Jet lag is the result of a sudden change in your circadian rhythm—your body’s 24-hour “master clock.” That clock includes the basic routine your body develops based on its exposure to light, determining when it’s time to wake up, eat, go back to sleep, and more.
All these routines are controlled by the hormone melatonin, which is produced by your master clock when it gets dark to make you feel drowsy, and controls your body temperature when you sleep.
Circadian Rhythm. Image: fuzzyscience.wikispaces.com
When you fly to a different time zone (or work night shifts), all the clocks in your body go out of sync—or, to use the technical term, “desynchronize.” Each routine then takes a slightly different amount of time to re-adjust, which is why even frequent travelers feel so out of sorts after shifting time zones.
And while every traveler has battled jet lag, most are unaware of how detrimental its effects can be. Symptoms of jet lag can include:
- Poor sleep, including delayed ability to shut your eyes (after eastward flights) and early awakenings (after westward flights)
- Poor physical and mental performance during your new daytime hours
- Fatigue, irritability, stress, and an inability to concentrate
- Digestive problems, a lack of hunger, and a general disinterest in enjoying meals
If those effects sound like an awful way to spend your next vacation, check out our ten tips to beating jet lag like a pro:
Before Your Flight
1. Book Your Flight Strategically
If you are flying west, book an afternoon flight. If you are flying east, book a morning flight. Passengers traveling west experience lighter effects than passengers traveling east, because east runs the opposite direction of the internal body clock.
2. Adjust Your Sleep Schedule
A few days before your flight, adjust your sleep pattern to mirror the local time of your destination. If you are flying west, you should move your bedtime later. If you are flying east, you should move it earlier. This will make it much easier for your body to adjust to the new time when you arrive.
Pro Tip: Not only can you adjust your sleep schedule before heading to a new time zone, but you can help prepare your body for the shift by adjusting your eating schedule, too! Try to start shifting meal times to when you’ll be eating after arrival to make it easier for internal clocks to shift.
3. Pack Long Before Your Flight
Stress is like a crying baby on a flight: It’s a situation that no one wants to deal with. Reduce your stress by packing a few days before you leave. Not only will this save you worry, but it’ll also keep you from the oh-no-I-forgot-to-pack dance three hours before your flight. We’ve all been there.
Related: You’ve Been Packing Wrong All Along
4. Adjust Your Watch
After you get through security, adjust your watch to your destination’s local time to help you mentally prepare before you even land.
During Your Flight
5. Drink Water, Not Booze
Flying for a long period of time isn’t the greatest thing for your body. The cabin air pressure is dehydrating, which won’t help your travel hangover. To make up for it, be sure to drink eight ounces of water per every hour you’re in flight.
Whatever you do: Don’t drink alcohol! Sorry for the bad news, but alcohol and coffee will only dehydrate you more.
Pro tip: If you are looking for a more natural remedy, try drinking ginger tea on your next flight. Not only does it relax your muscles, but it also keeps your blood circulating. The catch is that it has to be fresh ginger root — none of that powder stuff. Just add sliced root and lemon to a tumbler, and ask for hot water while you are in flight.
6. Eat Light
While your mind might already be in vacation mode, eat light on your flight. Heavy meals will disrupt you from getting that much-needed rest. Stick to protein and plant-based foods to elevate those jet-lag blues.
7. Sleep During Your Flight
One of the best things you can do is get some sleep on your flight. Bring an eye mask and ask for a pillow and earplugs to unplug from the rest of the world. Ideally, you should sleep when it’s night time in your destination city. This will help you feel fresh and ready to go when you arrive.
Cabin of a Virgin America A320. Image: Wikipedia
Pro tip: Did you know that some newer models of airplanes have been designed with reducing jet lag in mind? The Boeing 757 Dreamliner features dynamic LED lighting that cycles to simulate daytime and the night sky at your destination. This model also has advanced air filters that help to reduce dehydration. The Airbus 380 also features mood lighting and is pressurized lower than most commercial aircrafts to help reduce the effects of jet lag after landing.
8. Stretch and Walk Around
Keep the blood flowing by doing mini stretches in your seat. This will help prevent muscle aches and keep you relaxed. We’re not saying you should do a full-on Richard Simmons workout routine, but minor leg and arm rotations will help.
When You Arrive
9. Get Out Into The Sun
Sunlight is your best friend when you need to reset your internal clock. If you arrive at your destination during the day, get as much light exposure as you possibly can. The more light you receive, the quicker you’ll get over jet lag.
10. Rest at Sundown
Try not to sleep if there’s light out after you land. Push through your fatigue by doing activities to stay awake. Once the sun is setting and you head back to your accommodations, be sure to put away any electronics for a glorious night of rest.
What About Sleep Aids?
WebMD experts say to consider taking melatonin—though how much depends on your personal tolerance. My personal preference is to take 3 milligrams of melatonin an hour or two before bedtime the day before I travel, giving myself at least 10 hours to sleep.
If you have an overnight flight, consider taking melatonin about two hours or so before the bedtime of your destination, then at night once you arrive around the same time for a few days. If you want something with a little more kick, a sleeping pill can be a lifesaver on a long overnight trip. However, you might have a surprise visit from negative side effects that could throw off your sleep schedule even more.
Alternatively, lavender oil is very affordable, widely available, and since it packs a punch in small doses, is very TSA friendly. Shake some drops on your hotel pillows or just apply it to your skin. Lavender is scientifically proven to act as a mild sedative, making you more likely to experience deep sleep.
Another method of inducing sleep is taking a warm bath. Doing so relaxes your muscles, refreshes you after a long exhausting day of travel, and readies your body for bed. Plus, this is the perfect time to drop in some of that lavender oil for an ultra-relaxing soak.
Finally, if you fly frequently or find yourself really struggling with the inability to reset your schedule, consider seeing a doctor—even mid-vacation. There are a number of medications that, when prescribed by a medical professional, can help shift your body’s circadian rhythm towards a new time zone and allow you get on with enjoying your trip.