Hop a plane across several time zones, and you may end up with what scientists call circadian dysrhythmia (aka jet lag). It’s a temporary sleep disorder where your body’s internal clock isn’t in sync with the time cues in your destination—daylight, dark of night, mealtimes.
It’s also why you might doze off at lunch on your first day in London or be unable to get to sleep the first couple of nights of a vacation to Japan. “We have a natural rhythm to our bodies, and it’s pretty well set,” says Vivek Jain, director of the George Washington University’s Center for Sleep Disorders.
But jet lag doesn’t have to wreck your trip. “If you plan for it, you can do most of your acclimatizing to your destination a few days in advance,” says W. Chris Winter, neurologist and author of The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How to Fix It.
You can use light exposure, sleep, strategically timed naps, snacks, and caffeine to ease into your new time zone. There are also recent scientific innovations, from high-tech gadgets to safer pharmaceuticals, that might be worth adding to your anti-jet lag arsenal.
Here’s what the experts suggest to help you adjust to a new time in no time.
Don’t be afraid of the dark
Blocking out light is key to getting sleep on the plane (a proven jet lag antidote on overnight flights). If your destination is several hours ahead, wear sunglasses until you’re ready to snooze, then strap on a sleeping mask. When your brain senses darkness, it starts to produce melatonin, the chemical that initiates sleep.
A 2021 German study found that worrying about having jet lag made it worse. So, if you believe a certain routine or item will help you drift off, it might just work.
Use whatever tools you can to make your trip more pleasant and silent. “Basically, anything you can do to get comfortable enough to sleep can have a very strong placebo effect,” says Jamie M. Zeitzer, co-director of Stanford University’s Center for Sleep and Circadian Sciences.
That could mean a pillow—either a traditional C-shape one or a newer wraparound model such as the Trtl or Ostrich, which resemble padded neck scarves and offer 360-degree head support. Also worth a test run: an airplane foot hammock (hook it underneath the seat in front of you) designed to relieve pressure on your legs and back during a long flight.
Add noise-canceling headphones or earplugs to set the stage for slumber. Silicone earplugs, which you mold to form a seal over your earholes, are more comfortable than old-school foam ones.
Sleep on it
Taking melatonin, which is also made naturally by the body, can help you doze off in the air or in a new time zone. Melatonin is available over the counter, but experts recommend consulting your health care provider before use. Unlike a prescription sleep drug, it won’t sedate you for hours.
Experts are mixed on using drugs to knock yourself out on a flight—or to quell insomnia once you’ve arrived. Sleeping pills are available over-the-counter (ZzzQuil, Unisom, etc., which work using the antihistamine doxylamine succinate) or prescription-only Zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo), which is a sedative or hypnotic.
Both types of drugs carry risks of mental impairment and grogginess—particularly if taken with booze, as some travelers do, against prescription warnings. Zolpidem can be addictive if used regularly. “But I don’t think Ambien is bad if people take it as prescribed,” says Zeitzer. “It’s worse to have anxiety keep you from sleeping and having that ruin your trip.”
A newer class of insomnia drugs, dual orexin receptor antagonists (DORAs like Belsomra, Dayvio, Quviviq), block the receptor in your brain that helps you maintain wakefulness, especially in the evening. Unlike sedatives, DORAs don’t force you into unconsciousness and aren’t considered addictive, so researchers believe the sleep they provide is much closer to normal.
Wake up—and caffeinate—in a new place
Try to book a flight that lands during the day, since getting out into sunlight helps reset your body clock. “It jump starts you much more quickly,” says Luxembourg-based sleep coach Christine Hansen.
If it’s morning or early afternoon when your plane lands, a jolt of caffeine can help you acclimatize. So can eating a meal at the standard time in your destination. (One additional reason to make a beeline to that Parisian café for coffee and croissants.)
Do some advance planning
You can minimize jet lag by adjusting your bedtime, light exposure, and caffeine intake a few days before your trip. Smartphone apps Timeshifter and StopJetLag generate personalized pre-travel schedules and give tips on the best times of day to fly.
By early 2023, travelers will have a new tool to help them “pre-adjust” to new time zones. The Lumos Smart Sleep Mask, developed using Zeitzer’s research, emits targeted flashes of low-intensity light while you sleep. You use it the night before a flight and the first night in your destination. This reportedly shifts your internal clock forward three to four hours a night (as opposed to the usual one hour per day).