Jet Lag: Get Back in the Rhythm

You finally made it to Paris, but instead of running up the Eiffel Tower, you’re passing out in your soufflé. Blame jet lag, when your body’s circadian rhythm — its expected sleep and wake times — is out of sync with your new location, leaving you with brain fog at midday or insomnia in the wee hours. Not everyone has the same body clock, of course, and no two trips are exactly the same, but there are some tricks that could help you get your zip back quicker.

Shift before you go

The time differential and the direction you are traveling each contribute to jet lag, said Jay Olson, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto Mississauga who has studied the phenomenon. Dr. Olson said that traveling westward, when you need to stay up and wake up later to match the new time zone, is easier for most people than traveling eastward, when you are expected to do the opposite.

For shorter trips, make a gradual one-hour shift per day for the number of time zones you’ll cross, said Dr. Vishesh Kapur, founder of the University of Washington Sleep Medicine Center.

For example, if you are flying from California to Massachusetts — crossing three time zones — try progressively going to bed and waking up an hour earlier each day for three days before the trip. It’s usually not necessary to shift your bedtime before traveling less than three time zones west, he said.

Harness the power of light

Bright light helps keep our internal clock in sync with the outside world, traveling through specialized cells in the retina and signaling the part of the brain that sets the body’s master schedule. So, for longer trips, seek out or avoid bright light at specific times, said Dr. Olson. Starting a few days before your trip, gradually shift the light and dark times of your origin toward that of your destination, using dark glasses, sunlight or other light sources.

In the first few days of your trip, figuring out the best times to get light can be tricky. Let’s say you take an overnight flight from New York to London, arriving at 7 a.m. Your brain may still feel as if it’s 2 a.m., and getting bright light right away could confuse your internal clock. In this case, you may want to put on dark glasses for a few hours, then go out in the sun when it is closer to your waking time at home, extending your London day.

On long trips to Asia — when day and night are reversed — it is often easier to shift your cycle backward, said Mickey Beyer-Clausen, chief executive of Timeshifter, which makes a jet lag app of the same name. For example, when flying nonstop from New York to Tokyo, which is 13 hours ahead, think of it as being 11 hours behind (jet lag does not consider the international date line). That means if you land at, say, 2 p.m. in Japan — 1 a.m. in New York — you need to counter the fact that your New York brain is winding down for sleep. This means seeking out bright light all afternoon, especially in the evening, until bedtime in Japan. You can also get a head start on adapting to Japanese time if you go to bed and seek out light later than normal for two nights before you leave New York.

Online tools like Jet Lag Rooster and Timeshifter help create a customized schedule based on variables like time zone differences, departure and arrival times, and other factors.

Consider melatonin

If you are having trouble getting to sleep earlier in anticipation of traveling east, Dr. Kapur suggests taking one milligram of over-the-counter melatonin about four hours before bed, up to three days before the trip. (Melatonin is a substance that is produced naturally in the body as night falls, signaling that it is time to go to sleep.) This small dose is best for reducing jet lag, Dr. Olson said, because studies show a larger dose doesn’t necessarily work better and is more likely to produce side effects. Travelers should be aware that as a dietary supplement, melatonin is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

Grab a quick nap

If you’re feeling drained as your body adjusts to the new time zone, curl up for a 20-minute snooze, said Dr. Kapur. If you nap longer than that, he cautions, the brain fog may worsen or you may have trouble falling asleep at night.

Refresh with a layover shower

A spritz at the airport between long flights can work wonders for a tired body. Airports with public pay showers include Tokyo Narita International Airport, Munich Airport and San Francisco International Airport. At some airports, only specific lounges — like the Delta Sky Club at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — offer showers. If you’re not a member, don’t have access through a credit card and really need a boost, consider a day pass. The IGA Lounge in Istanbul International Airport, for example, costs $65. All offer towels, soap and shampoo.

Make the most of the lag

If you expect to be up super late or early as your body adjusts, plan ahead. Early in the trip, you may have the most energy for a visit to the Patpong Night Market in Bangkok, the early-morning tuna auction at the Toyosu Fish Market in Tokyo or a predawn excursion to see the sunrise at Haleakala volcano in Maui.

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