According to a recent study reported in Newsweek, Americans are traveling abroad more than ever before, and spent about $135 billion on overseas tourism in 2017. With more international travel, though, comes the inevitable — jet lag, or to give it its fancy medical name, desynchronosis.
If you’ve had it, you know exactly how much it sucks: You fly to Europe from L.A., and following the long flight and immediately faced with an eight-plus hour time difference, your mind and entire body feels like overcooked pasta. You’re exhausted during the day, you can’t sleep at night and your brain is basically functioning about as well as the front wheels of an airport luggage trolley.
All these delightful consequences are the result of the misalignment of your body’s internal circadian clock with external time cues — a mismatch between your sleep-wake cycle and the current time at your destination. “For primitive humans, most migration was done on foot,” says Terry Cralle, certified clinical sleep educator and author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top: How to Get the Sleep You Need to Succeed. “This form of travel was so slow that the biological clock could easily keep pace, but humans can now move more rapidly through space than their bodies can compensate for. Our biological clock is set to local time primarily by light and dark cycles, and when we rapidly travel across time zones, our physiologic ability to compensate for these changes is slow.”
The age-old preventative measure for this, of course, is to take the red-eye, the idea being that you’ll sleep a little on the flight, waking up at whatever time it is at your destination refreshed enough to not need an immediate nap, but tired enough to go to sleep at whatever the local bedtime is.
As far as Cralle is concerned, it’s a decent strategy — not necessarily so you can arrive at your destination in the early morning, but more simply so you can get some shuteye. “If you’re able to sleep on a plane, choose an evening flight,” says Cralle. “Get a window seat, pack some earplugs or noise-canceling headphones, put on a sleep mask and wear easy slip-on, slip-off shoes. If sleeping on a plane is next to impossible for you, choose a flight that arrives at your destination in the early evening.”
Cralle says travelers actually lose more sleep during the air travel itself than the following jet lag. In fact, a survey conducted by British Airways and Research International reported that business travelers sleep, on average, just three hours on overnight flights in economy class and — sweet justice for us economy fliers — still only about four hours in business and first class. Out of 1,000 professionals surveyed, 25 percent admitted to falling asleep in a meeting due to sleep deprivation; 70 percent felt they were less productive after traveling; and nearly one in five of those surveyed lost business or had a presentation go badly because of poor sleep resulting from air travel.
While sleeping on your overnight flight abroad is important, there are other pivotal steps to take if you want to avoid jet lag, the most critical of which should take place pre-flight, such as…
Gradually Adjust Your Schedule Before You Leave
If you’re traveling more than two time zones to the east, try to get to bed an hour or so earlier a few nights before you depart. Go to bed an hour later for a few nights when flying west. Also, if possible, try to schedule your meals closer to the times you’ll be eating them at your destination. These modifications to your schedule will help prepare your mind and body for the time difference once you’ve landed.
Rick Steves, a respected authority on European travel, suggests on his blog to prepare for your trip as if you’re leaving sooner than you are. “Plan from the start as if you’re leaving two days before you really are,” Steves writes. “Keep that last 48-hour period sacred (apart from your normal work schedule), even if it means being hectic before your false departure date. Then you have two orderly, peaceful days after you’ve packed so that you are physically ready to fly. Once you’ve boarded the plane, set your watch to the local time of your destination so that you start getting used to the time difference right away.”
Get Plenty of Sleep Leading up to Your Departure
That means not waiting until the last minute to pack your things, and no wild booze-infused bon voyage parties. “Start off your trip well-rested,” Cralle advises. “Too many of us begin our trips in a sleep-deprived state. Don’t procrastinate — get ready for your trip well in advance so you begin your journey well-rested. Then get as much sleep as normal in the 24 hours after arrival.”
It might sound obvious, but this is good advice: A scientific study commissioned by Hilton Hotels & Resorts found that one of the primary reasons performance wanes in business travelers is sleep loss. In their study, participants were only allowed to sleep five hours the night before a trip. “Any sleep period less than six hours a night begins to significantly diminish performance,” the study suggested. “So, essentially, travelers can be at a decreased productivity level before they even walk out their door.”
Cralle adds, “Similar to adults, children who are well-rested are better able to cope with jet lag,” so be sure your junior travelers get good nights of sleep leading up to your trip too, as if there’s one thing worse than having jet lag, it’s being jet lagged around kids who have jet lag.
Factor in Your Meal Times According to Those in Your Destination
“Don’t underestimate the regularity of meals,” Cralle suggests. “Meal timing plays a crucial role in resetting your body clock, so begin eating meals on the local schedule. This will help alleviate jet lag by helping your body’s circadian rhythm adapt to the new time zone more quickly.” Remember too that heavy, rich and spicy meals too close to bedtime are considered sleep disruptors, so avoid them altogether, as well as alcohol and caffeine if possible.
Utilize Airlines and Smartphone Apps with Anti-Jet Lag Features
Some airlines now have anti-jet lag features, which basically amount to lighting that simulates natural sunrises and sunsets to better regulate the body’s production of the sleep hormone melatonin. “Cabin temperatures and specially made meals also aim to put passengers to sleep or keep them awake — depending on the time at the destination,” says Cralle. “There are an array of apps and websites, like Entrain and Stopjetlag.com, that can be very helpful as well.”
Entrain uses your lighting history, activity and heart rate to recommend schedules of light and dark, which helps shift your circadian clock to a new time zone as quickly as possible. Stopjetlag.com offers individualized itinerary plans from specialists that incorporate jet-lag adjustment boosters such as light exposure, melatonin supplements, food, caffeine and exercise.
Look, nothing’s ever going to make you slot right into your new time zone without feeling some, well, lag. But if you prepare yourself properly, you can at least feel like most of a person, instead of half of one.