Give yourself jet lag in advance. Why not? What follows is the log of my 12-day jet lag experiment. It worked pretty well, and I plan to repeat it the next time I travel across time zones.
For the first time, I’m planning ahead and trying to do what I can to avoid jet lag. I’ll be traveling east by 9 time zones. The trip will last over two weeks, which is a long enough span of time to make the adjustment worthwhile. Since I work for myself and set my own schedule, I can make my own constraints. I’ve decided that it’s better to suffer at least some of the effects of jet lag in advance, at home, rather than have it spoil the first few days of our trip.
This morning, I woke up at 9:45 AM. This is unusually late even by my standards, but it’s 6:45 PM where I’m going! I like working late at night, and when I get into a groove, my schedule will start creeping later and later. I have been known to swing around the clock until I’m going to bed at 6 AM. This is a way I have of annoying myself, because I always sleep badly during the daytime, being woken up by every lawnmower, ice cream truck, and barking dog. My current schedule is not optimal either for home or travel. (Well, it would be fine if I went to Hawaii).
I’ve always hated taking early morning flights. In light of the reading I did on jet lag planning, I am changing my attitude. Getting up at 4 AM to go to the airport would not only give me more options and probably save money, but it would also put me closer to my goal of adjusting to the destination time zone. The tickets for this trip are already booked, but it’s something I’ll keep in mind for future trips.
My flight leaves in 12 days. I’m planning to adjust in 30-minute increments. I happen to be writing this on a Friday, so this plan won’t infringe too much on my husband’s ability to snooze a little over the weekend. I already know that the easiest way to get up earlier is to go to bed earlier, and that is more or less impossible unless you’re tired enough to go to sleep. Thus, I will be setting both a bedtime reminder and an alarm. Within a few days, I’ll be tired enough to start drifting off earlier. If I can keep to my plan, on the morning I leave, my alarm will go off at 3:45 AM, or 12:45 PM destination time. (My husband is leaving a few days before me, meaning on his travel day we would be getting up right around the same time).
I’m a childhood-onset insomniac, so I’ve been through every iteration of fully or semi-sleepless night possible. If there is one thing I know how to do, it’s to drag myself through the day no matter how tired I am. Let’s see how it goes.
Night 1: We’re both super-tired for some reason. It’s a Friday night and we’re asleep by 11. I wake up at 7:45 AM. The previous night, I slept from 2AM to 9:45 AM. I’ve already shifted two hours earlier and gotten an extra hour’s sleep. I feel groggy and out of sorts. Immediately, I make the connection to jet lag. If I feel this way after a 2-hour shift, how would I feel without the adjustment, being off by 10-12 hours?
Night 2: Stayed up until 1:00, woke up at 7:50. Not as tired as the 9-hour night.
Night 3: In bed at 11:30, up at 7:00. I have awoken before my alarm every day so far. I’ve shifted roughly 3 hours in 3 days with no real effort. Just keep reminding myself why I’m getting up.
Night 4: In bed at 10:30, up at 6:30. Took a while to fall asleep. Today I needed the alarm. The first 3 minutes were really bad, and all I wanted was to roll over and go back to sleep. Then I was fine. Unfortunately, I found out that what I thought should be an 8-hour adjustment was a fluke, an artefact caused by the difference between Daylight Savings start dates in the US and Europe. This definitely validates my plan, because I have more adjusting to do than I had thought.
Night 5: In bed at 11:30, up at 6:15. My husband gets up at 6, and he’ll only be here through the end of the week. I’ve decided to slow my rate of adjustment and just get up with his alarm. He did not sign on to be part of my experiment, and I can’t think of a way to wake up earlier without disturbing him. I’ll still have four days to adjust downward after his flight. Pretty tired. Going to bed earlier is definitely the complicated part of this plan.
Night 6: In bed at 11:30, up at 6:30. Forgot to set an alarm and gradually woke up while hubby was getting ready for work. Really tired and feeling stupid about not going to bed sooner.
Night 7: In bed at 11. Woke up while it was still dark, thinking hubby was leaving for work, but he was just using the bathroom. It was only 1 AM and I had mostly dragged myself awake. Woke up at 5:45 before the alarm. Managed to read quietly without waking him up. Feeling fine.
Night 8: In bed at 10:40. Up at 4:20. Not even tired. Had lunch at 11 AM and realized it’s probably time to shift my mealtimes earlier.
Night 9: In bed at 8:30. Up with the alarm at 3:45. Woke up at 1 AM for the second time in two days, feeling like I could get up, but made myself go back to sleep. My dog has a grievance about being put to bed at 8 PM, and he whined for a while. Trying to figure out how to continue adjusting over the next few days without making life too difficult for my pets. (The bird sleeps from 7 to 7).
