If you’ve ever traveled across time zones, you’re familiar with the symptoms of jet lag—extreme fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating—that often accompany travel.
Jet lag occurs when your body’s circadian rhythm, or “body clock,” is out of sync with the time zone to which you’ve traveled, causing you to be sleepy when it’s time to be alert and awake when it’s time to sleep. That’s not ideal when you need to perform at a high level—say, at a destination race—or even when crossing several time zones for vacation.
Elite athletes wrestle with jet lag all the time, but most have learned to cope using a few tried-and-true techniques to quickly reset their body clocks, says Michael Breus, PhD, a board-certified sleep specialist who regularly counsels professional and amateur athletes on how to avoid jet lag.
Below, a few measures you can take the next time you travel.
5 Jet Lag Cures For Happier Travel
Move the clock. A few days before departure, adjust your bedtime by one or two hours, depending on the direction in which you’ll be traveling, says Breus. If you’re traveling eastward, go to bed one or two hours before your usual bedtime. If traveling westward, go to bed an hour or two later. This will get your body used to sleeping closer to the time you’ll be sleeping in your new time zone. Set a new Bedtime Reminder in your Fitbit app so you know when to start winding down.
Time your meals. As soon as you arrive in your new destination—or even a few days before, if it makes sense—get on your destination meal schedule. “Your gut has its own circadian rhythm,” says Breus. A 2016 study found that delaying meals can also delay blood sugar rhythms—and blood sugar rhythms are one of those metabolic processes that impact your master body clock. Alternatively, fasting for 12 to 16 hours before arriving in your destination (right before and during the flight, for instance) may help quickly reset your body clock by suspending your circadian rhythms, according to a Harvard Medical School study.
Embrace the (flashing) light. Exposure to light—especially bright light in the morning—can help your body recognize a change in time zones. But now research from Stanford University finds that short flashes of light at night may be even more effective than continuous light exposure at delaying the onset of sleepiness. The night before you are set to travel to a new time zone, simply set your phone (or a light machine) to emit a flashing light while you’re sleeping for one hour at the time you would normally wake up, but in your future time zone. For instance, if you’re flying from California to New York and you normally wake up at 8 a.m., set the light to go off at 5 a.m. to account for the three-hour time difference.
Try melatonin. Your body naturally produces melatonin, a hormone that helps control your sleep cycle. For best results, take .5 to 1.5 mg of the supplement melatonin 90 minutes before you’re ready to go to bed, recommends Breus. “Melatonin tells your internal clock that it’s bedtime,” he says.
Track your sleep. Before leaving and while in your new time zone, keep an eye on how much you’re sleeping and when. If you’re using a Fitbit device with heart rate, you’ll be able to track how well you’re sleeping, as well as how much time you’re spending in the various stages of sleep—light, deep, and REM. If you find you’re not getting enough at night, a strategically scheduled nap—ie: not too long or late in the day—can help boost mood and performance.
This article is not intended to substitute for informed medical advice. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.