- As Business Insider’s international correspondent, I am constantly taking long-haul international flights, switching time zones, and then working the next day.
- However, I rarely suffer from the worst effects of jet lag thanks to careful preparation and some science-backed strategies.
- Prior to flying, I adjust my sleep schedule as much as possible to correspond with my new time zone. On the flight, I drink tons of water and operate according to my new time zone. When I land, I force my body to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime.
When I left New York in March to become Business Insider’s international correspondent, I was convinced travelling for a living is a dream job.
That is, until you start thinking about what full-time travel means. I’m talking endless long-haul flights, time zone switches, and days where your body is somehow both utterly exhausted and wired awake. In other words, lots of jet lag.
Jet lag is what happens when you disrupt your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm. This clock, which naturally runs on a 24-hour cycle, moderates everything from sleep and hunger to blood pressure and hormones.
While your brain moderates your circadian rhythm, it responds to external cues like light and temperature. When you jump time zones – and particularly when you jump many time zones – your body is no longer synced up with the external cues in the world. Your brain gets confused and it takes some time to adjust.
Over the course of my travels – 30-plus countries and counting – I’ve learned to follow some science-backed strategies for avoiding the worst effects of the dreaded travellers’ disease.
Start adjusting your body before you fly
To start with, the main tools you have to prepare for your time zone jump (and avoid jet lag) are light exposure, sleeping and wake times, and food. But even using all of these tools, there’s no completely avoiding jet lag.
Steve Simpson, the academic director of the Charles Perkins Centre, who is working with Qantas Airways on jet lag research, has found that the maximum the body clock can be reset is 90 minutes per day. Stuart Peirson, a researcher at the Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology at Oxford University, has found the limit to be closer to one hour per day.
That means, for a nine-hour time zone jump, as I did experienced on a recent trip to Dubai, your body requires nine days to adjust to the new time zone.
To shift my internal clock, I started by adding a clock to my phone for the place I would be going to (in this case, Dubai), which I find helps me psychologically prepare.
Then, in the days prior to the flight, I slowly adjusted my sleep schedule to match that of the time zone I was going to, forcing my body to go to sleep earlier or later, depending on the destination time zone, a strategy backed by researcherson the subject.
JetLag Rooster has a handy tool to help come up with a sleep plan to adjust your body. Here’s what my (ideal) schedule looked to prepare for the nine-hour time zone shift:
When adjusting my sleep schedule to sleep earlier, I might take a supplement of melatonin, the hormone your body uses to regulate sleep. Or I might restrict my exposure to light by closing the curtains earlier and staying away from phones and screens.
If I need to stay up later, I might drink caffeine later than normal, work out late in the day, or just force myself to finish binge-watching that Netflix show.
Of course, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to completely shift your body’s clock prior to departure. Most people have offices to go to and things to do. But, I find, if I can shift my body clock by even two or three hours, it shaves off the number of days it takes my body to fully reset after I land.
By the time I left for Dubai, I had shifted my sleep schedule enough that I was going to bed at 4 a.m., or a little less than half of the time zone jump I was about to make.
When flying, keep adjusting and drink lots of water
Annie Zheng/Business InsiderDrink water and avoid coffee and alcohol.
On the day of my flight, I try to switch my thinking completely to the new time zone.
My flight to Dubai may have been at 10:40 a.m. in New York, but, in the airport and on the plane, I was already thinking that my actual time is 7:40 p.m.
Once we get into the air, I’m operating with my new time zone and trying to stick to what I would normally do at that time.
For the first few hours of my 13-hour flight to Dubai, it was business as usual. I watched a movie, did some work, and ate around dinner time (or as close as the flight’s meal times would allow). When 11 p.m. Dubai time came, I put down my phone and began to read a book. Around midnight, I tried to fall asleep for as long as I could.
Sometimes, I’ll take some melatonin to speed the process along, but, in the case of my flight to Dubai, it wasn’t necessary. I was already exhausted from having gone to sleep at 4 a.m. and then waking up three hours later for the drive to the airport.
On flights, I never drink alcohol and try not to drink coffee, both of which wreak havoc on your sleep patterns.
In addition, I drink as much water as I can. Planes are full of dry, recirculated air that will leave you dehydrated. Dehydration has many of the same ill effects as jet lag, like mental sluggishness, and can actually worsen your jet lag symptoms.
After you land, stick to the time zone
The worst mistake you can make upon landing in your new time zone is to listen to your body clock.
After I landed in Dubai at 8:30 a.m., all I wanted to do was go directly back to sleep. Despite my best efforts, my body was likely still operating somewhere in the realm of New York time, or 11:30 p.m.
But, if I wanted to get acclimated quickly, sleeping was a bad idea. Instead, I had to do as an Emirati would do.
“Biting the bullet is important, force yourself to get up at a ‘normal’ time in your new time zone, and eat breakfast outside if you can,” Emily Capodilupo, a sleep scientist and the director of analytics at fitness company WHOOP, told Forbes in August.
Instead of napping, I ate breakfast, worked out in the gym, and then went out to explore the city. As the day wore on I grew more exhausted, but I knew that if I stuck it out the first day to a reasonable bed time, then it would force my body to adjust more quickly.
The first day, I made it to 9 p.m. before I was too tired and had to sleep. The next day, I woke up at 5 a.m., a few hours earlier than my normal wake-up time but at least reasonable for the time zone. And, for the most part, I felt great.
Within two days, I was more or less completely adjusted, sleeping at midnight and waking up at 7:30 a.m., my normal sleep schedule.
That’s usually about how it goes for me with long-haul flights.
- More travel tips from Business Insider’s international correspondent:
- I use the same trick in any city I visit to make sure I find amazing food
- Couchsurfing has a hidden feature that helped me have the wildest night in Tokyo partying until sunrise
- I found out the hard way that one of the best strategies to save money on flights can end up costing you big time
- The single best piece of advice I can give you for any trip you take
- I’ve travelled to more than 30 countries, and here are the dumbest mistakes I made on the road that I’ll never make again
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