Jet lag is my nemesis and I have spent years battling it with combinations of sleeping pills, exercise, sleep masks, home remedies, elixirs, elvin magic, etc. I’ve had inconsistent success with pharmaceuticals so in addition to the difficulty of getting prescriptions, I tend to avoid the chemical route.
I am happy to say, however, that I think I've got jet lag’s number. Everyone is different and has different reactions to drugs, caffeine, and alcohol. People vary in their ability to sleep in certain positions or have disabilities or pain that prevent sound sleep. I am no doctor and please try my recommendations at your own risk. Disclaimers aside, here are my secret weapons to overcome jet lag.
1. Pavlovian Sleep.
Getting several days of good rest before travel is critical [Duh! But keep reading]. It also is an opportunity to take a page from Pavlov’s book and trick your brain to fall asleep anywhere. The comfort of your home is the best place to create triggers to prepare for a snooze. I use a combination of sound and smells. I downloaded a sleep sounds app on my phone and as a plug it in at night I turn on soft rain, crickets, or a waterfall. Something soothing with enough white noise to drown out any creaking house noises, distant car horns, or snoring children. Then I spray an essential oil mixed with water on my pillow. My scent of choice is lavender which is supposed to calm our nerves anyway (so says my new age wife).
Regardless of what scent or sound you choose, you need to keep it consistent for a few days leading up to travel. While at home, this creates a connection in your brain between the sound/smell and restful sleep. Once I get to the hotel room at my destination, I use the same spray for the pillow and turn on the crickets and before I know it, I’m out like a light.
The more routine you can add to your pre-bedroom activities, the better. So, adding herbal tea, meditation, or a few pages in your book is even better.
2. No Alcohol
This one is a tough one for me.Nearly every health article warns against the use of alcohol as a sleep aid. Yes, it helps doze you off but your sleep will not be restful. However, the discomfort and anxiety of travel makes it extremely difficult to refuse the free booze on the international flights and, for the very frequent travelers with airline lounge access, good wine and 12-year-old scotch. I’ve tried a lot, I’ve tried a little. It doesn’t help. In fact, in most cases it makes jet lag worse. I don’t need to go into the laundry list of the negative impacts of alcohol use so just replace it with water, juice, or decaf tea.
3. Forced circadian rhythm
I use a combination of sunlight and chewable melatonin. My job usually entails long travel followed immediately by training in a dark room so you can see the dim PowerPoint presentation coming from sub-par projectors. My body has no idea what day it is let alone what time. On our breaks and lunch, I make it a point to get into direct sunlight. I no longer mind the strange looks from the hotel pool-goers as I lay out in my dress shirt and pants. This is a like a hormonal punch to your body letting you know it is a daytime and you begin to reset your bodies clock to the new time zone.
Again, I am no doctor or biologist, but from my google research, I’ve learned the melatonin is a natural hormone that your body produces when it is time to wind down at the end of the day. Now, we have artificial versions of it that can be found at most drug and health stores. I take it right at dusk as the second punch to my body to let me know it is getting close the night time. Supposedly, you need to take it a few hours before your sleep in order to start the process and it needs to be done after the sun sets. Based on my research, taking it during daylight hours confuses your body and could cause dreariness or short-term depression.
4. Sleep on the plane during nighttime at your destination
I know your flight takes off at 11 pm, but do your best to stay awake if that is the morning at your destination. The quicker you can get on the schedule, the better.
However, unless your lucky enough to have lay-flat seats in business class, sleeping on the plan is no easy feat. Unfortunately, I have nothing to offer for getting comfortable. We come in all shapes and sizes so there is no best position. So, just experiment: neck pillow, bag under seat to prop up your legs, airline pillow behind your back. Regardless of your position, know that it will get uncomfortable eventually.
Despite the challenge of physical discomfort the seat, here are my tips to avoid interruptions:
Get a special meal. Even if you are not vegan, most airlines have several types to choose from: Hindu meal, Asian vegetarian, low calorie etc. I’ve actually found them to be slightly better than the standard meals. By getting a special meal, you get your food early that will allow you to get to sleep quicker rather than being interrupted an hour into the flight.
Aisle seat middle section. Everyone has their own preference, but if you are in the middle and have three across, the poor middle guy has a choice to go left or right when he needs to use the bathroom for 20th time. If you’re zonked out, there is a good chance he’ll choose the other side. This same principle of reduced interruptions applies to a window seat but I tend to avoid it based on the trouble I have to go through to get out. I like the aisle over the window because the freedom and ease of stretching for the long-hauls.
Sleep mask and nose cloth. Just like the special meal, this is a way to get on your own schedule instead of the airline. A good sleep mask will black out most light and tell your brain is night. I recently added a soft cloth with a lavender oil over my nose on it to trigger my snoozing (see Number 1) and to overcome the smell of the actual meal cart that comes after I’ve eaten with an odor strong enough to wake me. Bonus: put some earbuds in and turn on your crickets to control all of your senses.
Traveling is hard and your method of attack on jet lag will vary depending on your preferences, what direction you’re flying, and length of flight. It is hard to avoid and puts a huge damper on your life and mood. No one likes to be tired. Take all or some of my tips and let me know if it works for you.