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How to Beat Jetlag and Sleep Better on the Go

By Janene Mascarella


What is it about traveling that often has us tossing and turning under those crisp, white hotel sheets? Even in the most luxurious accommodations, it can be hard to get a restorative, restful night’s sleep. To help you rise and shine on the road, we asked Ph.D nutritionist and author of How to Stay Healthy and Fit on the Road, Joanne Lichten, (known as Dr. Jo) to shed some light and share her secrets on how to catch some zzz’s.

How to you outsmart jetlag or time changes? Any strategies?

Dr. Jo: Just got back from Ireland where we succeeded in having no jet lag in either direction—and there’s a science to it. It takes roughly one day for your body to adjust naturally to each hour of time change. So, if you’re traveling across 5 time zones and staying 7 days, by the time your body adjusts it will almost be time to leave! To hasten the recovery:

1. Consider the zeitgebers. These are external cues that reset the body clock. The strongest zeitgebers are light and dark. A dark environment will help your body naturally produce melatonin which makes you feel sleepy. And daylight will help you feel alert (get at least 30 minutes of daylight upon arriving in the daytime hours). So, get out in the light before heading inside. And, please don’t go right to sleep!

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2. Pre-set your watch. Upon leaving your hometown set your watch to the new time zone and start living accordingly. For example, when boarding on an eastbound flight at 8pm local time (1am in your new location), put on an eye mask and neck pillow and try to get some sleep.

3. Use naps judiciously. If trying to adapt to the new time zone is proving to be dangerous, feel free to take a daytime nap of about 90 minutes (as long as it’s before 3pm local time). A short nap may prove to be difficult because when you’re sleep deprived (such as sleeping just a few hours on an overseas flight), you’re much more likely to fall into a deep sleep stage immediately and trying to wake up in 15 minutes will make you feel lethargic.  Consider that our sleep cycles (light sleep to deep sleep and back to light sleep) takes about 90-100 minutes.

Are there any foods we should eat at dinner that help promote more restful sleep?

Dr. Jo: Yes! Go for the carbs! It’s important to eat protein at breakfast and lunch because meals rich in protein help the body to produce dopamine which can help you feel alert. Meals rich in carbs increase the release of serotonin which make you feel relaxed. In addition, you should never go to bed on a full stomach–that will disturb your sleep. Alcohol, while it might make you feel sleepy can interfere with your sleep, while both caffeine and nicotine are stimulating.

When should you have that last cup of coffee?

Dr. Jo: Give yourself a stopping point. Caffeine has a half-life of four hours. That means if you drink a very large cup of coffee with 400mg, 200mg will still be floating around in your bloodstream four hours later. And, 100mg 8 hours after you drank it. Most people sleep better by limiting their caffeine after the lunch hour.

Any other sleep tricks to share?

Dr. Jo: Make it dark. When it gets dark, the pineal gland at the base of our brain secretes melatonin which helps us feel sleepy. Help the process by establishing a night-time routine including dimming the lights, turning off stimuli like computers and TV, using an eye mask, covering the bright light of the alarm clock, laying a towel in front of the door, and clipping the drapes shut (inside tip: pack a few binder clips!).

Photo credits: Hotel Room via Shutterstock; Airplane via Shutterstock

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