snooze mode.
- Decrease caffeine and alcohol intake before bedtime.
- Get plenty of rest. When are you exercising? Jumping up and down too close to bedtime may confuse your internal clock into thinking it’s not time to snooze.
- How dark is your bedroom? Adjust your room’s environment if it’s too light, hot or loud. Studies have shown that pitch-black, cool rooms are the most “sleepable.”
- Try melatonin. The hormone that regulates your sleep rhythms can also help in regulating your circadian rhythm. The synthetic dose (classified as a dietary supplement in the U.S.) can speed your adjustment to a new time zone.
- Reduce stress before you leave. Easier said than done, but I purposely keep the last day before departure as stress-free as possible. Try this, and you’ll awake feeling less stressed as you head to the airport.
During your flight, try these:
- Reset your wristwatch to the local destination time soon after boarding. It’ll help trick your mind into thinking you’re on local time.
- Decrease caffeine and alcohol when you fly.
- Drink plenty of water. Dehydration can increase jet lag symptoms.
- Take walks down the aisles as often as permitted.
- Use the flight to rest and reset; nap if you can.
And then when you arrive, try these:
- Stay up. You’ll probably feel wiped out and want to curl up on the bed. Don’t. If you arrive at noon local time and it’s 3 in the morning for you, force yourself to stay up into the evening. This will help reset your circadian rhythm. You might wake up a few times during the night, but that’s your trustworthy inner clock waking you up because it’s daytime back home.
- Don’t bombard your senses. Staying up doesn’t mean plunging into party mode the day you arrive, or touring every castle in the vicinity.
- Can’t sleep? Insomnia is common for a couple nights. You might try an over-the-counter sleep aid. Or if you can’t fight insomnia, get up — read, watch TV, or listen to music until you find yourself getting drowsy.
- Turn off your alarm clock before leaving home. Nothing’s worse than finally falling asleep only to have your alarm clock go off an hour later.
- Don’t keep reminding yourself of what time it is at home. Enough said.
- Fly with kids. You may already have disrupted sleep patterns from keeping up with your brood. Travel with your kids and you’ll find real jet lag almost indistinguishable from your personal version of everyday jet lag.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis.
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