Hop a plane across several time zones, and you may end up with what scientists call circadian dysrhythmia (aka jet lag). But fret not: “If you plan for it, you can do most of your acclimatizing to your destination a few days in advance,” says W. Chris Winter, a Virginia neurologist and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.
“We have a natural rhythm to our bodies, and it’s pretty well set,” says Dr. Vivek Jain, director of the George Washington University's Center for Sleep Disorders. “Airlines are starting to adjust when long flights take off to try to match those, but it’ll never be perfect.”
Still, you can use light exposure, sleep and strategically timed naps, snacks, and caffeine to get a leg, er, hour up on your new time zone. Here are some facts, techniques, and take-on-the-plane aids suggested by experts to help you adjust to a new time in no time.
Don’t be afraid of the dark
Blocking out light is key to getting shut-eye on the plane (a proven jet-lag antidote on overnight flights). If your destination is several hours ahead, wear sunglasses until you’re ready to snooze, then strap on a sleeping mask. When your brain senses darkness, it starts to produce melatonin, the chemical that initiates sleep. Use whatever tools you can to make your trip comfortable and silent. Instead of a traditional C-shape pillow, test out NapAnywhere, a flat disc that bends into a sturdy neck support. Add noise-canceling headphones or foam ear plugs to set the stage for slumber.
Wake up to a new place
Try to book a flight that lands in the daytime, since getting out into sunlight helps reset your body clock. “It jump starts you much more quickly,” says Luxembourg-based sleep coach Christine Hansen.
Eat (and drink) right
If it’s morning or early afternoon when your plane lands, a jolt of caffeine can help you acclimatize. So can eating a meal at the standard time in your destination. (One additional reason to make a beeline to that Parisian café for coffee and croissants!)
Look into airline initiatives
Airlines are exploring ways to reduce and treat jet lag. Qantas is partnering with the University of Sydney to study the impacts of in-flight temperature and light, while Singapore Airlines has joined Canyon Ranch spa to develop menus and exercises.
Do some advance planning
You can minimize jet lag by adjusting your bedtime, light exposure, and caffeine intake a few days before your trip. Smartphone app Timeshifter generates a personalized pre-travel schedule.
Sleep on it
Taking melatonin, which is also made naturally by the body, can help you doze off in the air or in a new time zone. Melatonin is available over the counter, but experts recommend consulting your health care provider before use. Unlike a prescription sleep drug, it won’t sedate you for hours—for better or worse.
Did you know?
- Per the American Sleep Association, 93 percent of travelers will experience jet lag at some point.
- It takes about one day per hour of time difference for your body clock to adjust to a new time zone.
- There are 24 universally-recognized time zones and many self-established ones.
- Flying from west to east is associated with worse jet lag than east to west.
Based in Washington D.C., freelance writer Jenn Barger covers travel, home, and style. Follow her on Twitter @dcjnell.