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Even for those of us fortunate enough to fly in business or first class, jet lag can be a major nuisance. Many people say that flying east is worse than flying west, but the insidious feeling of overwhelming exhaustion that comes shortly after long-distance travel can strike at either end of a trip. And, unfortunately, the symptoms of jet lag only seem to worsen as one ages.
When I first became a professional traveler, I dealt with jet lag the old-fashioned way, which is to say that I drank a few Old Fashioneds (or the equivalent) on the plane, popped a mild sedative, and knocked myself out for most of the flight. For a while I convinced myself that this highly inadvisable technique worked, but it rapidly lost its luster, as I found myself arriving groggy and grouchy. Drinking alcohol, alas, dehydrates the body, which often amplifies the effects of jet lag.
Exchanging some of the cocktails for glasses of water improved my mood after landing, and nowadays, as boring as it sounds, I limit myself to one alcoholic beverage on a flight. Over the years, I’ve discovered other useful habits for mitigating jet lag, not all of which are as tedious as teetotaling. These are the techniques that work for me:
1. If at all possible, I book a nonstop flight, even if it’s quite long. Taking a second flight, particularly after a transoceanic trip, is a chore that never fails to exhaust me. I rarely have as much trouble acclimating if only one flight is involved.
2. As soon as I take off, I change my watch to the time at my destination, and think of that as the time. It makes the adjustment to the new time zone less of a shock to my system.
If I have a hot shower right after I arrive, the siren song of the bed’s fluffy duvet becomes overpowering.
3. If you are able to check into your hotel when you arrive, the temptation to take a shower will be very high. If it’s still early in the day, I recommend resisting. If I have a hot shower right after I arrive, the siren song of the bed’s fluffy duvet becomes overpowering. Instead, I brush my teeth, splash some water on my face and hit the streets as quickly as possible.
4. Napping after your arrival, of course, is a disastrous choice. Napping only prolongs the sense of time displacement. If at all possible, plan some walking for your first afternoon, so that you’re active and in the fresh air. If you must nap, limit the snooze to 30 minutes at the very most.
5. Melatonin has gotten a lot of attention for its sleep-inducing properties. A naturally occurring hormone, melatonin is associated with our body's natural clock and can be used to adjust to a new time zone. It is recommended to take one to three milligrams of pharmaceutical-grade melatonin about two hours before you want to sleep. Just check with your doctor first because it can interact with other medicines. While I've never actually tried melatonin myself, my research into it suggests I should.
6. If walking sounds unappealing, book a body scrub at the hotel’s spa. Because a scrub isn’t as soothing as a massage, you’re more likely to stay awake during the experience and emerge feeling refreshed. Even better is a traditional hammam ritual, involving a steam bath, invigorating scrub and a massage. After a hammam, I feel like all the grime of the flight — both figurative and literal — has been washed away.
6. Avoid museums, which are deadly to the newly arrived traveler. Unless it’s a museum you’re truly excited to see, the exhibits won’t sink in and they’re likely to make you long for bed all the more.
7. Keep your itinerary to walking, shopping, snacking and perhaps a garden or two. In the evening, avoid any sort of performance, be it a traditional Thai dance or a West End musical. Shows are as problematic as museums.
8. Book dinner no later than 7:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. in Spain), and keep yourself awake until at least 9 p.m. It’s tempting to dive right into Michelin-star meals, but I prefer something simpler and quicker my first evening.
And though it may sound improbable to some, self-administered acupressure can also help mitigate jet lag.
9. And though it may sound improbable to some, self-administered acupressure can also help mitigate jet lag. I recommend printing this two-page guide to the process, which involves stimulating a certain point on the body every two hours, depending on the time of day in your destination. When I’ve had the discipline to do the system as recommended, it’s made a tangible difference.
Whatever else you do, making an immediate effort to acclimate to the time where you are is the most important thing. If you avoid thinking about what time it is where you were and firmly believe that you’re in the time zone where you are — and in that time zone only — it helps fool your body into agreeing.