Advice from the sleep experts: 5 tips to beat jet lag
After 11 years of flying the Canadian skies with WestJet, flight attendant Laurie Evans has learned a few tricks for beating fatigue. For one: never miss out on sleep, even after a 14-hour day jetting from Calgary to St. John’s. (Shutterstock.com/In Tune)
Published Thursday, July 23, 2015 6:30AM EDT
After 11 years of flying the Canadian skies with WestJet, flight attendant Laurie Evans has learned a few tricks for beating fatigue. For one: never miss out on sleep, even after a 14-hour day jetting from Calgary to St. John’s.
“Stress is the hardest thing after a long day. It can be really hard to unwind quickly especially when there’s the worry you’re going to miss your wake-up call,” she said in a phone interview.
With sometimes only 10 hours of rest between flights, Evans knows she needs to use most of that time sleeping. So, like so many other flight attendants, she takes melatonin supplements to help her drift off more easily.
She also makes a point of not changing her watch to Newfoundland time, sticking instead with her Calgary schedule so her body won’t get confused.
Both tricks are good approaches, say sleep experts who have studied jet lag, which occurs when we cross time zones and our internal clocks fall out of sync with the rising and setting of the sun. The resulting groggy, can’t-get-rested feeling can ruin the first few days of a vacation or business trip, leaving us awake at all hours of the night and exhausted during the day.
So what can be done to prevent it? It seems there is no single method, and not everything works for all people. But here’s what researchers have learned so far about how to beat the lag and re-sync your internal clock to get some sleep.
1. Begin the time shift before you leave
Professors Charmane Eastman and Helen Burgess, who research biological rhythms at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, have been studying jet lag for years. They have found that the trick to avoiding -- or at least minimizing -- jet lag is to start making the time shift before your flight takes off. That way, the worst of it will be over before you even leave.
In a paper the pair authored, entitled simply “How To Travel the World Without Jet lag,” they recommend travellers begin adjusting their bedtime as many as three nights ahead of their flight.
Travelling eastward is harder than going west because it means having to adjust to an earlier bedtime. So they recommend heading to bed one hour earlier each night before leaving and continuing the transition upon arrival.
They also strongly suggest becoming acclimated to the local time with a period of bright light exposure in the morning to trick your body into thinking this is the new wake time. Because so much of our circadian rhythm is governed by sunlight, the research has found that intense light exposure is the most powerful way to advance or delay your circadian rhythms.
Travelling westward means a later bedtime, so they recommend staying up an hour and a half later each night for a few nights, until you shift into the new bedtime.
Finally, the pair recommends melatonin supplements. More on that in a moment.
2. Consider an app
A couple of years ago, Jay Olson, a psychiatry graduate student at McGill University, became interested in jet lag after a lousy trip to Greece was ruined by his inability to adjust to the time change. He read up on Eastman’s research and decided to create a free app and website to incorporate it, calling it JetLagRooster.com.
Just plug in your flight dates and normal sleep times and the Jet Lag Rooster will create a sleep-wake schedule for you, as well as suggest when to seek light to help you make the transition to your new time zone the way that researchers suggest.
Another app called Entrain is similar but puts most of the focus on light exposure. Plug in your travel schedule and your current light exposure schedule, and the app will calculate how much extra light exposure you need to push through the transition.
3. For short trips, stay in your home time
The general consensus among jet lag researchers is that it takes a day to fully adjust to each time zone you cross. So a seven-hour flight to Europe could take you up to a week to fully adjust to.
But for trips of just three days or less, trying to switch times may not be worth it. The smarter approach to take is what Evans and many other flight attendants do: Do not change your watch. Try to stick to your regular eating and sleeping schedule as much as possible, even if it means eating supper long after everyone else has gone to bed.
4. Consider taking melatonin
Many travellers swear by melatonin supplements to help them relax, especially if it’s nighttime when they arrive and their bodies are not yet ready for sleep.
A 2009 Cochrane review of the hormone for jet lag found it “remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jet lag” and noted that occasional short-term use “appears to be safe.”
But the review also noted that people with epilepsy or those who use warfarin as a blood thinner should avoid the hormone. As well, some people report feeling groggy after taking melatonin; others have vivid dreams; others find it doesn’t work for them at all. So it’s important to try a small dose at first and see how you tolerate it.
5. Try fasting
Who would have thought that eating could affect jet lag, but some research suggests our internal “hunger clock” might even be an even stronger influence than light.
U.S. government scientists came up with a diet in the 1980s called the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag Diet. It involves alternating a fasting day with a feast day for four days before the flight. Then the final fast is broken by eating a big breakfast at about 7:30 a.m. in the new time zone. The idea is that the alternating fasting disrupts the body’s biological clock, while the big breakfast re-anchors the clock in the new time zone.
One 2002 study in the journal Military Medicine found that National Guard members who used the diet were seven times less likely to experience jet lag when travelling west, and 16 times less likely when travelling east.
An easier, modified version of the diet involves simply not eating for 16 hours or so during the day of travel and then having a big breakfast in the new time zone.