We all have something known as an internal clock (i.e. the circadian rhythm) which helps with regulating the timing of sleeping and waking. This sleep-wake cycle can be disrupted if one stays awake through the night or follows an irregular sleep schedule due to shift work or any other reasons.
In this case, the disruption occurs because of traveling to a different timezone, an effect we refer to as jet lag. Once it finds itself in a new time zone, your body tries to adapt itself to a different light-dark schedule, according to neuroscientist Tara Swart.
“Within the brain, jet lag causes a disruption within a group of neurons which control the dream state of rapid eye movement sleep,” she says. “They find it hard to adjust to the new cycle and become out of sync with other neurons in the brain associated with deep sleep. Other symptoms can include fatigue, insomnia, and nausea.”
One of the highly recommended ways to reduce these symptoms is to start shifting your sleep schedule a few days prior to travel. So if you are traveling east, your bedtime can slowly be moved up earlier — and vice versa.
Sunlight is also something you should be getting as much as possible. According to the National Sleep Foundation, staying indoors can end up worsening a jet lag. Natural light can act as a good stimulant and help in shifting the circadian clock to suit the destination you are at.
These are strategies to follow when you are on the ground. However, there are also a few things you can consider doing while up in the air. Dr. Clayton Cowl, a specialist in aerospace and transportation medicine at the Mayo Clinic, notes that your seat can make a big difference.
If you plan to sleep on board, Cowl says it is best to avoid seats located at or near the back of the plane. “Anytime you hit bumps, the back is going to move more than the front of the plane,” he explains. On the same note, one can avoid sitting near lavatories or galleys where people tend to move through a lot. The noise can be particularly disturbing for light sleepers.
Another tip, a bit more psychological in nature, is to set your watch to the destination time before you reach your destination. Some experts say it can help gradually adjusting your brain and behavior to the new time zone, making the transition less abrupt.
When looking through the menu, consider avoiding or limiting your intake of caffeine and alcohol. Water or any other less-stimulating beverage may do better since dehydration can worsen your jet lag.