People are wired differently, and I am fortunate to have a body that quickly adapts to time zones. However, I use a simple method to ease the process of switching. I don’t take melatonin pills. I don’t have a particular travel diet. It’s all about counting hours and getting enough sleep.
There are two components to jet lag: your biological clock (circadian rhythm) is out of sync because of your travel, and you experience sleepiness at the wrong time of the day due to lack of sleep. The latter is something you can easily fix. And by addressing the sleepiness, it is easier for your internal clock to readjust. This post explains how I do that.
Let’s start with the travel direction that people have the most trouble with.
I typically need seven hours of sleep per day. I turn off the lights at 12:00 and at 7:00 in the morning, my eyes open and I feel well-rested. Traveling for me involves doing a simple calculation to know how much sleep I am going need.
This week, I traveled from Orlando, USA to Brussels, Belgium, which is a six-hour time difference. That means that the day for me consisted of 18 hours instead of the usual 24 hours. Considering that I generally need seven hours of sleep on a 24-hour day, and assuming a consistent same sleep/awake ratio, this means that I need 5.5 hours of sleep on an 18-hour day. So, when traveling from Orlando to Brussels, I knew that I had to make sure to get 5.5 hours of sleep in total.
I am not an easy sleeper on airplanes. There is too much noise, too much movement, too many crying babies, and the chairs are always horrible. But I try. And despite the inconvenience, I am usually able to get a few hours of sleep. On this particular trip, I counted 2.5 hours. That meant I still had three hours of sleep left to go!
I arrived in Brussels in the morning, feeling a bit drowsy because I had slept, but not enough. I did what I always do after traveling east: go to bed. And I set my alarm to three hours. Not a minute longer!
One mistake that people make is that they skip sleep after traveling east and just bear it out for the rest of the day, forcing themselves into the new time zone while feeling like a zombie and their biological clocks have no clue what’s going on.
Another mistake that people make is that they go to bed and then take their usual amount of hours (for me: seven), which means they will feel fully rested but then they are unable to sleep the next night and their bio clocks are in total disarray.
So I went to bed in the morning, woke up three hours later, and then I got ready for lunch. From the moment I wake up, I adopt all the rituals of the new time zone at their correct time: lunch at 13:00, coffee at 16:00, dinner at 19:00, and lights off at midnight. Throughout the day, I feel quite OK and rested, though I do notice there is this little bit of haziness or drowsiness in the background that tells me my body is busy adapting. The first night in the new time zone can still be a bit tricky but quite doable. This time, I fell asleep in under an hour, and I slept the usual seven hours. My body had adapted.
The same method also applied when I traveled to Australia earlier this year, which was a 10-hour time difference. My travel itinerary involved two nights and one short day. I calculated that I would need 12 hours of sleep (seven+five) within that time span. I was able to sleep six hours on the plane and then I took the last five hours on arrival in Melbourne in the morning. I barely felt anything after that. Mission completed.
The same method applies when I travel from east to west, only this is much easier. It usually just involves extending the first night after arrival by a few hours. The six-hour time difference between Brussels and Orlando meant that I needed almost nine hours of sleep. So I went to bed around 22:00 local time (which felt like 4:00 in the morning to me) and then I slept until 6:00. OK, that was actually only eight hours, but my body said it was OK. And I took the extra hour of sleep the next night. Mission completed. Most people do the same without even thinking about it.
And That Is All There Is
I don’t take melatonin pills. I don’t have a particular travel diet. And I don’t wear special glasses or ear buds or whatever. I just count my hours of sleep.
Jet lag is nothing more than your body’s clock being out-of-sync and feeling sleepy at the wrong time of the day. By calculating how much sleep I need, and taking those hours in a disciplined way, I make sure that I don’t feel sleepy. I cannot reset my circadian rhythm, but I’m sure the adaptation of my body clock is a lot easier because of how I take care of my sleeping hours.