Sleep, Traveling & Avoiding Jet Lag

Pretty much everyone has experienced jet lag, and had it affect work performance, vacation fun, or both.  Jet lag is a circadian rhythm abnormality—a disruption in the human body clock—that occurs when you travel across time zones and find yourself out of synch with the local sleep/wake cycle.  Jet lag will significantly impact travelers’ performance during and enjoyment of an overseas trip because it takes one 24-hour cycle to adjust for every two time zones traveled through.   For example, even traveling from New York to L.A. is a trip through four time zones (from Eastern through Central and Mountain to Pacific), so you are looking at two days to get into local body-clock time!  Here’s a great world time zone map from Washington University School of Law on time zone impact on work.

Here’s an example of my own program for limiting the impact of jet lag.

The Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO), a business group I belong to, sets up outreach trips overseas so we can meet and exchange ideas with business people all over the world.  One of the most exciting adventures, and also a challenge to good sleep and alertness, was a trip we took to South Africa.  I was able to thoroughly enjoy our 5 A.M. bush tours as well as the evenings out in Cape Town and do a good job in presenting information about Sleep Medicine because I had prepared in advance for the eight hour time difference.  I knew I needed a plan to “get in rhythm’” with South Africa’s sleep/wake schedule because it is close to the opposite of what my body is accustomed to in St. Louis in terms of sleep:  10:00 PM here is 6:00 AM there!

I began preparing for the South African sleep schedule by moving my bed time an hour earlier each day, for three days prior to my departure.  Since I was flying overnight, according to South Africa’s clock, I also took a mild, short-acting medication to help me sleep during the flight and that in turn helped move my internal time clock forward.

During travel I limited intake of alcoholic beverages, amount of food and sweets—all of which can contribute to less-restful sleep.  Contrary to popular belief, alcohol causes a disruption of sleep, even though it may induce sleepiness through a sedative effect.  Too much food and too much sugar will also have a negative impact on the quality of sleep, so it is good to moderate amounts during travel.

And I landed in South Africa with a sleep plan.  For starters, I wanted to treat my body sleep clock as if I lived in South Africa.  I went to bed at approximately the same time each night and strove to wake up early most of the mornings—this synchronized my body clock with the local daylight cycle.  I used a mild sleep medication to support my initial sleep/wake transition, and within a few days I was fully acclimated to the local sleep/wake cycle.  This adjustment allowed me to experience and appreciate all that South Africa had to offer without being tired or jet lagged.

By incorporating a consistent sleep/wake cycle I enhanced my daytime functioning, stress management, and memory retention of the South African activities and sights.  I found myself having more engaging and entertaining conversations, while the actual travel portion—whether it was by airplane, car or train, —was also more pleasant.

If you will take a few steps to manage your sleep program before you travel and for the first few days of your trip, you will improve your quality of life, promote better health and—importantly—have a  lot more fun on your trip!