We think of jet lag as a sleep disorder. But it’s really a disorder of your body clock, or circadian rhythm, which controls when you experience energy peaks, when your energy dips, when you feel sleepy, and a million other little highs and lows that impact how you move through your day.
If you’re fully aligned with your body clock, you feel great and work effectively. If you’re out of alignment (even just a little bit), you feel moodier and exhibit uneven performance. Since jet lag throws our clocks massively out of alignment, it wreaks havoc with absolutely everything: your sleep, your mood, your energy, and your effectiveness.
Or at least it does for me. Over the past six months, I’ve had to fly from Los Angeles to Europe or Scandinavia numerous times to give talks. When I flew to London, I traveled across an 8-hour time difference. When I flew to Stockholm, I zoomed across a 9-hour time difference. And every time, I felt terrible.
To put this in perspective, the human body can naturally accommodate only a 1-hour time shift over the course of a day. Back when we traveled primarily on foot, or by horse, this worked pretty well because one time zone was about as far as you could travel in a day. Now, we can zip across whole continents in a few hours, but our bodies still plod along at the same pace: The standard rule of thumb is that you should factor in about one day to recover for every time zone you cross.
So technically speaking, when I fly to Stockholm, it should take me 9 days to feel fully myself again. But what good does that do me if I’m only there for 4 days, and I need to be in tip-top shape to give a talk a day after I arrive?
After dealing with this same situation in London, and feeling like I was about to lose my lunch before my presentation at The Guardian, I decided to take a deep dive into what I could do about jet lag. (Don’t worry, the presentation ended up going great after my adrenalin kicked in and gave me the lift I needed.)
The first thing to understand is that which direction you’re flying in matters. When you fly east, you are essentially fast-forwarding your body clock. When you fly west, you are essentially asking it to operate in slow motion. Neither feels good, but typically flying east makes you feel a lot worse, because fast-forwarding is more disorienting than slowing down.
Here’s the recipe that I came up with based on some reading and self-experimentation:
1. Manage your light exposure. Daylight is the touchstone for your body clock. So, if you take a red eye and open the shades in the middle of your “nighttime” flight and daylight streams in, it messes with your clock. So keep the shades down on your flight. Similarly, being exposed to morning light when you arrive at your new destination, before your body feels like it’s morning, can be jarring. Which is why Dr. Richard Friedman recommends wearing sunglasses in your new location until it’s about 7am in whatever time zone you just left. So if I’ve just traveled from LA to Stockholm, where it’s 9 hours later, I’ll keep my shades on until about 4pm to help my body clock adjust.
2. Hydrate heavily, eat healthily, and don’t drink alcohol on the plane. All of these are important, but if you can only pick one, choose not to drink. I’m not one to get sloshed on a flight, but even that one glass of wine that Air France kindly serves with your meal could set you back. It dehydrates you even further and increases the possibility of not sleeping on the flight and having a headache when you arrive. If you can, go one step further and try to drink about two liters of water on the plane. (Obviously, you’ll need an aisle seat for bathroom runs if you’re going to do this.)
3. Hydrate even more with Pedialyte after you land. For the un-initiated, Pedialyte is beverage typically given to babies when they are sick to help quickly replenish key nutrients and electrolytes. But it’s also for adults, and if you’ve ever experienced an extreme flu or food poisoning you’re probably not a stranger to this magical potion, which is far superior to Gatorade. Since the point of Pedialyte is re-hydration, it’s also fantastic for giving your body a boost after a long flight. They even make portable powder packs that are super-easy to travel with. One packet, mixed with water, makes two cups that I chug down as soon as I arrive at my hotel. (Pro tip: Grape is the most tolerable flavor.)
4. Don’t drink coffee. When you arrive, you’ll be extremely tempted to have a coffee to help you push through. Don’t do it! (If you are arriving in the morning, or around lunchtime, it’s okay to make an exception for just one cup.) But, especially if you’re arriving at your new destination in the afternoon or early evening, drinking coffee will only throw your body clock further off and make it even harder to fall asleep at a new time.
5. Stay awake all day. Sans coffee, this is grueling but essential. You will never adjust, and certainly not quickly, if you do not immediately adopt the normal daily rhythm in your new location — even if it doesn’t feel normal at first. It’s fine to take a quick nap for an hour or so while it’s light out if you’re feeling really sapped, but once night falls, make sure you don’t go to sleep until about 10pm if you can manage it.
6. Exercise in the early evening. For most of us, the optimal time to exercise is around 5 or 6pm. Your body is warmed up, your lungs are at max capacity, and exercise feels effortless. After a long flight, exercise does a few useful things: It gets your blood flowing and loosens up tight muscles, it acts as a cue to remind your body what time it is (time to be awake!), and it tires you out to make sleeping at an unfamiliar time easier.
7. Take melatonin to speed the adjustment. If you’re flying east, you’ll want to take a dose of melatonin about 2-3 hours before bed. This helps naturally send a message to your brain that soon it will be time to go to sleep. I like to take it for the first two or three days of my trip to help me adjust. If you’re flying west, you’ll want to take melatonin when you wake up, which tricks your brain into thinking that you’ve slept longer than you actually did, and thus makes it easier to adjust to waking up earlier.