The Joys of Jet Lag and 5 Tips to Deal With It

Accepting the ups and downs of long-distance travel

The Joys of Jet Lag and 5 Tips to Deal With It
A train passes amid cherry blossoms at nighttime in Tokyo. (Amornrit Akkavangso/Shutterstock)

It is a singular, unmistakable moment that every frequent flyer knows well—and dreads just a little bit. You’ve boarded a plane and traveled a long distance, many time zones away from your home. Arriving at your destination, you check into your hotel and fall into bed, your own circadian rhythms overwhelming you, the rushing current of sleep pulling you down into it very deeply. Perhaps the sun hasn’t even set out there, outside your window.

And then, a few hours later, it happens. In the wee, quiet hours of the earliest morning. The middle of the night, really. And your eyes flutter open. Staring at the ceiling, or looking out the window, searching the horizon for even a sliver of light, you know it for certain in your heart. It may only be 2:30 a.m. on the clock. Your mind is telling you to go back to bed. But your body knows you are now awake and will remain awake for a very long day.

It is one unavoidable, essential part of traveling long distances: the thing we call jet lag. Depending on what direction you take and how many hours separate you from the time of day at home, jet lag can be very tough. It will wake you up in the middle of the night, force you to sleep at a ridiculously early hour, or keep you up well past your bedtime. You’ll get hungry at weird times. And it can sometimes take days, or even a week or more, to feel normal again. (Experts say to allow a day for every hour of time difference to acclimate, although I’ve always found that a tiny bit excessive.)

As a full-time travel writer, I am very familiar with jet lag—or circadian dysthymia, as the scientists call it. It is a necessary outcome of modern-day long-distance travel. Our bodies run on circadian rhythms, a sort of ancient internal clock that dictates how you move through the day—helping you wake up and go to sleep at normal times.

But those old rhythms don’t know how to deal with the relatively recent phenomenon of air travel and being able to move across time zones in a flash. So when you land in Cape Town, your body still thinks it’s in New York and will operate that way, at least until your body is able to catch up and reset that internal clock.

So the first few days at a destination across the world are always a bit disorienting. Especially in true "upside-down" situations—when day is night and vice versa—in Asia, say, or Australia, where the time difference is 10 or 12 hours. But whenever possible, I’ve learned to embrace the jet lag.

Making the Most of Jet Lag

For example, I appreciate the mystery, pleasure, and, yes, joy of watching a city wake up.

It is the quandary and the question whenever your eyes flutter open—for good—at 3 a.m. What do I do now? Any scheduled meeting or activity is inevitably still hours away.

So, mostly, I walk. I’ll never forget my first visit to Japan. As I descended the hotel elevator and strode into the street, Tokyo was at that peculiar moment that I call "slack tide." Night hadn’t quite become day yet. Shift workers in their uniforms and hardcore partygoers in their club clothes were headed home, their weary faces lit up with the swirl of constant, flashing, colorful, undying light that abides in every big boulevard and little back lane in this lively city.

But it was unmistakable; you could feel it: The morning was starting to take hold. Shopkeepers were sweeping and hosing off their walks. Delivery men were bringing fresh fish and other delicacies on ice. The first commuters, proper in their black pants and skirts and crisp, ironed shirts, were beating the rush and crush at Shinagawa Station, perhaps hopping on the JR to ride to the office or the Shinkansen for an early meeting in Yokohama or Osaka.

Most people miss this moment. It is one shared by a relative few—the early, the late, and the jet-lagged. Everybody else is, quite sensibly, asleep in their warm beds.

Going the Long Way Around

I’ll also never forget the time I arrived in New Zealand—where the time zone is 16 hours ahead of Eastern Time, and across the International Date Line—completely free of jet lag. The trick? I arrived by ship. Leaving from Chile on the Queen Victoria, we took 17 days to cross the Pacific, with brief calls only at Tahiti, Bora Bora, and Tonga.

The ship ran on its own time, and the crew had devised an ingenious system to slowly acclimate guests. Every night, for many nights, we moved the clock back one hour. We even had a (not very creative) name for it: "hour-backs." You’d hear it around the ship all the time: "Don’t forget your hour-back tonight!"

And then, one week, we didn’t have a Wednesday. Instead of a little cardboard reminder on the pillow about the hour-back, this one said, "Tonight, please turn your clocks 23 hours forward." So we still got our hour, but we lost a whole day. Sailing through that dark night in the middle of an ocean, we all went to bed on a Tuesday and woke up on a Thursday.

We arrived in Auckland a few days later, as if we’d been there for a whole month, fresh as daisies. But this was, of course, a unique circumstance. It is rare to have so many days to slowly adjust. So now, when I land in a new, faraway place, I do so determined to embrace the jet lag—and to find those joys whenever possible.

5 Tips for Beating Jet Lag

  1. Be prepared: While you’ll find hundreds of articles online boasting surefire ways to beat jet lag, know that most of them won’t work for many people—and many of them won’t work at all. So it’s best to prepare and steel yourself for at least a couple of days of feeling topsy-turvy.
  2. Make it to 10 o’clock: It’s best to try to stay awake during daylight hours and sleep at night, but it won’t be easy those first couple of days. Your system needs time to reset. So my goal is always to stay awake by whatever means necessary (usually by staying busy and being out somewhere) until at least 10 p.m.
  3. Arrive early: If at all possible, arrive a day or two before an event or anything that requires mental acuity. That’ll take the pressure off and give you time to adjust.
  4. Keep any naps tight: Going from North America to Europe, I always hit a wall around 2 to 3 p.m. I call these "the heavy hours," where eyelids droop and my body believes it’s been up all night. A 15- to 30-minute catnap can help, but be careful—any more and you’ll feel groggy and disoriented.
  5. Hide your phone: The worst thing you can do is give in to the temptation to work when you awake in the middle of the night. This can begin to form a new and unpleasant sleep cycle, and your coworkers will then expect responses to their emails when it’s 3 a.m. your time. Better to wait till it’s truly morning to start any work.
Toronto-based writer Tim Johnson is always traveling in search of the next great story. Having visited 140 countries across all seven continents, he’s tracked lions on foot in Botswana, dug for dinosaur bones in Mongolia, and walked among a half-million penguins on South Georgia Island. He contributes to some of North America’s largest publications, including CNN Travel, Bloomberg, and The Globe and Mail.
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