Jason Borne or Ethan Hunt and his Impossible Missions Force can jet halfway around the globe then roll off the plane and immediately start kickin’ butt. However, for many reasons, most of us in the real world can’t. And one of those reasons is that annoying international travel companion jet lag.
“Our bodies work on a 24-hour cycle called circadian rhythms.These rhythms are measured by the distinct rise and fall of body temperature, plasma levels of certain hormones and other biological conditions.” —National Sleep Foundation
Distilled to its essence: quickly crossing multiple time zones messes with your body clock.
Despite what happens in the movies, the reality is there’s no beating jet lag. It’s a natural, physiological reaction, and the effects can only be lessened or made worse … burritos and bourbon come to mind.
But after almost four decades of international travel, I’ve discovered a few things that help me trick my body clock so it adjusts as quickly as possible to my new destination time:
1. Start your trip well-rested.
The night before the trip, get a good night’s sleep. Forget the bon voyage party and go to bed early. In addition to confusing your body clock, international travel is stressful and physically demanding, and you’ll need all the extra energy you can muster.
2. Take it easy in transit and start the mental adjustment.
While you travel, don’t overdo. Drink lots of water and don’t overeat or drink too much alcohol. In the airport and on the plane, get up and move around often, and take time to stretch a bit. And to start the mental transition, set your watch to the destination time.
3. Take Melatonin.
Melatonin, a hormone produced naturally by the human body, can help reset your circadian clock when taken for a few days while traveling. It isn’t a sleeping pill, but experts say that as melatonin levels rise in the evening it puts you into a state of quiet wakefulness that helps promote sleep. Take one pill on the plane an hour before you want to sleep, and take a pill one hour before bedtime for 4 additional days. Opinions vary on melatonin. We swear by it, but others say it’s a waste of time. Your call.
4. Get a bit of rest on arrival.
When you arrive, get a couple of hours of sleep … but only a couple. Set an alarm clock (or two) and force yourself to get up after a couple of hours. Sleeping as long as your body wants to will only prolong the adjustment. Don’t get me wrong, getting your sleepy-head out of bed takes some willpower, but a short nap will recharge your batteries and make the rest of the first day much easier.
5. Get out of the hotel and do something active.
Natural light suppresses the production of melatonin, so it helps to get out into the sunshine for some light exercise. You’ve spent big bucks to experience this new place, so do yourself a favor and start checking it out. Taking a leisurely walk, seeing some sights, and having a light meal will also help force your body to adjust to the local time. Inevitably you’ll have a couple of sinking spells, but try to stay active and moving around. A travel buddy helps with this step because it’s unlikely that you’ll both crash at the same time.
6. Ignore the bed’s siren call.
Even though you’re really knackered, delay dinner and returning to the hotel until late in the day. At this point, the bed is a temptress, and is not your friend. If you give in to sleep you’ll be awake for hours in the middle of the night which only prolongs the adjustment.
When you return to your room, take your melatonin, and if possible, stay awake for a while. Watch some goofy, foreign language TV, read an exciting book; do whatever it takes to stay awake. It’s all about tricking the body clock. I usually don’t make it past 8-9 pm, but when my head finally hits the pillow, I immediately drop into a blissful coma.
7. Stay on the local schedule.
Forget about what time your body thinks it is at home and stay on the local schedule. At this point, it’s mind over matter.
No matter where I travel and how many time zones I cross, my objective is to get over jet lag as quickly as possible. And this routine accomplishes that. Do you have a time-tested tip or routine that works? We’d love to hear.
James & Terri