When you’re traveling, it can be challenging to adjust to a new sleep routine, especially when you’re changing time zones. Jet lag is caused by an imbalance in the body’s natural clock from traveling to different time zones. Our bodies function on a 24-hour cycle called a circadian rhythm. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), these rhythms are measured by the rise and fall of body temperature, plasma levels of certain hormones and other biological conditions. Each of these factors is influenced by exposure to sunlight and help determine when a person wakes and sleeps.
When you travel to a new time zone, your circadian rhythms can remain on your original biological schedule and take time to adjust. The body typically takes several days to adjust to a new time zone. As a result, you may feel like you want to go to bed in the middle of the afternoon or may be wide awake in the middle of the night.
Typically, when traveling to a new time zone, “losing” time is more difficult to adjust to than “gaining” time. It can take about one day to adjust for each hour of a time change. For example, if you are traveling across two time zones (i.e., PT to CT or ET to MT), it may take up to two days to adjust to the new time zone.
Everyone has different sleep needs. The general recommendation for adults is to get between seven and nine hours per night. Try your best to sleep soundly while you are traveling so you can make the most of your trip, whether you’re traveling for business or leisure.
Before Your Trip
Here are several ways you can prepare for your trip:
- Adjust your schedule ahead of time. If you can, gradually shift your sleeping and eating times to match those at your destination several days before your departure. Once you arrive, embrace the local time (such as eating lunch at noon or going to bed at 10 p.m.) and synchronize your daily routine the best you can.
- Get an overnight flight. If you are flying to an international destination, try to get an overnight flight because it is easier for the body to adjust. Depending on how many times zones you are traveling through and the duration of your flight, you’ll land in the morning or afternoon which may make it easier to mimic your normal routine and reset your internal clock.
- Cut out the coffee and tea. If you can, curb caffeine 12 hours before you travel, as well as during your flight if you are traveling by plane. Caffeine can throw off your natural sleep cycle and keep you awake longer. Caffeine can stay in your body for up to 14 hours after consumption.
- Limit alcohol consumption. The cabin air inside a plane can be dehydrating and altitude enhances the effects of alcohol. A glass of wine may sound relaxing, but it can dehydrate you further and potentially worsen the symptoms of jet lag. So, limit your alcohol intake and opt for water instead to stay hydrated, and keep your energy levels up so you’re ready to go once you reach your destination.
During Your Trip
- Avoid taking naps. Don’t hit the sack too early. While it may be tempting to nap, it might make it harder to fall asleep at a normal time in the evening and result in making you feel more tired. If you are exhausted and absolutely need to rest, limit yourself to 20 minutes. Try to schedule a nap between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. so it is least likely to affect your ability to fall asleep in the evening.
- Get outside. After arriving at your destination, spending time in the sunlight will help reset your internal clock and synchronize with your new environment.
- Maintain a bedtime routine. Create a routine so you are going to bed and waking up around the same time each day when you are traveling. Do everything you would normally do at home to get ready for sleep: stretch, wash your face, brush your teeth, put on your pajamas, etc.
- Do something relaxing. Try doing a relaxing activity before bed like reading, knitting or taking a bath. Keep your room cool, dim the lights, and make sure your bed is comfortable.
- Control the temperature. According to the NSF, temperatures above 75 F and below 54 F tend to disrupt sleep and this, of course, depends on the person. If you have the option to adjust the temperature in your room, consider doing so before you go to sleep.
- Stay away from distractions. Avoid electronic devices before bed. The blue light from electronics can throw off your body’s internal clock. Blue light signals our brains that it’s time to be alert rather than sleepy. If you must use your device before bed, turn your screen brightness down at night or put your device in reading (or evening) mode.
- Wake up at the same time. Set an alarm so you wake at the same time each day when you are in a new time zone because it will help your normal sleep routine get back on track.
- Exercise. Working up a sweat may help you get a better night’s sleep. If you’re going to do a late-night workout, a high-intensity workout may not be the best choice. Instead, try a stroll in a local park or a jog on the treadmill in your hotel gym; these are great late-evening options. If you’re stuck at the airport, go for a walk while you wait for your flight. Another option is to pack resistance bands for a hotel room workout.
- Be wary of alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol before you go to bed can induce certain symptoms that disrupt sleep, such as sweats, headaches and nightmares. If you do decide to drink, remember to have one glass of water for each glass of alcohol.
- Don’t consume tobacco. Aside from the plethora of negative effects tobacco has on the body, nicotine is a stimulant that can keep you awake. It is similar to caffeine in that it can take up to 14 hours to leave your body.
- Consider extras. If you really are having a difficulty sleeping, consider using ear plugs or an eye cover, listening to sleep-promoting music, or using aromatherapy, such as lavender essential oil.
The Bottom Line
Your sleep affects your overall health and wellbeing. The quality of sleep you get can make or break your day, especially when you’re traveling and/or in a different time zone. Sleep deprivation can compromise your safety, productivity and enjoyment of activities while you are traveling. Just as a healthy diet and exercise are part of living a healthy lifestyle and preventing disease, it is important to prioritize getting a good night’s rest whether you’re at home or halfway around the world.