My idea of the perfect getaway is to cross at least a half-dozen time zones—which means that I spend the first few days of nearly every vacation struggling to overcome jet lag.
One recent trip was particularly hellacious. I flew from Dubai to Los Angeles, with a brief overnight stop in London. On paper, it didn’t look so bad. Dubai was three hours ahead of London, which was eight hours ahead of L.A., but I figured the night in London would enable me to catch up on some sleep. Then I could sleep some more on the 12-hour flight to L.A. and arrive in California in the midafternoon, ready to go. The first leg was entirely in the daytime and I couldn’t stay asleep. I was so nervous about missing the plane the next day that my night in London was a restless one. And on the flight to L.A., I was in the last row of the coach section (no reclining seats) next to a woman who coughed and sneezed loudly for most of the trip. When I got to my hotel in L.A., I collapsed on the bed in my clothes and didn’t wake up for more than 14 hours. It was at least a week before I felt normal again.
With that history, I was eager to pick up some tips from Charmane Eastman, director of the biological-rhythms research laboratory at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. She is a recognized authority on overcoming jet lag—which is basically a conflict between your body clock’s time and the actual time in a particular location. Eastman has advised all kinds of road warriors, including astronauts, on the best way to defeat jet lag. Her regimen involves gradually readjusting your body clock before you leave so that you’re in sync with your new destination when you arrive.
I jumped at her offer to create a schedule before my trip to Vienna, which is six hours ahead of my home in New York. I would be leaving on a Friday after a full week of work and didn’t want to waste a moment of our five-day stay. Eastman’s regimen looked easy on paper. For about a week before I took off, I gradually went to bed and woke up earlier. The shift was an hour a day, about the most the body can handle easily. In the morning I used a light box or exposed myself to outdoor light to wake up. At night I also took melatonin, the hormone released by the brain that helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms, in order to reset the time my brain wanted to sleep. I avoided caffeine most of the week as well.
So did it work? Check out the video above to find out.