Coping With Jet Lag and Sleepiness

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For frequent fliers and international travelers, the symptoms of bedtime earlier,” says Avelino Verceles, MD, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the school’s sleep medicine fellowship. “Shift it a half-hour earlier each night for several nights before you leave.”

If you’re traveling west, do the opposite. You can also try moving your mealtimes closer to the time you’ll be taking them at your destination.

2. Adapt to your new schedule while in flight.

Change your watch when you get on the plane.“This is mostly psychological,” says Siebern, “but it helps you get into the mind-set of what you’ll be doing in the place where you’re going.”

Try to sleep on the plane if it’s nighttime where you’re going or stay awake if it’s daytime — but don’t force it. “It can be difficult to force yourself to sleep and that can cause frustration, which can then prevent sleep,” says Siebern. “If that happens, just try to rest as much as possible.”

3. Arrive early.

If you need to be on top of your game for an event at your destination, try to arrive a few days early, so your mind and body can adjust.

4. Stay hydrated.

Drink water before, during, and after your flight to counteract bedtime at your destination, and plan to sleep for 10 hours. “This takes into account the one or two hours needed to absorb the melatonin and allow it to enter the bloodstream, as well as 10 hours for sleep,” Verceles says. “Ten hours may be a generous overestimate, but it’s better to allow more sleep time than less.”

Melatonin appears to be safe if taken short term, but its long-term effects are not known. If you want to try melatonin, check with your doctor first.

7. Try natural light therapy.

Exposure to sunlight helps regulate our circadian rhythms. ”On westward flights, get bright morning light at your new destination, and avoid afternoon and evening light exposure,” Verceles suggests. “On eastward flights, avoid early light exposure in morning and get as much light as possible in the afternoon and early evening. The light helps shift your body’s circadian clock, so that you feel rested and wake at appropriate times at your destination.”

Commercially available light boxes may also be helpful in coping with jet lag if used at appropriate times, but Siebern advises consulting with a sleep specialist first. “You want to make sure the light isn’t too intense or shifting your circadian clock in the wrong direction because this can increase the duration of jet lag,” she says. “And light boxes are not advised for some people, such as those with cataracts or bipolar disorder.”

8. Eat sensibly.

Some frequent fliers swear by jet lag diets — such as eating a heavy diet for a few days before travel and eye mask or earplugs may help you sleep on the plane and at your destination. Try to eliminate distractions in your room at bedtime, such as light shining in through a window.

11. Consider medication.

It’s usually not necessary to get treatment for jet lag, but if these strategies don’t work for you, your doctor may prescribe or suggest to take temporarily to help you sleep or stay alert when necessary.

Advice for Frequent Fliers

If you fly frequently and jet lag is a problem, consider seeing a sleep specialist — a physician or psychologist who has specialized training in sleep medicine. “There are a number of ways that sleep specialists can help with shifting your body’s circadian rhythm toward your new time zone, such as with light therapy, melatonin, or prescription medication that can help with jet lag symptoms,” Siebern says.