How to Get Better Sleep When Switching Time Zones

For all the many trials and tribulations that come with travel, jet lag is most definitely one of the worst.

Getting over jet lag as quickly as possible should be right near top of your priorities list when you arrive in a new country.

It can be hard just to function when your sleep schedule is messing up – and whether you’re flying for business or for pleasure, travelers always want to be at the top of their game.

Here are some of our top tips for overcoming jet lag.

Image: an exhausted businessman is slumped over his luggage at an airportWhat Causes Jet Lag?

To begin, we’ll want to take a quick crash course on the biology behind jet lag.

You might think that most of your troubles come from simple lack of sleep, either on the plane or the night before you get to the airport.

While this is certainly a major factor in your newly messed-up schedule, a far bigger concern has to do with your circadian rhythms – the roughly once-daily hormonal cycles that impact many different aspects of our lives, including our sleep.

These get thrown completely out of sync when you travel to a new place.

In addition to feeling tired around the time you’d normally be heading to bed back home, you’ll also probably find yourself getting hungry around your normal mealtimes, even if you’re getting enough to eat.

These symptoms – as well as a thousand other minor issues you might or might not notice – result from your brain’s master clock being really, really confused.

As a general rule, recovering from jet lag takes about one to two days per time zone crossed.

And the better you are at handling yourself during those few days, the easier your recovery is going to be!

Prep in Advance

One of the most effective ways to start tackling jet lag actually starts before you even get on the plane.

In the days before travel, start adjusting your bedtime, wakeup time, and mealtimes to a schedule that will be more similar to the ones you’ll have in the time zone you’re travelling to.

Obviously, it’s usually not going to be entirely possible for you to do this if you’re traveling from, say, New York to Shanghai, but do the best you can starting about a week before departure.

You might also want to spend your prep time getting together things that will help you keep comfortable and well-rested on the plane – things like earplugs, sleep masks, and neck pillows.

Stick to Local Time

That said, though, you’ll want to be strategic about the times you’re going to sleep, both when you arrive in your country and in transit.

Remember that your number one goal is to adjust to the local time.

Even when you’re on the plane, try not to go to sleep until after dark in the country you’re flying to, and likewise try to get up no later than the locals likely are.

Once you’ve arrived at your destination, meanwhile, you’ll adjust fastest if you can stay up and wake up at a reasonable time for the country you’re staying in.

This is often easiest if you’re going to social events, since the energy in the room can keep you awake much more easily than if you’re just hanging out in your hotel room by yourself.

Image: a man is asleep in a hammock on the beach, hat tipped over his faceStrategize Your Napping

Now, if you’re trying to make up for lost sleep, it can sometimes be OK to take a few brief naps every now and then.

Sleep expert Charles Czeisler told the New York Times that taking a nap for about 30 minutes to an hour in the middle of the day can help you find the energy you need to power through the afternoon while still being able to sleep at night.

One possible problem with napping for that length of time, however, is that it can make it harder for you to wake back up after your alarm goes off.

After half an hour asleep, your brain starts transitioning into the deeper stages of sleep, where your most vivid dreams take place.

This is the part of the sleep cycle it’s hardest to wake someone up from – and when you do wake up, you’ll likely feel groggy and out of sorts for a decent amount of time.

If you really feel the need to catch up on a lot of sleep in the middle of the day, you’ll be best off sleeping for about 90 minutes, which is the length of time it takes your brain to go through a full REM cycle.

Otherwise, you might be best off taking multiple, smaller naps of about 10 to 20 minutes apiece.

Take Melatonin Pills

Another good way to adjust your body’s internal clock is with melatonin pills. 

Melatonin is one of the most important hormones when it comes to the regulation of your body’s sleep/wake cycle.

Thankfully, a major player in melatonin production is actually the amount of ambient light in your environment at any given time.

Darkness spurs melatonin secretion, while bright lights delay it.

Although our brain’s circadian rhythms are influenced by our environments, however, they also act based purely on routine.

In older adults in particular, the sleep/wake cycle is resistant to change, and will likely need a little help.

Thankfully, melatonin pills are extremely inexpensive and can be found in the “nutritional supplements” section of pretty much any pharmacy.

Take one of these up to 30 minutes before going to bed.

Melatonin induces tiredness and has not been found it result in any negative side effects, even with long-term use.

Be advised, though – if you take a melatonin pill and start feeling tired, but you still can’t get to sleep, do not take another one in an effort to get some kind of “stacking” effect.

The amount of melatonin in the typical store bought pill is actually slightly higher than the recommended dosage anyway.

While this doesn’t make a difference most of the time, taking more melatonin than that one tablet won’t help.

At best it will do nothing, and at worst it might actually make it harder to get to sleep.

Image: martini glasses with shakerAvoid Alcohol, Especially on Planes

Many people might also feel tempted to drink alcohol in order to induce faster sleep.

Although alcohol might make you feel more tired in the moment, however, there are a couple reasons why this isn’t recommended when you’re traveling.

First of all, if you’re taking alcohol as a sleep aid while in the air, you run a serious risk of dehydration.

Most people aren’t drinking enough water while they’re in an airplane anyway, and alcohol only exacerbates those issues.

This can, in turn, lead to trouble sleeping.

Additionally, alcohol isn’t really that great for sleep in general.

It actually messes up the whole sleep/wake cycle we’ve been talking about.

By artificially inducing tiredness, it confuses your circadian rhythm – so once the initial sedative effects of the alcohol have worn off, you might find yourself waking up earlier than you wanted and not being able to get back to sleep.

Alternatively, some may find themselves woken periodically throughout the wee hours.

Alcohol also reduces the amount of deep sleep you’re getting, so even if you can manage to sleep for a decent amount of time, there’s a good chance you’ll still end up groggy.

All we’re saying is, think twice before you reach for that martini glass.

Your body might thank you come morning!

Be Careful With Caffeine

Finally, if you’re having trouble staying awake throughout the day, it can be tempting to run for your coffee as soon as the plane touches down.

However, while it’s true that caffeine can be a great help in the mornings when you’re trying to ward off jet lag, you might want to think twice before grabbing a cup of joe in the afternoon.

Caffeine remains in your system for a pretty surprising amount of time.

Its half-life is around six hours, according to most experts – meaning that if you drink 100mg of coffee at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, 50 of those milligrams will still be in your bloodstream at 8 o’clock at night!

Because of this, it pays to be fairly deliberate in your caffeine use, particularly when you’re adjusting to a different time zone.

Keep in mind that caffeine is more than than just coffee and tea, too.

It’s also in many sodas, in most kinds of chocolate, and even in the decaf versions of many drinks.

Conclusion

Jet lag is always an unwelcome hitchhiker, and depending on who you are and where you’re travelling, it can take a substantial amount of time to finish shaking off.

However, with the help of these tricks, you should be able to cut down on the number of days that takes you.

The most important thing is simply being conscious of the decisions you make that could have an impact on your sleep.

This is important no matter where you are, but doubly so when you’re in a foreign country.

So, with all that said…

Good luck, bon voyage, and pleasant dreams!