Overcoming Jetlag: An Experiment

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Jetlag and I do not get along. Not even a little bit.

I already have sleeping problems. Strange beds, new pillows, too much light, not enough white noise, too much white noise…all of these contribute to me lying awake at night, staring at the ceiling.

So when the date of our international flight from Houston to Rome (with a brief layover in Frankfurt) began creeping closer I knew I had to take preventative measures, lest my first day of vacation be totally wasted with exhaustion. I had to make every second count.

Since our flight was scheduled to leave on a Monday, and my last day of work was Friday, I decided try an experiment, dragging Tara along with me. Beginning Friday night, we started to adjust to our new time zone, reasoning that jet lag at home would be way better than jet lag on the trip.

Our strategy was three fold:

  1. Start Early

  2. Shift Slowly

  3. Pay Attention to Food

Part I: Start Early

It was incredibly tempting to say that we would save this experiment for Sunday night and simply pull an all-nighter, or try to shock our systems into the new time zone at the last minute. The temptation was particularly powerful given that we had both just finished long weeks of working and volunteering and, of course, still stayed up Friday night enjoying the start of our weekend.

When we wandered to  bed Friday evening around 1am we were both thoroughly appalled by the idea of waking up in a few short hours. But we forced ourselves to adapt, and in doing so we had three full days to adjust before our feet touched European soil. By the time we got to Rome we were far better off than we would have been had we simply pulled an all-nighter.

By giving myself several days to adapt, it ensured that I was able to fully adjust to the new time zone.

Part II: Shift Slowly

We were looking at a shift of seven hours, from GMT-6 to GMT+1. I had a feeling that trying to shift all at once would end badly, so instead we developed a slow and steady strategy. We had three nights before taking off on our adventure: Friday night, Saturday night and Sunday night.

I wanted to be comfortable with waking up around 7-9am our first morning in Italy. So, we took it in chunks of two hours.

Friday night we went to bed at the normal time.

Saturday morning we woke up at 5am, which was the equivalent of noon in our target time.

Saturday night we went to bed around 6pm and woke up Sunday morning at 3am, the equivalent of ten in our target time.

Finally, Sunday we went to bed around 4pm (not at all a problem at this point – we were wiped!), and woke up around 1am Monday morning, which was 8am in our target time zone.

By shifting slowly, in two  hour blocks, we minimized the impact of the sometimes powerful punch that jetlag packs.

Part III: Pay Attention to Food

What else is there to do at 3am but eat? Luckily, the quickest way to adapt to a new time zone (even faster than changing your sleep schedule) is by changing your eating schedule. We immediately flipped our eating schedule to reflect the eating times of our target time zone (keeping in mind that dinner time in Italy is a bit later than in the States). Even more important than  the time we ate was what we ate. This part we weren’t quite as good at. You can’t really blame us, though. The only things open at one in the morning are Denny’s, IHOP and House of Pies (a chocolate pie called Bayou Goo, anyone?).

The Results

Jetlag sucks no matter what, but I would much rather suffer through it at home than while I’m on vacation, if given the choice. Thankfully, our little experiment was successful. We had to endure being exhausted and cranky as our bodies adjusted, sure, but by the time we boarded our flight (at 3pm Houston time, mind you) my body was convinced that it was almost midnight. This allowed me to conquer the unthinkable.

I actually slept on the plane.

Not for the entire flight (that would be impossible, considering we were on a Lufthansa flight while Germany was playing one of their World Cup games), but for enough. And when we arrived in Rome at noon Tara and I could take full advantage of the afternoon and evening, exploring freely.


But more about our adventures in the Eternal City later! For now, we’re just glad to be able to explore without wasting any time adjusting our sleep schedules.

How do you deal with jet lag? Do you have any tips or tricks for our readers?

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  • Hm, I may have to try this! I’m going to China in October, which is an 11 hour time difference…

    • As long as you have the time, it’s definitely worth it! I’d much rather be cranky at home than while trying to enjoy a trip. 🙂

  • I’m one of those that can never sleep on a plane on an overnight fight. I’ve taken every over the counter medicine there is, and I’m still wide awake. It takes me at least one day to catch up on my sleep and I’m exhausted for days. I do agree that you have to watch what you eat when you’re adapting to the time change. Great post!!

    • Thanks! It really is debilitating, not being able to sleep on a long flight, and I’m willing to try just about anything to make it happen!

  • Glad the experiment worked! On my (all of 2!) transatlantic flights, I’ve only had to shift 5 hours ahead, not 7. But what has worked for me is booking overnight flights, sleeping through as much of them as possible, and waking up in the morning upon landing. Although I’m always exhausted around 7 or 8pm that first day, once I get a good night’s sleep, I’m good to go for the rest of the trip, without any jet lag. If I were to go farther off my schedule, that might be a different story, and I’d definitely try this method!

    • Yeah, if you can sleep on planes it definitely helps! I was particularly worried about this one because even though it was an overnight flight, it left Houston at 4pm — which isn’t anywhere close to my bedtime. So I definitely knew that I would have issues sleeping, even though it was a 9 hour flight and we landed the next morning. When we landed for our layover in Germany it was 9am, which would have been just 2am Houston time.

    • Donna Tennant

      That has worked for me. As long as I get at least four hours of sleep on the plane, I can make it to the hotel room and lunch. We usually take a two-hour nap after that. Go out for a fairly early dinner, go to bed around 10 pm, and I am good to go the next day.