Although the old Buddhist proverb “The only time is right now” might bring your spirit peace while meditating, the fact is that our physical world is divided into more than two dozen time zones. As a result, air travelers often become time travelers, hurtling themselves a day or more into a future – or, less frequently, the past – while globetrotting.
A phenomenon known as “jet lag” results from the fact that your body’s sleep patterns take a few days to adjust to your the different sunrise and sunset times in your new longitude. Unless you take measures to prevent it, jet lag may cause you to wake up and fall asleep at strange times and generally feel weak until it naturally goes away, potentially jeopardizing the first few days of the trip.
Indeed, while the date and time that pop up on your phone whenever you arrive at your final destination are out of your control, you can and should take steps to limit the effect your changed position on the planet has on your sleep patterns and energy levels.
Depending on how long your flight is, it might pay to begin fighting against jet lag before you even board the plane. Adjusting your sleep patterns to match approximately the times you’d wake up and go to sleep in your destination even one or two days before you leave significantly reduces the likelihood of you being afflicted with jet lag.
Obviously, your ability to do this depends on several factors, such as any personal or professional commitments you have. If you live in New York City and are traveling to Dubai, which may be as many as 9 hours ahead depending on the time of year, you might not be able to go to bed at 7 a.m. (assuming your usual bed time is 10 p.m.) if you work an 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. job.
During the Flight
If you aren’t able to take pre-travel preparations in the fight against jet lag, it’s still possible to make headway after you board the plane. The first step you should take is to adjust all watches and electronics to reflect the current time at your destination. If your device doesn’t allow you to set the time using the name of the city, ask a crew member or a fellow passenger if they know.
As you should do if you can prepare before you depart, attempt to stay awake until roughly the time you’d be headed to bed after arrival – or, if that time has already passed, set your alarm to wake you up at your usual wake up time, keeping in mind the adjusted time. It’s important not to drink caffeine until you’re awake for good, as doing so will almost certainly prevent you from falling asleep.
The luckiest scenario for international travelers is if your flight arrives at night, around your normal bed time. This is often the case for flights from the U.S. to India, which usually leave their origins one evening and arrive in India the next. If this is the case, your post-flight duty is simple: Go to bed as soon as you get to your hotel and ask for a wakeup call around your usual wake up time.
Unfortunately, this ideal arrangement only rarely occurs. In many instances you arrive in the morning and if this is the case, your task is instead to stay up as close to your usual bedtime as possible. You should again avoid consuming caffeine to aid you in this pursuit, if possible, since the added jolt may affect the quality and depth of your important first night’s sleep.
The Next Morning
Ideally, you’ll wake up (either naturally or, in most cases, with an alarm) at or around your usual wake up time. At this point it’s OK to have coffee if you usually would, as you’ll need to stay awake an entire day and the caffeine will have time to wear off. The best defense against jet lag the first morning of your trip is to take it easy and pace yourself, so you don’t require a nap.
If you’re able to make it to the second night without taking a sleep break – and, ideally, without feeling tired – then congratulations: You may very well have beaten jet lag. To make sure, however, keep your alarm set for the next morning and stop using it only when you begin to wake up on time naturally.
Beating Fleeting Jetlag
The most frustrating aspect of jet lag is that it can reappear even several days after you land, depending on your activity level, the extent to which you indulge tiredness with naps or caffeine and, in some instances, just plain bad luck. How then should one go about getting rid of jet lag that just won’t go away?
Some may advise measures as extreme as taking melatonin supplements or sleeping pills to make you more awake or sleepier, respectively. Most frequent international travelers, however, will tell you that slow and steady wins the race. It’s a surer bet to consistently go to sleep and wake up as close to your usual times as possible than it is to rely on supplements.
About the author
Robert Schrader is a travel writer/photographer and editor of the blog Leave Your Daily Hell, your source for destination information, travel photos, practical travel advice and inspirational travel essays. Robert’s writing and photography has been published on websites such as CNNGo, Tripping and Shanghaiist and in print publications like That’s Shanghai and East & West magazines. Robert’s travels have thus far taken him to more than 40 countries and to all six inhabited continents. Follow the Twitter feed, “Like” the Facebook page or add Robert to one of your Google+ circles.