An erratic sleep schedule isn’t just annoying; it’s also unhealthy. Few things can mix up your sleep schedule faster than a jet trip to a new time zone.
We talked to the director of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Center, Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, to get an expert’s view on jet lag and what you can do to overcome it.
Dr. Gamaldo notes that the human body maintains a natural period when it’s inclined to sleep, called the circadian window. This window usually falls between 11 PM and 7 AM. Any long trip, especially one that crosses more than two time zones, can upset your circadian window and disrupt your regular sleep cycle.
Here are the most effective steps you can take to reduce the impact of jet lag:
1) Use The Two Day Rule
If your whole trip is only going to last two days, don’t bother trying to align your internal clock with local time. Dr. Gamaldo notes that it will take you about two days to fully adjust to a new time zone, so trying to shift your circadian window for a short trip will just make it harder to resume your home sleep schedule when you return. She suggests scheduling as many of your activities during your home waking hours as possible on short trips.
2) Shift Your Window Before Traveling
You can prepare yourself for the time shift before your trip. Take three nights before your flight to change your bedtime. Make sure you have a comfortable bedroom conducive to sleep and clutter free, find the best furniture stores for a perfect relaxing space. Move it up or back as required to match your destination. Shift your bedtime one hour on the first night, two on the second, and three on the third.
3) Get Into The Local Rhythm
Be ready to get into the local schedule as soon as you get off the plane. Dr. Gamaldo says that if you’re landing in daylight, you want to be awake like the locals. Get as much sleep as you can on your flight. If you’re landing at night, do the opposite: Stay awake on the plane and sleep when you arrive.
4) Manage Your Sunlight Exposure
Dr. Gamaldo suggests donning a pair of sunglasses if you arrive early in the morning. Daylight is a key trigger for your circadian cycle; your body expects to encounter sunlight in the hours it considers afternoon and late morning. When you travel to the west, Gamaldo advises you to get outdoors before sunset to further align your sleep rhythm with the local hours.
5) Kick-Start Your Local Morning
The best way to convince your body that morning has arrived is to heat it up, get it moving, and get outside. Dr. Gamaldo recommends a warm shower to raise your body temperature and signal to your body that it’s time to get active.
6) Consider Using Melatonin
Melatonin is a naturally-occurring hormone that helps regulate your sleep cycle. Your body begins releasing extra melatonin about two hours before it’s ready to sleep. To encourage an earlier bedtime when you’re traveling, you can use supplemental melatonin to encourage drowsiness. Melatonin supplements are available without a prescription, usually in dosages of no more than 10 milligrams.
Gamaldo warns against thinking of melatonin as a cure-all for jet lag and other sleep problems, though. She notes that all of the research indicates that daylight exposure is more effective at bringing your body’s clock in line with the local schedule.