Dear Savvy Traveller: What’s the best way to deal with time zone changes so I don’t suffer from jet lag and ruin my experience?
Not too long ago I came home to New York from a couple weeks in Southeast Asia, went to bed feeling great, and woke up at four in the morning ready to go. But I don’t usually get out of bed until around 11. I didn’t exactly feel rested, but I was wide awake and definitely not going back to sleep. This persisted annoyingly for about ten days until, one day, it just stopped. I’m guessing this isn’t what you had in mind when you asked about jet lag, because most people think of it as a groggy, tired, walking-around-in-a-haze sensation that makes life difficult for a short time, and it’s also that.
My point is fairly simple here: jet lag manifests in many ways, and that makes it a lot harder to treat universally. This isn’t to say I don’t have advice, though! Just about any symptom of jet lag is in some way related to sleep, and that’s where you can focus your energies to mitigate the struggle. But first, let’s take a moment to relax. Jet lag is highly unlikely to “ruin” your travel experience. To begin with, it tends to magnify with the number of time zones being crossed, so unless you’re trekking across many time zones at once, you’re not likely to experience much of an effect at all.
After a crossing of, say, five or six times zones, whatever you do feel should fade within a day or two. If you do sail to the far side of the globe, though, and this trip is for pleasure (not work), I’d bet your trip still won’t be heavily affected by jet lag.
Why the differentiation between leisure and business travel? Adrenaline. When you’re excited to see new places and scour them for adventure, your adrenaline is much more likely to override the sluggishness most commonly associated with jet lag. In this case, your trip will be great, and you’ll crash when you return home without any more excitement to buoy you. If you’re travelling for work, well, you can imagine why adrenaline might be less likely to override jet lag in either direction!
All that said, let’s assume you’re asking me this because you already know that you regularly experience jet lag and you need some practical help. Never fear, Jade. Here are some pointers, and you can try as many of these as are practical to your life.
1. Don’t sleep at the wrong times, and the right time is indicated by where you are in the moment. I don’t care how tired you are when you show up in Copenhagen at 7 a.m. after an overnight flight—stay up until it’s bedtime in Copenhagen. Push through the day, get extra sleepy, and hit the sack when the rest of the city does. It doesn’t matter what time it is at home, or wherever you just were. Stop thinking about that, and start living by your new norm so your body can take cues for your environment and catch up more quickly with less confusion.
2. Drink a lot of water before, during, and after your trip. By now we all know that water is sort of the secret elixir for healthy, happy living anyway—but be extra mindful of proper hydration while travelling and one of the benefits may be fewer jet-lag symptoms. Likewise, for the days immediately surrounding your time zone changes, avoid drinking beverages that affect sleep, like caffeine and alcohol. There’s no need to encourage more potential disruptions to your body’s sleep goals.
3. If you have the time and funds, add an overnight layover somewhere in the middle of your route. You’ll cross fewer time zones at once, giving your body a fighting chance to adjust more casually. And don’t look at this as less time on vacation: It’s actually a chance to explore a bonus destination for a day (or two!).
4. Slow down. It’s understandable to want to race through new terrains, gobbling up every experience you can squeeze in, but if you’re overworking your body, surviving on adrenaline, you’re going to crash all the harder when it’s over. If you don’t want your body to act differently after travel, don’t treat it too differently during travel.
5. Let it go. We already established that jet lag is a sleep disturbance issue, and nothing can kill sleep like anxiety. If you’re fretting about potential jet lag, you’re inviting it in by increasing the odds you’ll lose sleep anyway. Jet lag is going to happen from time to time, and it can affect you differently whenever it strikes.
Personally, I never experienced it at all until I reached my 30s, and even then only very infrequently. The first time I felt it, I thought I was getting ill. Once I realized it was just jet lag, I was relieved. It’s nothing to get upset over.
Your greatest weapon against preventing your trip from being ruined by jet lag is not letting your trip get ruined by this silly phenomenon that will end on its own anyway. If it comes, it comes, and just as easily shall it pass, so don’t grant it the power to change your mood or dampen your awesome experience. Embrace it—you’re feeling jet lag because you just time-travelled, and that’s pretty darn cool.