How to Beat Jet Lag

by Alan Hativa **

Somewhere over the Atlantic Ocean, I sat in the middle seat eating my airline peanuts and contemplating how jet lag would impact my 7-year-old son and me once we got home from our trip overseas. When I was younger, it seemed so easy: I just went to sleep at my normal bedtime hour at my destination. But now that I’m older, my body takes more days to get adjusted. My son doesn’t usually have trouble sleeping either, but it took a few weeks for him to get back to his usual sleeping routine.

“Our bodies are biologically set by the sun upon awakening every 24 hours. People’s natural tendencies may adjust slightly dependent upon being an early bird riser or night owl” says William DePaso, MD, a sleep medicine specialist at Virginia Mason.

Dr. DePaso says during the day we accumulate “sleep debt.” Every minute we are awake, we accumulate the need for sleep, and it’s not a 1:1 ratio. Your sleep clock is competing with your wake clock. OK, that makes sense — I get more tired the longer I am awake, however, why did it take my body longer to adjust when I travel?

Jet lag is a sudden shift between your normal sleep/wake cycles, and your sleep/wake clock takes time to shift back to alignment. According to Dr. DePaso, it takes about one to three hours per day to shift into your new time zone.

Planning Ahead

Knowing and following your sleep/wake pattern will make it easier to adjust to the new time zone when you take into account if you are an early bird or night owl. Travel direction also has some impact on whether or not you feel jet-lagged. It is recommended you try going to bed earlier a few nights before leaving if you’re traveling east, but if you’re traveling west, try going to bed later for a couple of nights. Generally speaking, traveling west is easier because your day just gets longer, while traveling east your day gets shorter. It’s biologically easier to stay up later than fall asleep earlier. (Just try telling your kids to go to sleep three hours prior to their bedtime and see what happens!)

You can also prepare your body for the change in time zones. Every week, push your schedule one hour back or forward, depending on where you’re going. The more time zones you’re flying across, the earlier you’ll need to start. This will give your body a chance to gradually adjust to your new time zone.

If the time difference is several hours, it may prove inconvenient to spend your final week before leaving three or more hours ahead or behind everyone else. Alternatively, you can shift your eating and sleeping schedule by an hour a day.

In Flight

Image courtesy of Daniel Goodwin

Image courtesy of Daniel Goodwin

Sleeping on the plane is good if you can manage it. Taking a sleeping pill may help with this. But, avoid alcohol because it will mess up your sleep cycle. (And don’t mix sleeping pills with alcohol!) Finally, make sure you drink plenty of fluids as everyone tends to get dehydrated on flights.

Acclimating to the New Time Zone

Getting light at your destination is one of the key factors in adjusting to the new time zone.

“It’s important to get natural or artificial light at the correct time of day at your destination, anything that interferes with that will delay getting adjusted,” says Dr. DePaso.

So try to refrain from sleeping in. Other things to keep in mind:

  • It takes about one to three hours per day to shift into your new time zone.
  • For short time zone shifts and traveling for a few days, try to stay in your usual time zone routine, if you flew from Seattle to New York and you normally sleep at 10 p.m. Pacific time, then try going to sleep at 1 a.m. Eastern time
  • If traveling for more than a few days, it’s best to shift to the new time zone and get light at the appropriate time at your new time zone.
  • If traveling more than three time zones, make sure you get as much light as possible in the morning until noon at your destination.
  • It’s OK to take sleeping pills for one to two days
  • Caffeine works great.

What About Melatonin?

Melatonin is a naturally occurring compound found in humans, animals, microbes and plants. It is intimately involved in regulating the sleeping and waking cycles by chemically causing drowsiness and lowering the body temperature. Dr. DePaso recommends if you do take melatonin, take it 5 hours before bedtime since it shifts your wake cycle. If you give melatonin to your children, only use it for a few days.

Next Time?

Next time I fly I will pay more attention to my current sleep cycles and see how much sleep debt I have prior to flying. The key factor is understanding I need to get up early and get as much light in the morning at my destination until noon. I guess this means I will have to avoid sleeping in, and maybe I can finally beat jet lag.


When he is not enjoying overseas travel, Alan Hativa works as the web graphics and multimedia producer for the eHealth Team at Virginia Mason.

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