Summertime is here and that means soon, many of us may be travelling. Whether you’re headed off to see relatives out west or the sights in Italy, jet lag is often an unwelcome part of our travel baggage. As a frequent long-haul flier myself, jetting back and forth to see loved ones in my native South Africa (14 hours door-to-door), I often have to remind myself – and my frequent flier patients – that jet-lag is simply the body’s way of saying our circadian rhythms are out of sync with the places we wind up. As inconvenient as jet lag may be, the good news is that it doesn’t have to interfere with your travels. With a little planning and a few smart moves before, during and after your trip, you can ease your body into where ever life takes you.
Know what you’re up against.
As a general rule of thumb, it takes most of us about a day to recover for each time zone crossed. So, for example, an NYC to LA trip should about three days, whereas an NYC to Honolulu jaunt will take about six. Headed east? Then be prepared to have a slightly rougher time of it, as the west-to-east routes tend to put a bit more strain on your normal body rhythms. Are you over 40? Be aware that jet lag may hit you a bit harder because of age-related dips in melatonin levels. On the positive side though, jet lag seems to have less effect on those who exercise regularly – so there’s one more reason to keep up your fitness routine!
Supplement your body clock.
I find that melatonin is very helpful for resetting the body clock. I take it myself to prevent jet lag and prescribe it to many of my patients who travel frequently. If you’re not familiar with how it works, melatonin is the hormone that controls your sleep and wake cycle. It’s released at night, when it’s dark, inducing sleep. Used strategically, melatonin supplementation for short periods of time is an easy, drug-free way to help travelers reset their biological clocks. To determine a melatonin regimen that’s right for you (some people need more, some need less), talk with your doctor, particularly if you are on any medications, as melatonin can interact with certain drugs, such as blood-thinners and anti-seizure meds to name a few. Another popular option is No Jet-Lag Tablets, a homeopathic, jet-lag fighter that contains a blend of arnica, bellis perennis, chamomilla, ipecacuanha and lycopodium.
Trick your brain.
One of my clients, who regularly flies from London to L.A., swears by this trick: he sets his watch ahead to the local time at his destination as soon as he gets on the plane and starts living on his destination’s time. If it’s time for bed where he’s going, he’ll hunker down for the night. If the night is young where he’s headed, he’ll stay awake throughout the flight to help his body adjust.
Water your body.
Drink up – but hold the highballs and can the cappuccino, particularly while you’re in the air. Liver damage and jitters aside, alcohol or caffeine consumption at altitude speeds dehydration. The more dehydrated you become en route, the tougher your jet lag will be. For every hour you’re in the air, try to toss back 6 – 8 oz or water. Not only will you stay hydrated, but the occasional need for the restroom will serve as a physical reminder to get up and walk around the cabin periodically to promote circulation.
Play with your food.
By play with your food, I mean choose it as wisely in the air as you do on the ground. If you’re enjoying the good life up in business class, request extra salad or vegetables with your meal and choose a protein for the main course instead of pasta, to help maintain optimal digestion. Just say no to the cheese plates, hot fudge sundaes and warm cookies that the high-end seats are known for – all those carbs and sugars will just make you sleepy and lethargic, not to mention chubby. Stuck in coach with mysterious meal offerings? Pick the healthiest options possible, skip the meal completely if you’re not truly hungry or better yet, bring your own healthy meals and eat what’s good for you on your schedule, not the airlines.
Consider a little delayed gratification.
Recently the Anti Jet-Lag Fast, developed by a team at Harvard and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, has been getting a bit of attention. Though I haven’t tried it myself, the anti jet-lag diet, which writer Steve Hendricks tests out in the March issue of Harper’s Magazine, is surprisingly simple. All the traveler has to do to side-step jet lag completely is to not eat for twelve to sixteen hours before breakfast time in the new time zone. The fast seems to work, its adherents contend, because we have an internal master clock that resets automatically, as soon as we start eating again.
Know your limits.
Unless you’re an actual cape-wearing super-hero, the day you land is probably not the best day to load up your schedule with touristic activities or high-level meetings and presentations. Whenever possible, try to fly the day before you need to perform challenging physical or mental tasks. Like it or not, your body needs time to rest and recover, so resist the urge to artificially prop it up with caffeine to stay up or alcohol to knock yourself out. If your trip is just 2 or 3 days long, you’ll fare better if you stay in your home time zone regardless of where you are and schedule appointments accordingly to minimize disruption to your circadian rhythms. For longer trips, business or pleasure, listen to your body and take it easy on the first day. Running yourself too hard straight out of the gate can weaken your immune system, making your body more vulnerable to viruses – and getting sick on the road can torpedo your trip.
Sleepless in Sardinia?
To help acclimatize to the local time faster, go to bed when the natives do. Though it can be tough on an overnight flight, try to stay up on the day you arrive, at least till it’s a normal bedtime hour at your destination. One of my favorite tricks when I arrive in a new city early in the morning, hours before check-in time: have a good breakfast, take a walking tour to get the lay of the land and start strolling. Afterwards, I’ll head to the hotel to check in and take a quick nap – no more than 30 minutes –then go about the rest of my day like a local. If you can’t afford to miss a moment abroad, a more radical technique is to slowly start switching over to the local time of your destination, a few days before you leave home, adjusting your bedtime an hour every day, depending on whether you’re flying east or west. While some frequent fliers swear by this method, for most people it’s not always practical to make the switch while they’re trying to wrap up projects, pack and prepare for a trip.
Back to the future.
When you return home, be patient. As mentioned above, it will take about a day for each time zone crossed to fully recover, so don’t waste energy trying to fight it, just go with the glow. To combat post-travel sluggishness and brain fog, exposure to the sun – particularly morning light – and exercise will help you get your everyday groove back.