Night 10: In bed at 9:30. Up at 2:45 without an alarm. Took a nap from 6-8 AM. I’m still committed to shifting my wake-up time, because I believe it will work, and also because I believe half of the reason it works is drinking water and eating at the new wake-up time. But I’ve been getting pretty tired, and there’s the dog factor to consider.
Night 11: In bed at 9:45. Night terrors at 10:40. THIS. SUCKS. I deal with pavor nocturnus, and I hadn’t had an episode in over two years until this point. I woke up in my bathroom with the light on, panting, alone, and with no immediate idea what had happened. As my heart rate returned to normal, I remembered that I had “dreamed” a lizard was slowly crawling up my wall. Pavor dreams are more like split-second images of things that bother the primitive limbic brain, like spiders and snakes, rather than regular dreams, which are more like movies on any topic. I have always liked lizards and think they’re cute, so it annoys me even more that my sleeping brain decided an imaginary lizard was cause for doubling my heart rate and launching me out of bed in my sleep. Listened to podcasts until 11:15, back to sleep until I awoke naturally at 4:15. My experiment is effectively over. Even if this wasn’t Travel Day, I don’t feel comfortable tinkering with my sleep for a while. I’m not precisely where I wanted to be, but I am waking up naturally 5.5 hours earlier than I was at the start.
On the plane: I managed to sleep between 10:15 and 2:15, waking up every hour in between to readjust. One hour, I slept folded over the tray table, waking up when both of my arms went numb from the shoulders down. Nodded off for 20 minutes on my connecting flight.
First night in Hamburg: Fell asleep at midnight, then woke promptly at 2:30 AM. Lay awake for two hours. Comfy bed, exhaustion, sleep deprivation, no sleep! Got up at 7:30 to catch flight to Barcelona.
Results: I was exhausted from sleeping roughly 8 hours in two nights. I was able to go to bed and fall asleep at an appropriate time on the first night in Barcelona, and woke up naturally at about 8 AM. I slept pretty well throughout the trip. On the trip home, we had a 20-hour travel day and went to bed in our own home around 8:30 PM, or 5:30 AM Spanish time. My husband took Benadryl and slept for 11 hours; I woke up at 2:15 AM. On the second night home, I slept from 10 to 6. I can live with that.
There are several factors that contribute to the complexity of adjusting to a time zone change. Some are psychological, but most are physical. The psychological adjustment was easy for me to make because I had a specific deadline for something desirable. I didn’t feel like my default schedule had much going for it. Changing my sleep schedule would have a net positive impact, both for me and for my husband. The only drawback for us has been that I sometimes distract him when he’s getting ready for work in the morning and would rather talk to me.
The physical adjustments have a lot to do with hormone regulation. This includes melatonin, and it also includes leptin and ghrelin, the hormones that control satiety and appetite. There are most likely others, but three separate sleep-related hormones are enough to get my attention. The other, more obvious physical factors include mealtimes, hydration, and elimination. Gradually adjusting mealtimes also gradually adjusts the digestive system. It’s easier to get up earlier in the morning when you’re hungry. The easiest way is to respond to a full bladder!
About the pavor nocturnus problem: I’m pretty sure what set me off was messing with my blood sugar. That was the key to my two-year remission. I ate too close to bedtime because I was running around preparing for the trip. I already know that it’s best for me to plan meals to end at least three hours before bedtime, and this time, I pushed it to 90 minutes. That, combined with weeks of shifting my sleep times, stress about planning everything, and mild anxiety about sleeping in the house alone, was enough of a trigger. I haven’t had any more episodes in the following three weeks, and I believe it was a fluke.
I believe this gradual adjustment plan would still be feasible for someone working an ordinary 8-5 workweek. It would be difficult to come home, eat dinner, and go to bed almost immediately afterward. If I were doing this at an office job, I’d heat up a meal and eat it during my afternoon break, partly because of my parasomnia issues, partly because I’m sure I’d be hungry after eating breakfast at 4 AM. Our kid is 21 and out of the nest, but this plan could conceivably work for parents of young children because they get put to bed early anyway. Sleep deprivation in children is a real problem that affects their learning and development. Children of every age from infancy to 13 need at least 9 hours a night, and most age groups need at least 11. Going to bed weirdly early could have positive results for a family; let them get "extra" sleep while you get up early and do grown-up stuff. Being awake anywhere between 2-4 AM is a reliably quiet time to get through a great deal of work without interruption. Every family is different, but it’s something to think about. It’s not like travel itself isn’t going to cause some disruptions to the routine.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.