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How to Avoid Jet Lag

A Personal Encounter with Jet Lag

Jet at gateThe first time I traveled to London I had no regard for jet lag. Sure, I had heard of it, but I was young and I didn’t really think that it would affect me. This was my first trip overseas and my friend in London with whom I was staying warned me not to sleep when I arrived early in the morning London time. Since I wasn’t prepared and I was totally exausted after the journey I did not heed his warning and I decided to take a “quick nap” which turned into several hours of deep sleep. I was very groggy when I woke up and I had lost most of my first day in England!

Since that first overseas trip I have tried a couple of ways to avoid jet lag, and I now have a system that works well for me and requires no drugs, just a little bit of planning.

What is Jet Lag?

To learn how to avoid or prevent jet lag it helps to know what it is. As early as the 1930’s when Wiley Post made his 8-day global flight in an airplane and noticed the effects of changing time zones on his performance, people have been studying the phenomenon. Basically, disrupting the circadian rhythm, or your body’s internal clock can cause fatigue. When you travel from East to West or West to East, you have to adjust to the time difference very quickly. Most researchers say that a change of three or more time zones will cause jet lag, but even people who don’t travel have probably noticed the feeling they get the week after changing to daylight savings time. Jet lag only happens when traveling East-West, not North-South where there is no change in time zones.

My System to Avoid Jet Lag

This system is for avoiding jet lag, and it is not a cure. If you arrived at your destination exhausted, the best advice I can give is the same that I got – don’t sleep when you should be awake at your new time zone.

  1. Figure out the difference between your local time and your destination’s time. For example Cleveland, OH to Vienna, Austria is a 6 hour difference.
  2. Determine when your flight arrives. For most flights West to East, you will most likely arrive in the morning which is good because a flight from the US is going to take 8-12 hours when you can pretend its bed time and sleep.
  3. Start adjusting your sleep schedule by going to bed and waking up a little earlier each day so that  you can time your sleep schedule on the day of your flight to match that of your destination time zone. Do this for anywhere between one to two weeks prior to your departure if possible to adjust your body slowly.
  4. Write your schedule out, or put it on your calendar.

Here is an example:

  • Depart Dulles International 5:50pm arrive in Vienna, Austria at 8:45am flight time of 8h55m
  • There is a 6 hour time difference between Washington and Vienna
  • Figure you want to wake up at 8am Vienna time, just before landing
  • 8 hours of sleep means that you would try to be asleep by 12am Vienna time, or 6pm EST
  • Therefore on the day you depart you want to wake up 16 hours prior or 2am EST.

Now lay out a schedule where you go to bed 30 minutes to 1 hour earlier each night and wake up 30 minutes to 1 hour earlier each morning until you are waking up at the correct time on the correct day. If you are supposed to sleep while you are on the plane skip the movie and turn out the lights.

Obviously, you may have to fudge the times a bit if it is going to conflict with work, but do the best you can to change your bed time and waking time. Just be sure to make a gradual change of no more than an hour each day. Also, if you are only vacationing for a week, you won’t be able to do much adjusting for the return trip, so I guess you’ll have to suffer through the adjustment when you get home.

Even if you are tired when you get there either because you didn’t sleep so well on the plane, or from the rigors of traveling, don’t fall asleep when you get to your destination. You don’t have to plan a full itinerary, but make the most of things by being a part of your new environment. Be on the schedule of the locals.

Why I’m not a fan of using drugs to fall asleep

First off, I’m not a doctor so I would never recommend drugs for anyone. If you think you want to try something to help you sleep, please consult a qualified doctor to help you. I have however heard lots of horror stories and witnessed several people who have taken pills given to them “by a friend” mixed with alcohol (mostly out of fear of flying) and it’s not a pretty site. You don’t want to be the girl drooling and passing out making the other passengers worry. Some people use prescription sleeping pills or even an antihistamine, but I’ve found that one beer in the airport before the flight works for me even though I have read that you shouldn’t drink alcohol. I am a fan of the podcast Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase where flight attendant Betty tells stories of things that she and other flight attendants see on the job. I have heard multiple stories of people taking a prescription sleeping aid and it makes them do some strange things, like wandering the plane naked and having no memory of doing so. I just don’t want to be “that guy”. There are also several diets out there that are supposed to help your body adapt, but I haven’t tried changing my eating habits for a flight yet. Maybe I will next time.

There is No Cure for Jet Lag

I have seen pills to help you recover, and lots of crazy ideas  to help you get over jet lag – even some $280 light-up glasses, but as far as I can tell the only thing that will help your body adapt is time. From my experience losing a day, the best advice I can give is the same that I did not heed my first overseas trip – Do whatever the locals are doing when you arrive. If they are starting their day, start your day. If they are going to bed, go to bed. This way you hit the ground running and make the most of your time, even if you are sipping a coffee (or a beer) and watching people you will be getting into the spirit of your journey.

Please share this with your friends on Facebook or your followers on Twitter if you think you know someone who could avoid jet lag.

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