The problem: Crossing time zones
Jet lag isn’t about sleep; it’s about alertness. Crossing time zones knocks your circadian rhythm out of whack, so napping won’t necessarily fix that foggy feeling.
If you’ve traveled to an earlier time zone, try bright light, such as a Philips goLite Blu energy light, late in the day, says John Herman, adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and advisor to the National Sleep Foundation. If you’re groggy the next morning, half a milligram of melatonin—which is not a sleep aid, but an internal clock-resetter—can help.
“Bright light at night, melatonin in the morning should work pretty fast,” Herman says.
For trips crossing multiple time zones, start acclimating your internal clock by resetting your watch when you board the plane. Then take a sleeping pill and about 3 milligrams of melatonin. “This will put you in a very deep, prolonged sleep,” Herman says, and you’ll be ready to go when you wake. A sleeping pill minus the melatonin won’t work as well.
The problem: Getting comfortable on the plane
Follow the advice of Heather Poole, a longtime flight attendant and author of Cruising Attitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama, and Crazy Passengers at 35,000 Feet. Book a window seat on the side of the plane you sleep on when cozied up in bed at home, and snuggle one of those U-shaped pillows on the front of your neck.
“If you’re short,” she adds, “put your carry-on under your feet like a leg rest. With your knees raised, you will be less restless in the seat. If that doesn’t work, try to roll the pillow under your knees. If you’re tall, take what you need from your carry-on and get it in the overhead. Every bit of space helps.”
The problem: Adjusting to a hotel bed
No matter how nice the hotel, some people find that being in a strange bed, coupled with work stress, is disruptive to their sleep. “There’s something about our own bed that gives us a sense of security and comfort,” Herman says. “Your mind’s not shutting down because you’re in an unfamiliar setting.”
Focus on the familiar: your own breathing. Count your breaths, feel your chest rise and fall. “Get a rhythm going,” Herman says, noting that concentrating on that rhythm will help to banish external thoughts and ease relaxation.
If the mattress is broken down or just wrong for you—too soft or too hard—ask the front desk if other room types have higher-quality beds, suggests Mary Ann Wilmarth, chief of physical therapy at Harvard University. Failing an upgrade, request a board to be placed between the mattress and the bedspring if the bed is too soft, or put a folded blanket between the mattress and sheet if it’s too hard.
If you wake with a stiff neck anyway, take a warm shower, then gently move your head forward, side to side and in circles. For lower-back pain, get on your hands and knees and arch and sag the back (the cat and cow poses in yoga), then take a walk. Says Wilmarth: “The back likes moving, so walking often helps to ease aching.”