You’ve planned, you’ve packed, and you’ve flown 9 hours to finally get to your vacation. Then you find yourself unable to stay awake during the museum tour at the Louvre. It’s not regular tiredness; that’s jet lag.
What causes jet lag?
Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder that is a result of moving through time zones. Though a long, uncomfortable flight won’t help, this is not the cause for jet lag. Jet lag occurs because your body is synced to the time zone in which you live. Despite lights and screens, which can mimic daylight indoors, our body is keenly aware of the amount of available natural light throughout the day. That’s why we tend to get sleepier earlier when the time changes and there are less hours of daylight.
When we travel to a different time zone, we are suddenly completely out of sync with our environment. While our body adjusts to the new time zone, we find ourselves unable to stay asleep at night or falling asleep during the day. This usually lasts a couple of days and goes away on its own. But there are a couple of things you can do to help the recovery along.
Understand the change your body will have to adjust to
Jet lag is different depending on which direction you are traveling in: east to west or west to east. In order to combat it, you have to understand how these changes will affect you in your new destination.
East to west
If you’re traveling east to west, you’re traveling “forward” in time. In other words, when it’s 5 pm in New York, it’s 10 pm in London. That means that the first couple of days of your trip, you may not feel ready to sleep until late in the night. But more importantly, you may have trouble getting up early. That’s because when you’re getting up at 9 am in your new time zone, it may be 3 or 4 am in your old time zone.
West to east
The reverse is true when you travel west to east. This might be a little easier to adjust to, whether you’re traveling for work or fun. When you travel west to east, your body will be inclined to go to bed earlier and wake up earlier. This is great if you want to get a head start on the day’s activities, but not so great if your travel plans will keep you up into the wee hours of the night.
How to prevent and reduce jet lag
Now that you have a rough idea of how you will feel at your destination, here is what you can do to reduce jet lag and to prevent it from happening in the first place.
- Start getting your body adjusted to your new time zone a few days before the trip. Take naps when it’s nighttime in the time zone you’re traveling to.
- Know when to sleep on the plane and when to stay awake. It’s not always beneficial to sleep on the flight over. You should try to sleep only during nighttime hours at your destination. This is usually when you’re traveling from east to west. If you’re traveling eastbound, it may be more beneficial to stay awake. Otherwise you’ll land after a full night of sleep hours before night falls.
- Mind your uppers and downers. Drink coffee during the hours you’re supposed to be awake to help your body adjust. Sleep aids may also be helpful to get you to bed when you’re supposed to.
- Plan accordingly. One of my early rookie travel mistakes was going to see The Lion King on London’s West End the day I arrived on a flight from Miami. I snoozed right through Hakuna Matata. No matter how much you plan, jet lag can happen. So plan to have your days’ activities when you are more likely to be awake and alert.
- If all else fails, you’re on vacation. Sleep when you’re dead.