Jet lag is the price we pay for travelling at high speeds.
The technical term for it is a “circadian rhythm sleep disorder,” which just means your internal clock is messed up because you hopped time zones faster than Phileas Fogg could inflate his balloon.
You’ll probably experience insomnia, irritability, headaches, dehydration and dizziness as your body struggles to adjust to your new time zone. A changed bathroom schedule might result in constipation or diarrhea. And you might even find it difficult to concentrate—which sucks if you’re on a business trip.
So what can you do about it?
I get this question a lot. I don’t buy all that stuff about switching to your new time zone a couple days before your trip. That never works, because we’re all busy people and real life gets in the way.
Besides, are you really a fragile little flower that needs to be babied and coddled? Suck it up there, peaches! We’re talking about living an exciting lifestyle. Not necessarily an easy lifestyle.
So here’s how I adjust when I’ve gotta parachute into a new country a few time zones away and hit the ground running.
5. Don’t Go to Sleep
This is especially true if you just came off an overnight flight where you didn’t sleep: you’ll want to crash out and take a nap when you arrive at your destination.
Fight the urge and stay awake. Get up and exercise. Do a little deep breathing. Drink a couple shots of espresso. Do whatever you need to do.
Try to at least stay awake until you reach a normal bedtime at your destination. And plan for a couple extra hours of sleep that first night or two. If you normally sleep eight hours, allow yourself 10. You’ll probably find yourself waking up too early for a few days, whether you want to or not.
4. Use Those Extra Hours
If you find yourself waking up too early—you’re wide awake at the first glimpse of dawn, when you’d normally sleep until the crack of noon—then don’t fight it. You’ll only lie there getting pissed off, and you’ll feel worse when you finally do roll out of bed.
Get up instead. Do some exercise. Write. Finish up a little work. Grab a book and go out for a walk. Find a cafe and just linger there, reading and observing until the time of your “planned day” arrives.
Accept those extra hours as a gift, and use them just for yourself.
And when night comes and you find yourself getting groggy, don’t give in. Push your bedtime back a little further, and go to sleep at your normal time. It’ll help you adjust faster.
3. Get Some Sun
Ever notice how easy it is to adjust your sleep schedule when you’re camping?
At home I stay up until 2 a.m., and I absolutely hate getting up before 9 or 9:30. But during my desert expeditions, I wake up when the first rays of dawn hit my tent. And I can go to sleep easily and quickly not long after dark.
Sunlight helps your body adjust. This brightness helps your body clear melatonin, which begins your natural “wake up” cycle.
Get some sun at your new destination too, if possible. Get outside and allow nature to reset your internal clock. Don’t fall victim to the tyranny of fluorescent light.
And if you’re in the U.K. or Ottawa during the winter, ask yourself, “What the heck am I doing in this dark and dismal place?” and hop another plane immediately!
2. Plug Your Ears
Pack earplugs—and possibly an eye mask—and try to sleep in a pitch-dark room to force yourself to sleep at your new bedtime.
I know it’s not always possible to find a quiet room with dark curtains, so I tuck these two items into my kit to make sure that when I do sleep, nothing disturbs my dreams.
Forgot the eye mask? No problem.
I sleep with a towel or a rolled-up T-shirt over my eyes. Sure, I’ve been laughed at by everyone I’ve ever shared a hotel room with. But it works.
I’ve even mastered the art of rolling over and tucking the towel snugly under my head without waking up. That’s something to be proud of.
You can also put a rolled-up towel in front of your hotel room door to block that annoying hallway light. And don’t forget to cover up the digital clock, or unplug it completely. Those things are nearly bright enough to read by.
1. Pack Extra Melatonin
Melatonin is produced naturally by the body. It’s one of the hormones that helps regulate your sleep and wake cycles.
Melatonin levels normally begin to rise in the evening, which helps you fall asleep. They remain high for most of the night, and then taper off in the early morning hours as cortisol levels begin to rise, prompting you to wake up. But jet lag messes with this cycle, and it takes your body several days to catch up.
Taking melatonin in supplement form can help speed this adjustment. I take 0.5–1.0 milligrams right before bed. It helps me fall asleep quickly and easily, and it seems to speed up my readjustment to a new time zone. I never wake groggy or sluggish the next day either, like you would with over-the-counter sleeping pills.
But remember: more is not better when it comes to melatonin, so take the smallest effective dose and stop taking them once your sleep cycles have adjusted.
I’m told that melatonin doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for me, and it’s definitely worth a try.