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The sleep doctor on how to beat jet-lag

by Dr. Adrian Williams

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World-renowned sleep expert Professor Adrian Williams returns to share advice for combating the negative effects of travel on your sleep cycle.

Most of us take the daily routine of sleeping and waking for granted. Until, that is, we find ourselves unable to do one or the other. Stress, anxiety or pregnancy can affect sleep patterns, as can the dreaded jet lag, which tends to put a damper on holiday plans this time of year.

So why does jet lag happen? The answer lies at the base of the brain in our body clock where ten thousand nerve cells generate the 24-hour rhythm of sleep and wakefulness. This body clock is governed and regularly calibrated by light exposure due to its direct connection to the eyes and response to blue light within the white light spectrum. Called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, it sends signals to the gland that makes melatonin at night, the gland that makes cortisol in the morning, and to local clocks in other organs throughout the body to activate them at the right time. This central body clock takes time to adjust when light exposure is shifted, which often happens when we reach our vacation destination.

Jet lag isn’t just a lack of sleep, it’s a confused body clock lagging behind (or moving ahead of) the time zone in which you now find yourself. And adjustments to the clock are slow – the further we travel across time zones, the longer it takes us to adjust to new time, though interestingly, this differs between travel to the east and travel to the west. If you’re traveling east, it takes your body clock one day per hour of time zone change to realign. But body clocks cope better when traveling west, often cutting this adjustment period in half.

So what can you do about jet lag? You can begin adjusting to the new time zone before you even leave. If you’re flying west, stay up an extra hour and wake up later for three days before travel. If you’re flying east, force yourself to wake up and go sleep one hour earlier each day for 3 days. When you arrive to the airport, set your watch to the time of your destination and adjust your habits accordingly. So for example, if the time at your destination is 7am when you take off, don’t sleep on a westward flight. If you’re headed east and arriving in the middle of the night there, sleep. Use an eyeshade and earplugs to block out sound and noise. Once you arrive at your destination, light exposure is the crucial fix. If you’re traveling west, expose yourself to the sunlight on arrival so that when you’re off to bed the effects of light will not be felt. If you’re going east, limit your morning light to minimize the unwanted effect of confusion it causes on the body clock.

No matter which direction you’re headed, and no matter how much planning you do, it’s important to remember that you will likely experience a bit of jet lag. Meditation is a useful tool to help get your mind in the right place. When sleep evades you, it can help bring calm to the body and mind; conversely, when sleepiness invades, it helps you with the mindful acceptance that it will pass.

Dr. Adrian Williams

Dr. Adrian Williams is the UK's first Professor of Sleep Medicine with a lifetime of experience in the field. This began at Harvard, followed by many productive years at UCLA, and now London. His clinical experience is extensive; his research has encompassed most areas of sleep, with his current interest focused on meditation as a way of improving sleep and, as a natural consequence, health.

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