If you’ve ever travelled more than a few timezones in a few hours, you’ll know that jet lag is terrible.
Waking up in the middle of the night and feeling sleepy and hungry at the wrong times can be all sorts of annoying when all you want to do is explore a new city, or have to be on top form during a work trip.
It happens because your body’s internal clock gets all out of sync.
Every cell in your body has its own circadian clock, and they’re all regulated by a central one called the suprachiasmatic nucleus in the hypothalamus region of your brain. When you skip time zones, it sends these little clocks out of whack.
The good news is external signals help regulate your internal clock, and you can use that to your advantage.
Your hypothalamus judges what time it is by the signals your body sends it, which is mostly based on light, but also when you eat.
Here are some things you can do to help your body adjust and get over jet lag as quickly as possible.
1. Start to shift your body clock before you go anywhere.
Professor Richard Wiseman, author of Night School (Macmillan, 2014), recommends making use of the days before you travel.
There’s some evidence that starting to get up earlier in the few days before traveling east can alleviate some of the horrible fuzziness jet lag brings. A study of 28 people in the Journal of Biological Rhythms found that bringing sleep forward an hour a day for three days and exposing participants to bright light in the morning meant they could advance their sleep pattern without losing out on alertness.
If you’re going west instead of east, you need to delay your sleep pattern, to try sleeping in an hour later per day for the three days before you travel.
2. Adjust your watch as soon as you get on the plane.
And try to do whatever you would at that time. “If it is time to sleep, get your head down. If it is dinner time, eat something,” writes Wiseman.
3. If you need to sleep on the plane, avoid sitting on the sunny side.
It’s going to be hard to convince yourself to sleep if you have bright daylight streaming in through the window next to you. You can use the website Sun Flight to check where the sun will be during your flight to book the best seat.
4. Know whether to seek out or avoid light when you get to your destination.
As a general rule, if you’ve travelled east you’ll need to avoid morning light but make the most of it in the afternoon, says Wiseman. If you’ve travelled west, try to expose yourself to light throughout the day.
If you want to get really detailed, the University of Michigan has created an app called Entrain that can take your normal sleep schedule and travel schedule and tell you exactly when you seek out bright light and when to avoid it.
5. Use sunglasses to control your light exposure.
In a New York Times article, Steven Lockley from NASA’s fatigue management team, recommends wearing sunglasses during a flight if you need to sleep, and at the airport once you arrive if you need to.
For example, on an overnight flight from New York to London, Lockley says you should wear sunglasses for the entire flight and until 11am local time, to help yourself adjust. Don’t seek out bright light right away, because your body thinks it’s the middle of the night and you’ll just exhaust yourself.
6. If you really need to nap when you get there, make sure you time it right.
Between 1 to 2pm in your new timezone is the best time for this, Wiseman told BuzzFeed.
7. Melatonin supplements could help you control your sleeping patterns.
Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your body’s sleep and wake cycles. “Research suggests that daily doses of melatonin can help alleviate jet lag, and that short-term usage seems to have few negative side effects,” writes Wiseman. A Cochrane review of the evidence found that melatonin is “remarkably effective” at preventing or reducing jet lag.
Obviously, though, you should consult your doctor before taking any medication.
8. If your trip is short, it might not be worth trying to adjust at all.
“Adjusting to a new local time takes about half a day per time zone if you are flying east to west, and two-thirds of a day per time zone if you are flying west to east,” writes Wiseman.
If your trip is only a few days anyway, you’ll just be getting on local time as you leave to go back home – and have to do it all over again.