There are more so-called remedies for jet lag than there are time zones, from long-standing antidotes like No-Jet-Lag’s homeopathic tablets to new innovations like the Valkee Brain Stimulation Headset, which was tested earlier this year by Finnair and purports to alleviate jet lag by channeling bright light into the brain through the ear canal.
Yet some of the latest (and perhaps most effective) jet-lag solutions are being developed for people who fly to places most of us never will. The fatigue management team at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston helps astronauts — who, for training purposes, must fly frequently among international space agencies in Russia, Japan and Germany — overcome jet lag two to three times faster than other travelers. And while the anti-jet-lag plans that the team prescribes are highly individualized, the general principles can be simplified for the bleary-eyed rest of us.
As anyone who has ever flitted across multiple time zones knows, when your internal clock is unable to adapt to a rapid change in the light-dark cycle, the result is jet lag. Read: fatigue, moodiness, gastrointestinal unpleasantness. In a perfect world, everyone would take preventive measures — like preparing for a trip to Paris from Washington by going to sleep earlier and earlier each night a few days before the flight. But most of us spend the days before a vacation frantically trying to polish off work and make sure the plants and pets won’t die while we’re gone.
And so below are steps you can take to minimize jet lag, from the moment you board the plane through your first night in a far-flung destination.
• Understand that the direction you are traveling makes a difference. “It’s only in the past 100 years that we’ve been able to jump time zones,” said Steven W. Lockley, a consulting member of NASA’s fatigue management team, who is also a neuroscientist specializing in sleep medicine at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard in Boston. “We haven’t evolved a way to adapt yet.”
There are, however, ways to cope. Begin by determining whether you are traveling east or west. Most people (three quarters of us, according to Lockley) have an internal body clock that makes it harder for them to travel east. So, while most of Florence, Italy, is sleeping, a tourist from New York is wide awake and itching to climb the Duomo because it’s barely time for dinner back on the East Coast.
Even within the United States, traveling east over just three time zones can be taxing: A study led by Dr. Lawrence D. Recht, a neurologist, of 19 Major League Baseball teams using season records from 1991 to 1993 showed that the team that had just completed eastward travel would give up more than one run than usual in every game.
If you’re traveling east and want to adapt to the new time, you will have to wake up earlier and go to bed earlier than you normally would. This is known as advancing your body clock. If you’re traveling west, you’ll have to adapt to the new time by waking up later than usual and going to bed later than usual, delaying your body clock. Easier said than done. So how does one do this as painlessly as possible?
• Schedule when to expose yourself to light and when to avoid it. It takes about a day to shift one time zone, said Dr. Smith L. Johnston, a flight surgeon and the chief of the fatigue management team at NASA. To do it faster, you must regulate your exposure to light — both natural and artificial — and darkness. Yes, there are all kinds of jet-lag cure-alls on the market, but experts say that since light is the primary environmental cue telling your body’s clock when to sleep and when to wake, controlling jet lag is fundamentally about controlling light and darkness.