It's dark outside. You've been tossing and turning all night, trying to fall back asleep. You roll over, blinking away the dryness of your eyes. Pick up your phone and check the time—it's 3 am. Ugh. You shouldn't be awake right now but you know why you are: you flew across 6 time zones yesterday and your body can't tell if it should be awake or asleep. Your brain start to buzz as thoughts pick up speed and you pull your phone closer to your face to check your email. It's going to be a long day.
As any seasoned veteran of air travel knows (or anyone who's flown from New York to California), jet lag sucks. Flight fatigue, the tiredness and potential insomnia one gets from crossing time zones can cause headaches, dizziness, dehydration, difficulty concentrating and daytime drowsiness. Experts say for every time zone crossed, you'll need one to two days of recovery. For example, flying London to Los Angeles, means you'll need at least 10 days to feel better. But the real indicator of how much time you'll need to recovery depends on your internal body clock. Quick science lesson: the body clock's sleep-wake times are moderated by melatonin (the hormone that makes us feel sleepy) production in the brain. When it's dark, melatonin is released, making us sleepy. When the sun rises, melatonin secretion is stopped, and the brain wakes up.
Long story short, the sooner you get your body back in a rhythm of when to sleep and when to wake, the shorter your jet lag recovery time will be. Here's how to trick your body clock into getting back on schedule when you’re facing the thought of extreme jet lag.
Lay Off The Caffeine
A cup of coffee a day keeps the fatigue at bay, right? When it comes to jet lag, not exactly. While caffeine is a reliable energy boost, it's guaranteed to interrupt the new sleep cycle you're to reset to while in the air, not allowing you to fall asleep or wake when you want to. Caffeine is a mild diuretic too, which can cause dehydration on an already dry plane ride (see below for why dehydration is so bad). For extreme jet lag, give yourself a day or two after landing before picking up the coffee habit again. Tried and tested by yours truly—giving your body a day or two to rest and wake naturally without caffeine's influence will get your internal clock back on track faster.
Fill Up On Water
Airplanes are notorious notorious for stale dry air that circulates through the plane, allowing bacteria to linger and wreak havoc on your skin. While drinking water won't directly help you sleep better, it has a number of benefits. Staying hydrated boosts overall health, making it easier to fight off those pesky plane germs. It combats bloating and puffiness caused by salty airplane foods. Most of all, dehydration can cause headaches, a symptom of jet lag. Drink loads of water before and during your flight. Pack a large empty water bottle that can be filled after going through airport security.
Have Flight Essentials Ready
There are the people who pack carry-on only with no extra items and then there are the people who fly comfortably. If you're crossing 3 timezones or more, bring the necessary essentials to make yourself the most comfortable and assist in tricking your body into your new time zone. My favorites are an eye mask, earplugs and neck pillow. Shut out deafening engine noise and lights around you to get the most comfortable sleep next to a hotel bed. (Don't have these? In a pinch a scarf can double as a neck pillow or eye mask and stuff pieces of tissue in your ears as earplugs).
Shift Your Body Clock Immediately
As soon as the plane takes off, shift your internal clock to the time at the next destination. Once you've figured out the local time, decide when to sleep and when to be awake so that you can fall in rhythm immediately. If it's currently daytime there, stay awake. If it's night time, go to sleep. Sleep aids work perfectly to help you knock out and stay that way (just make sure you have at least 8 hours to dedicate to sleep). For the natural route, melatonin supplements are a natural brain soother. Though my personal experience with them is limited, many travelers rely on these to reset their body clock when they just can't sleep on their own.
Say No To (Long) Naps
So, you crossed oceans and mountains and country lines to get to your destination and now all you want is a nap. Try not to give in. Your body clock is still synced with your previous location and will cue you to fall asleep. This may include feelings like headaches, drowsiness, fatigue, dizziness or nausea. To trick your body clock, fight through until bedtime. Staying awake during the day will allow you to crash at night, getting a full night's rest to wake up the next day. If truly necessary, take an hour long nap, but resting in a quiet space or a cool compress over your eyes can also help evade daytime jet lag symptoms.
Stick To Sleep And Wake Times
Stick to sleep and wake times in your new destination as much as possible. In the mornings, do as much as you can to set yourself up for an energized, productive day. Do a light workout and eat a balanced breakfast. Start your bedtime routine when it’s bedtime and set an alarm. Try to limit screen time after you've hit the sheets. Keep waking in the middle of the morning? Don’t reach for your phone or any other screen. Read a book, listen to a guided meditation or drink a cup of warm milk to go back to bed.
Be Patient With Yourself
Having patience with your body is the most important thing. If you're facing symptoms of jet lag like insomnia or headaches, don't beat yourself up about it. Your body is doing what it was built to do—follow a rhythm. Give yourself time to work through the change and try not to stress over a lack of sleep. We are after all, only human.
Leah Shaw is an AfroLatina writer who reads adventure novels, drinks good coffee and plays rugby in her spare time. She has been reporting, writing and editing since 2014 and loves travel because it gives her the opportunity to do one thing a day that scares her. She makes it a point to wake up for at least one sunrise and sunset in every country she visits. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn.