Not all trips are created equal, if you consider the am-I-going-to-get-deep-vein-thrombosis paranoia of a long flight and how much willpower it takes to avoid dozing off once you hit the tarmac in a far-flung locale.
Jet lag—the sleep disorder experienced by travelers undergoing major time zone changes—can be an epic ruiner of trips if you're not prepared. Sleep expert Dr. Michael Muehlbach of the Clayton Sleep Institute says that the severity of jet lag depends on how many time zones you're changing and which directions you're heading. Once your circadian clock finds itself a couple time zones off, it takes awhile for it to recalibrate, which is why people experience headaches and sleep disruption.
Below, scan some tips from Muehlbach and the National Sleep Foundation on how to plan so you're right on schedule to enjoy your hard-earned time-off.
1. Adjust in Advance
It seems so obvious, and yet no one does it: Adjust your sleep schedule in advance. If you're traveling west, Muehlbach says, you have more leeway because it usually means just staying up a little later than your normal bedtime. "If you're traveling east, it's trickier, since you're jumping forward in time," he says. In that case, moving your bedtime up 15-20 minutes every day the week or two before a trip can help prevent your body from experiencing a sleep hangover.
2. Choose Your Flights Carefully
If you know you're traveling multiple time zones ahead, Muehlbach says it's also a good idea to choose a later flight and take a sleep aid, if necessary. The perk of landing in the morning is that the bright light will help you reset your body clock. The National Sleep Foundation emphasizes this point about bright light, stating, "Try to get outside in the sunlight whenever possible. Staying indoors worsens jet lag."
3. Prep Your Flight Environment
Not all of us normal folk can afford to recline and sip bubbly in first class or business class, so the trick is to choose your coach-class seat strategically. Like knocking out with an Ambien on a long flight? Choose a window seat where there's less noise and commotion. Like to get your mid-flight stretch on? The aisle seat is the move. Other ways to encourage deeper sleep—despite crying babies, reading lights, and a ramrod-straight chair—are noise canceling headphones, an eye mask (editor's note: since I started using one, I can't sleep without it), and a comfy, definitely-not-dorky neck pillow.
4. Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
The mini-bar mid-flight might seem like the best nightcap, but Muehlbach notes that while it might help you nod off, a cocktail can also disrupt your sleep more. To keep yourself hydrated (which, in turn, helps your body feel more awake), he recommends hydrating with plenty of water (yes, even if it means squeezing yourself into that tiny airplane bathroom).
5. Follow the Sleep Schedule of Your Adopted Country
It may be tempting to settle down for a nap the moment you feel tired post-arrival, but as any person who doesn't know how to disco nap 🙋 recognizes, ten minutes quickly turns into 4 hours. Muehlback agrees: "Naps are tricky. If you do need to take a nap, I'd keep it well under an hour" to avoid it throwing off your new schedule. The National Sleep Foundation also recommends avoiding heavy meals and any heavy exercise before bed.
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