En español | When I returned to Virginia after a recent seven-day trip in California, I felt lethargic for a week. I was tired. I couldn’t concentrate. Napping sounded way more enticing than exercising. The problem was jet lag, which hits me much harder at age 52 than it did in my 30s.
Jet lag occurs when our body clock isn’t in tune with a destination’s light-dark cycle. And after age 50, our circadian cycle generally adjusts to new time zones more slowly than when we’re younger, according to sleep coach Bill Fish. “Our bodies are creatures of habit, and it is more difficult to deviate from those habits as we age,” says Fish, cofounder of Tuck, which offers information on sleep and sleep products. Typically, it takes about one day per time zone for your body clock to adjust. Jet lag is also more intense traveling east than west.
You can’t prevent jet lag, but you can ease the symptoms. Here’s some advice from sleep experts and frequent travelers.
BEFORE YOU GO
Book a red-eye. That way you’re more likely to have a normal night’s sleep. Another option: Book flights so you arrive at your destination in the evening, closer to bedtime.
Shift your internal clocks. Before you leave home, adjust your bed and meal times by one hour each night for each time zone you’ll be traveling. Schedule earlier times for eastward travel and later times for going west.
ON THE PLANE
Reset your watch. As soon as you’re on the plane, set your watch to the destination’s time and “get your mind into that zone,” says Peter Cistulli, a professor of sleep medicine at the University of Sydney.
Eat meals on local time. Your body may think it’s 3 a.m., but if it’s 8 a.m. at your destination, and you’re awake on the plane, go ahead and eat breakfast. This will help you adjust to your new time zone. “I bring along snacks with protein in case the in-flight meal is not to my liking,” says Darley Newman, the host of Travels with Darley on PBS and Amazon Prime.
Choose the right foods. Don’t eat foods that make you feel bloated, full or, you know … gassy. When Qantas Airways launched a 17-hour nonstop route from Perth to London in March 2018, it introduced new menus to combat jet lag and encourage sleep. The menu includes dishes with ingredients that promote hydration — such as green leafy vegetables, cucumbers and strawberries; light dishes (including a tuna poke salad bowl); and hot chocolate for bedtime, which contains tryptophan to make you sleepy.
Chug some H2O. Your best beverage option: “Water, water, and more water,” says Melinda Crow, a writer for TravelPulse.com. “Some of the tiredness is actually dehydration.” Drink eight ounces of water for every hour that you fly, suggests Fish. Not only does it keep you hydrated, but it forces you to get up and use the restroom, which helps your circulation. A glass of wine is fine, but alcoholic and caffeinated drinks can affect your sleep — and booze can cause dehydration.
Let in some light. Light is the main stimulus for setting our body clocks, says Steve Simpson, director of the Charles Perkins Centre at the University of Sydney, who designed the Qantas program to ease jet lag. For the airline’s new 17-hour flight, designers created a lighting schedule that mimics sunlight and shifts passengers’ circadian rhythms to the destination’s time zone. What can the rest of us do? If you have a window seat, pull up the blind to let in natural light.
Make sure you’re comfy. The more relaxed you are, the more likely you are to rest. “I dress comfortably and in layers to stay warm or cool,” says Newman. “I stock my smartphone with soothing sounds (beach sounds for me) and predownload TV shows or movies that help me relax and tune out potential noisy neighbors.” She also carries a travel pillow, eye mask and fresh socks.
Sleep strategically. Align your sleep with the destination time rather than your departure time. Fish, the sleep coach, believes that unless you’re on a red-eye, you should avoid sleeping for longer than a 30-minute power nap. “The goal is to adjust your body to the new time zone as quickly as possible,” he says. “It may be a shock that first day, but it will be must easier for your body to adjust.”
ONCE YOU ARRIVE
Avoid long naps. If you arrive early in a new time zone, try to stay up — and don’t nap for longer than two hours, the National Sleep Foundation suggests. Adhere to the schedule of your destination: Eat when people are eating and sleep when they’re sleeping, says Fish.
Go outside. Sunlight helps your body clock adjust to a new time zone. Spend time outside in the morning if you traveled east or in the afternoon if you traveled west. “I do everything possible to get my face in the sunshine as soon as possible after I land,” says Crow, who also takes B12 the first few mornings for energy.
Take some melatonin. Travel writer Tim Leffel follows a simple formula when he arrives at a destination: “Get on local time ASAP, sun on skin during the day, melatonin at night.” It you take melatonin, do it about 30 minutes before you go to bed (and check with your doctor first). As little as a 0.5 mg dose can ease jet-lag symptoms, one study found.
Try a jet-lag calculator. JetLagRooster.com is a free site where you enter your travel data and receive an hour-by-hour plan for sleeping and seeking sunshine (and avoiding it). Lumie.com and British Airways also offer calculators.