How to sleep better while traveling

By The Health News Team | December 7, 2021
Woman wearing mask asleep on plane

Jet lag’s a drag. It fogs your head, causes stress and takes forever to wear off. And when it finally does, you’re usually heading home — sorting through trip photos you barely remember taking.

However, after months of holding off most travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, jet lag might be something you’re willing to cope with. The good news is you may not have to if you follow a few expert tips.

“Jet lag happens when there’s a disruption in the body’s circadian rhythms,” says Dr. Victoria Sharma, medical director of the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Sleep Disorders Center. “These rhythms, also known as your body clock, regulate sleep times, wake times, eating and body temperature.”

While jet lag is temporary, it can have a big impact on your overall comfort and wellness. It may cause insomnia, daytime fatigue, stomach issues and irritability. And the farther you travel, the worse it gets.

While there’s no single cure for jet lag, Dr. Sharma offers five simple strategies to minimize its effects:

  1. Get on the local schedule
    Before your departure day, tweak your sleep schedule to match the time zone of your destination. When traveling west, go to bed an hour later each night for a few days before your trip. Reverse the pattern when traveling east, by going to bed earlier. If early bedtimes are a struggle, take a small dose (0.5 milligram) of melatonin, 5 hours prior to bedtime, but only for a few days.
     

  2. Don’t drink too much
    Alcohol may make you sleepy, but it has a negative impact on the quality of your sleep — and quality sleep is something travelers desperately need. So keep alcohol consumption to a minimum prior to, during and after travel. Take a similar strategy with caffeine. While a cup or two of coffee can help you get adjusted to a new time zone, too much caffeine can interfere with the change to your sleep schedule.
     

  3. Shake up your mealtimes
    When you arrive at your new destination, fight the urge to eat at your pre-travel mealtimes. Instead, jump into your new eating schedule with gusto. Food impacts blood sugar, another piece to the body clock puzzle. By eating at appropriate times, you’re telling your body when to wind up and down. And what you eat matters too. Spicy or acidic foods can kill sleep efforts by causing heartburn, whereas foods like nuts and grains can help you fall asleep when you need to.
     

  4. Leverage light and dark
    Light exposure is a powerful thing when trying to shift your circadian rhythms. Light in the early morning can make you fall asleep earlier, and light at bedtime makes you stay up later. When arriving at a western location, maximize evening light and avoid light in the morning. When arriving at an eastern location, maximize afternoon light and minimize light in the morning.
     

  5. Avoid prolonged naps
    Nothing beats a good nap. But while traveling, long naps can worsen jet lag. Don’t nap more than once a day, and keep it under 60 minutes.

Perhaps the biggest advice that Dr. Sharma can offer is to be kind to yourself. Jet lag is frustrating but very real — so don’t beat yourself up if it gets the better of you. “A traveler’s circadian rhythm adjusts 1 hour per day,” she says. “So if you go to a place 5 hours different from your time zone, it may take 5 days to fully adjust. Go easy on yourself and listen to your body when it needs you to.”

Remember to follow all COVID-19 precautions while traveling to avoid getting sick, which would spoil a vacation far more than jet lag ever could. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers travel tips, requirements and recommendations by destination to make your trip COVID-safe.


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