Jet lag is a thing. And it's a particularly bad thing if, say, you've flown from San Diego to Madagascar for 30 hours and your body tells you it's lunchtime when the clock says midnight. But it's also rough if you cross three time zones to attend West Virginia's annual Roadkill Cook-off.
Your body operates on a built-in clock and its cycles — known as circadian rhythms — go all wacky when we travel far to the east or west.
"It usually takes several days for our biological schedule to sync with our new location; it's about one day per time zone travelled," says Dr. David Spees, director of travel clinics for Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. "But there are things you can do and items you can pack to help speed that process."
During your trip:
Set your watch or the clock on your phone to the time of your destination.
This is just a trick to get your mind thinking, "I should eat lunch now" or "I should go to sleep."
The cabin pressure and dry conditioned air in a plane are dehydrating and put a strain on your body. So it's important to drink lots of water during your flight.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
They may calm you down or warm you up, but alcoholic and caffeinated beverages can cause poor sleep.
Walk the aisle of the plane "once the captain has turned off the seatbelt sign," says Dr. Spees, and do stretches and simple exercises in your seat.
Consider melatonin supplements.
Melatonin is a hormone naturally found in the body that helps maintain the body's circadian rhythm and regulates other hormones. Research suggests that melatonin supplements may help prevent jet lag and may improve sleep in people with disrupted sleep. Before taking any new supplements, always check with your doctor first, especially if you have any health conditions or are taking any medication.
Those gourmet meals in economy class may be tempting, but foods that are high in carbohydrates and fats are disruptive to sleep. It's best to pack your own healthy snacks, such as protein bars and trail mix.
Help yourself sleep.
That barking companion dog and the snoozing seatmate hogging the armrest are distracting indeed; but just the roar of the jets and lights in the cabin can prevent you from sleeping. Pack and use a good set of earplugs and an eyeshade.
When you get to your destination:
Keep using those earplugs and eyeshade.
As long as it’s safe and secure to do so at your final destination.
Control your exposure to light.
Daylight is the primary regulator of our circadian rhythms. If you've travelled a long way to the west, try not to get a lot of afternoon and early evening sun; if you've gone east, avoid sun in the morning. Then gradually adapt to your destination's schedule.
Sleep on your own pillow.
Yes, it took up half the space of your checked bag. But it feels so good, and it smells like home, and you were going to throw it away anyhow. And at the end of your trip, you're going to "forget" it in your hotel and have tons of extra space for your souvenirs.
Take a hot bath or shower before bed.
The warm water is soothing and will help relax you, which makes it easier to fall asleep.
Assume the local time.
If it's 11 am when you arrive, and your body says, "I need to go to bed now," don't (OK, a short nap if you must, but no more than two hours). And if it says, "I want to eat dinner now," tell your body "No, we will eat when the rest of Madagascar eats."
The sooner you adopt the schedule of your new temporary home, the sooner you’ll feel like yourself — or at least like a local.
Tom Hanscom is the director of public relations and communications for Sharp HealthCare, and a frequent traveler. He recently returned from a trip to Madagascar.