Frequent travelers, it’s time to conquer our worst enemy: jet lag.
While there’s no easy way to completely beat jet lag, there are several steps you can take to ease the pain of crossing multiple time zones quickly.
Travel wasn’t always this difficult on our internal clocks. But each technological advancement in transportation also brought changes to our time management. When long-distance railroads took off, matching timetables with local times became a challenge. So in 1883, we created standardized time zones.
The advent of the jet age in 1958 brought a new problem. We suddenly could traverse several time zones faster than our bodies could adjust. Eight years later, the term “jet lag” appeared in the Los Angeles Times (the earliest recorded mention, according to Air & Space magazine).
The term caught on, of course. And, as we know, jet lag is particularly bad when flying east.
“The hardest trip for me is coming back from Asia or Australia,” says Captain John M. Cox, who spent 25 years flying for US Airways and is now CEO of Safety Operating Systems. “It’s not that I can’t sleep. It’s that I keep waking up at two in the morning.”
I’ve had several sleepless nights of my own after coming back to New York from Asia. At least I was in my own bed. During a trip to Abu Dhabi, I found myself wide awake in the middle of the night, staring out my hotel window at the construction cranes and the desert beyond. The only advantage of being up so early was that I was able to easily call home without waking anybody.
Even domestically, jet lag can be an issue. I once traveled for a story that had me on nine domestic flights over five days. When planning out the trip, I didn’t think much about my body’s internal clock and made the mistake of hopping back and forth across time zones every day.
Every time I suffer from bad jet lag, I think back to the 1988 movie Die Hard, featuring Bruce Willis as a New York cop named John McClane. During a flight, McClane was given a tip: to combat jet lag, take off your shoes and make fists with your toes. It was a plotline designed to get the action hero barefoot. But out of habit or superstition, I still try it after every really long flight. It’s never worked, but it feels really nice if the hotel has a plush rug.
There are several things, however, that do help. Below are some of my favorites.
Dry and pressurized airplane cabins can quickly dehydrate you, making you feel extremely sleepy. Drinking water throughout the trip helps ease that process. It doesn’t stop jet lag but it helps make sure dehydration doesn’t compound your fatigue.
Shift your time for long trips.
A few days before I leave, I start to shift my sleep schedule one hour each day. Try to also move your mealtimes. That might mean a super-early trip to the gym in the morning and going to bed before my favorite TV shows are over. But it pays off when I arrive and also makes it easier to sleep on those red-eye flights to Europe. If I’m lucky, I can adjust my sleep a bit at the end of the trip. “As soon as I get on the airplane,” Cox notes, “I get on destination time.” It’s good advice. Switch your watch after takeoff.
If you can sleep on the plane—even for a few hours—it makes a big difference. Earplugs and an eye mask will help. When taking a red-eye to Europe, having breakfast immediately after waking up on the plane or once you get into the airport—even if not hungry— will definitely help adjust your body to the idea that yes, it is now morning, even if your friends and family back home are sound asleep.
Again, the issue here is dehydration on long overseas flights. I can’t blame you for having a glass of red wine to help fall asleep—been there, done that—but don’t have too much or you’ll have a nasty headache and never properly adjust to the new time zone. (That’s happened to me, and I don’t recommend it.)
Try to stay awake until your bedtime in your new time zone. It may be painful, but it really is necessary to make the rest of your trip enjoyable and productive. Go for a walk outside. The fresh air and sunshine make it much easier to stay awake than if you’re stuck inside. If sightseeing, take a walking tour. If in town for work, find some time to do a bit of walking—maybe have your driver drop you off a mile short of your meeting site. If that isn’t practical—and often it isn’t—do a lap or two around the block before heading in to your meeting.
It helps your body feel more normal and not as confined on a plane. This doesn’t combat jet lag per se, but it does reduce some of the scars of travel.
Pills and juices.
I have friends who have tried homeopathic pills and one who swears by carrot juice. I personally don’t like to throw off my diet with unknowns while hopping around the globe, but I’m not going to rule out any of those tricks.
Don’t shift time for short trips.
This tip is only for trips less than 48 hours. If you’re jetting off to Europe for a single meeting and then racing back home, it pays to stay on your home time zone.