Whether you’re traveling for work or pleasure, jet lag can put a damper on things, especially if your travels take you across three or more time zones.
It takes a while for your body’s circadian rhythms to adjust to your new time zone. Until it does, you may find yourself struggling to stay awake in the afternoons but then staring at the ceiling in the wee hours, leaving you even more tired the next day.
Some people are more affected than others. Those like my friend Eleanor, who can fall asleep whenever she needs to, regardless of the time of day, can quickly shrug off a change of time zone. Others, like my friend Craig, who needs a week to adjust to daylight savings time, have a harder time of it. Jet lag is also usually worse when traveling East than West.
If I’m only crossing a couple of time zones and only staying for a few days, I often try to stay on my home schedule for the entire trip–or close to it. When I fly from the East Coast to visit my sister in California, for example, I get up at about 5 in the morning and go to bed by 9:30 or 10 pm while I’m there.
But this month, I’m traveling to Europe to attend a conference and staying on Baltimore time simply won’t be an option. Fortunately, there are a few tricks you can use to help your body synchronize to the local time more quickly.
Adjust your meal schedule.
Most of us eat every few hours during the day and then have a 10-12 hour fast every night while we’re sleeping. This has a powerful effect on our body clocks. One way to reset your body clock when you travel is to refrain from eating during the hours that correspond to nighttime in the new time zone.
When traveling East, on the day you travel, eat your last meal at whatever time corresponds to dinner time at your destination. Don’t eat again until it’s breakfast time at your destination. When traveling West, on the day you travel, eat your first meal at whatever time corresponds to breakfast at your destination. This usually entails skipping dinner when traveling East and skipping breakfast when traveling West. Although this isn’t tons of fun, it can be a very effective way to synchronize your body clock to your destination. Be sure to drink plenty of plain water, however, to keep yourself hydrated.
If I get on a plane bound for Europe at 5pm Eastern time, for example, it’s already 11pm in Europe. By the time they are serving dinner on the plane, it’ll be 1 in the morning in Europe. Instead of eating, reading, and watching movies on the flight over, I’ll put on my eye mask, put in my ear plugs, and do my best to doze a few hours. Then, I’ll eat a substantial snack as soon as it’s morning at my destination—usually shortly before landing.
When it’s time to come home, I’ll try to eat dinner on the late side the night before travel. Then, I’ll sleep in as long as I can on travel day and delay my first meal until mid-day (which is breakfast time back home). I’ll enjoy a meal during the flight, and then I’ll be back on the East Coast in time to have dinner at the regular time.
Seek the sun
Exposing yourself to morning sunlight is another very effective way to synchronize your body to local time. Try to plan your itinerary to allow you to get outside in the mornings for the day or two after you arrive in a new time zone. You can vastly increase the effect of morning sun with exercise.
At the other end of the day, avoid looking at your phone, computer, or tablet in the evening—or use blue-blocking glasses. The blue light emitted by these devices can interfere with the evening secretion of melatonin, which induces bed-time sleepiness. Seeing as the local bed-time is already coming either too late or too early for your body-clock, don’t make it worse with blue light.
Speaking of melatonin, a well-timed melatonin supplement can also help reset your body clock. Once you’re at your destination, try taking 3 mg of melatonin about an hour before local bedtime for 3-4 nights. Experts advice NOT taking melatonin to help you sleep during your flight, however. Ditto for alcohol.
Time your caffeine
Finally, caffeine can help alleviate drowsiness. But new research suggests that it also affects your body clock. Using caffeine to deal with jet lag, however, is tricky. In addition to boosting alertness, a dose of caffeine can also delay evening melatonin release by about an hour. After traveling West, you can take advantage of this by having a cup of coffee about three hours before bedtime, which effectively sets your body clock back an hour.
After traveling East, however, you’re trying to set your body clock ahead, not back. Avoid caffeine after breakfast on your departure day until your first breakfast at your destination. Do not drink caffeine during the afternoon or evening—even if you normally do—until you feel you have fully adjusted to the local time.
Hopefully these tips can help make your next trip a little easier and more enjoyable. Let me know how they work for you on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page (and don’t forget to include photos!)