The symptoms often feel worse on the return, when your vacation indulgences finally catch up to you.
“A certain degree of enthusiasm, adrenaline and excitement gets us through the trip,” said Chris Winter, a neurologist, sleep specialist and host of the “Sleep Unplugged” podcast. “When we come back, we are not only experiencing the effect of the return trip, but the effects of the trip are now starting to dawn on you. It’s kind of comes crashing down around you.”
Sleep experts say it typically takes about a day to recover for each time zone you have crossed or hour you have gained or lost. However, you can take the sting out of jet lag by training your body for the time travel.
Staying awake is easier than falling asleep
Sleep is biological, not behavioral. A circadian rhythm regulates our body’s 24-hour cycle of sleep and wakefulness. The internal clock is primarily attuned to natural or artificial light patterns. Habits and schedules, such as work hours, child-care needs and rise-and-shine preferences, can influence your exposure to light and dark.
When we travel to a different time zone, our internal clock can’t reset as quickly as our iPhones. The adjustment period upends our sleep routine and disrupts our equilibrium.
“Some people are more susceptible to feeling really bad when jet lag occurs and others acclimate fairly quickly and are able to deal with the sleepiness and the insomnia,” said Philip Alapat, assistant professor of sleep medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. “Your body can [adjust] to a different circadian rhythm given time.”
For jet lag, a hearty breakfast in the new time zone may help
Generally, travelers fare better when they fly east to west than the reverse direction. The reason is that our brains are better at delaying our needs than advancing them. It is harder to force yourself to fall asleep when you are not tired than to push through the exhaustion to stay awake. For example, if you’re traveling from Los Angeles to New York, you may not be ready for bed at 11 p.m. Eastern time because your body is still operating on 8 p.m. Pacific time.
The westbound rule typically applies to destinations that are only a few time zones ahead or behind your own. Flying halfway around the world will discombobulate your body regardless of direction.
“When you’re traveling 12 hours to New Zealand or Thailand, it’s a very problematic place for your brain because it’s not entirely sure if you’ve literally flipped the clock,” Winter said. “Twelve p.m. becomes 12 a.m., and that’s wildly disruptive for a lot of reasons.”
Train your body for a new time zone
Travelers can soften the blow of jet lag by preparing their bodies and minds for the time change.
Some travelers swear by melatonin, which can lull your brain into thinking it’s nighttime. Many foods, such as tart cherries, bananas and nuts, are rich in the sleep-inducing chemical, but Zeitzer said the concentration is too small to make much of a difference. If you use a supplement, Johns Hopkins Medicine recommends taking 1 to 3 milligrams two hours before the bedtime in your destination. Start your pill regimen a few days before your trip. Consult with your health care provider before taking any medication.
Jamie M. Zeitzer, a psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor at Stanford University, warns travelers to be careful with melatonin pills. Because the medicine is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, the quality can vary. Individual reactions also differ.
“You have to make sure that whatever you’re getting is from a reliable company, that it doesn’t have contaminants and that it has the amount it says is in it,” he said. “Then, it’s a reasonable way to go.”
Another option is to use an app or website that will formulate a sleep schedule based on the time zones in your departure and arrival points. The tools calculate how much light exposure and darkness you will need to fend off jet lag. The adjustments are not dramatic. You might have to tuck in a little earlier or later than usual, but not right after high tea.
The completely correct guide to getting over jet lag
“If you have a complex travel schedule or are going very far, these apps actually help,” Zeitzer said. “The precision starts to matter because of how the circadian system responds to light. You can really screw yourself up by getting light a half-hour at the wrong time.”
Timeshifter is one of the most popular apps in this category. Alapat suggests Jet Lag Rooster, a website, to his patients.
“It’ll give you a little calendar of things that you can do in terms of starting to shift your sleep schedule to when you can expose yourself to light,” he said.
Experimenting with fasting
Researchers are seeking remedies to help travelers better manage jet lag or avoid it entirely.
One study from 2002 found that the Argonne anti-jet lag diet, which involves feasting and fasting several days before a trip, alleviated jet lag in its National Guard participants. In 2009, a Harvard neurology professor named Clifford Saper and his associates at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center studied how fasting affected the circadian rhythms of mice. Based on their findings, Saper recommends a 12-to-16-hour fast before and during your flight, which could suspend or “reset” your internal clock.
“Sleep is secondary to food,” Winter said. “So try not to eat a whole lot, and when you arrive back home or in Italy, wait until the first meal and then eat it.”
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If sleep eludes you, don’t force it. Alapat said if you can’t sleep, engage in a quiet activity that will calm your mind, such as reading or meditating.
“Watching a horror movie on an 80-inch screen is probably not the best thing to do at 2 in the morning when you’re trying to fall asleep, because you’re going to be activated from the adrenaline as well as the bright light from the screen,” he said.
When you are in the thick of jet lag, it’s important to practice healthy habits, pamper yourself and don’t stress about your wakefulness. According to a German study from 2012, obsessing over your jet lag will exacerbate the situation.
“If you’re stressed, it’s going to be worse. If you’re not eating well, it’s going to be worse. If you’re not able to sleep in a comfortable environment, it’s going to be worse,” Zeitzer said.