With a stronger dollar in recent years, more Americans have been traveling to Europe and Asia. While that can open up new worlds and experiences, the downside can be jet lag that can create discomfort the first couple of days at the destination.
David Earnest, PhD, a professor with the Texas A&M College of Medicine, is a sleep specialist who has studied jet lag extensively. He says jet lag will vary depending on the traveler's lifestyle, but there are things you can do to make it less severe.
First, he says travelers should understand that the number of time zones crossed and the direction of the flight will make a big difference. Traveling east to west isn't as difficult on the body as traveling west to east.
“You will always be hit harder by jet lag when making a four- to six-hour time jump eastbound,” Earnest said. “This is because our body clocks are trying to advance to an earlier time, which is not as easy as adjusting to a later time gap.”
Body hack your jet lag
Fortunately, Earnest says there are a few ways to “body-hack” your jet lag before your plane takes off.
The time of the flight can be important. Taking a red-eye, departing late at night local time, might be a good idea, if in fact you are able to sleep on the plane. Not everyone can, however.
Earnest strongly advises against taking a sleeping pill before boarding a red-eye. Prescription medications will still be in your bloodstream even after you arrive, leaving you with a hangover. Better, he says, to take an over-the-counter melatonin tablet because it stays in the bloodstream only half the time.
Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Wait until you arrive at your destination before drinking caffeine, which can help you stay awake.
Get on the new time before you leave
Earnest says it is also helpful to alter your schedule a few days before your departure, to more closely match the time zone to which you are headed. You can do this by adjusting sleep and meal times about an hour each day at least four or five days before travel, until you're functioning in the new time zone.
“This is often hard for us to do, and is inconvenient because it means going to bed hours earlier than normal,” Earnest said.
An easier way to head off jet lag, he says, is by starting a melatonin therapy a few days before departure. The hormone circulates in high levels during nighttime hours and it is what sends the signal to our bodies to go to sleep. Earnest says it can be used to prevent many of jet lag's worst effects, but travelers should consult with their doctor before taking any supplement.
By taking an over-the-counter melatonin supplement five days before departure at the local time that coincides with your destination’s nighttime. It will probably make you sleepy during the day, but Earnest says it's the best way to overcome severe jet lag and accelerate your adjustment to the new time zone.