Avoiding jet lag: tips from travel experts
Jet lag is a temporary sleep problem that can affect anyone who quickly travels across multiple time zones. Your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythms, is out of whack as a result and signals your body to stay awake when it is time to sleep and sleep when it is time to be up and about. But there are ways to cope and avoid jet lag.
Jet lag is nearly inevitable, really, when you travel at today’s pace across multiple time zones. Man was meant to saunter thousands of miles, not jet between continents to suddenly find himself propelled into tomorrow or reliving this morning.
Avoiding jet lag is really all about minimizing jet lag’s effects. That indeed is possible, but some of what you need to do may seem counter-intuitive.
Know what jet lag is to start avoiding it
This is not some weird disease. In fact, jet lag is really a temporary sleep disorder. Your inner clock says it’s night, but your location says it’s day; your body says it’s time to sleep, your watch says it’s time to spend the afternoon in meetings or sightseeing. Bottom line: You feel out of sync with the time of day in your current location based on what your body thinks what time it should be. Your body simply can’t adjust as fast as today’s jets fly when we travel.
That seems simple enough, but whether traveling for work or traveling for pleasure, you don’t want to be a non-functioning, exhausted zombie. On top of basic fatigue, not avoiding jet lag may also result in headaches or even migraines, dizzy spells or stomach upset. The more zones you cross, the worse it can be to minimize the effects.
Flying west to east is normally worse because you “lose time” compared to flying east to west when you “gain time.” For example, flying from the Western United States to New York or Europe is going to leave you worse off than flying home again.
Tips for avoiding jet lag’s effects
Those who travel regularly know what to do and do it mostly habitually. These travel experts also know what works best for them. If you travel across time zones infrequently, you may need a refresher so you don’t mess up a week of your 12-day vacation.
Here is the counter-intuitive part: Sometimes just going to sleep isn’t the answer. But we’ll address that below.
What to do prior to departure
Some medical experts say it basically takes a day to acclimatize for every time zone you cross when going east, about half that when heading west. That is just a warning that you do need to be easy on yourself when arriving many time zones from home. You really won’t be at the top of your game for a few days. Still, if you heed these tips for avoiding jet lag, you’ll be functioning pretty well very quickly – not ready to summit Everest perhaps, but getting around well without walking in front of a bus or snoring in your business meeting.
Get rest prior to departure. Please do not stay up all night for the last couple of days, running around trying to check off an inordinately long list. Get at least near to the normal amount of sleep you require.
Recognize your age. Shoot, dang it all, as you get older, so too do the effects of jet lag get worse and your recovery from them slower. We can’t turn back the clock, but you can be nicer to yourself in planning travel. Build in a little “travel warm-up time” when you arrive – a slower first day, no all-nighters at the Oktoberfest, yea, that kind of thing. Then ramp up slowly.
Re-adjust your life prior to departure? I have heard this a million times myself, and although it is commonly recommended to gradually move your mealtimes and bedtimes closer to the schedule of your destination, that is simply not always possible. That means if you are flying somewhere that is, say, three hours head of you, then over three or four days, you should shift your schedule to be three hours ahead of where you are. Sounds good on paper. I guess. But if you work, have kids with a school schedule, take classes, etc., you can’t just drop out of life. And if you are flying somewhere that is nine hours ahead, does that mean instead of going to bed at 11 p.m., you should be basically staying up all night and going to bed at 8 in the morning. Who dreamed that up? Anyway, this re-aligning could work for fewer time zones, so take it under consideration.
What to do during a flight for avoiding jet lag
You’ll be hard-pressed to find any regular traveler who doesn’t follow these guidelines.
Change your watch. As soon as you board the plane, change the time on your watch or smartphone to the time of your destination. Start thinking as if you are IN that time zone. Do not attempt to stay mentally in the time you have left behind. BECOME your destination as soon as possible. Mind games? Sure. But they help in avoiding jet lag.
Drink plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids. Water is the best choice. Most airplane cabins are pressurized to simulate an altitude of about 8,000 feet, so you’re at altitude and that’s dehydrating. The newer 787 “Dreamliner” plane has managed with new technology to lower that to about 6,000 feet – much better, but still more dehydrating than where most people live. Minimize alcoholic beverages.
Pack comfort gear. For me, that means an inflatable neck roll of some sort, eye shades, and ear plugs. Some may want a compact blanket or maybe a cozy sweater will do. An extra pair of socks or slippers are helpful so you can remove tight shoes. I like the TravelRest pillow that allows more natural sleeping when semi-reclined.
Having a travel sleep kit is essential to fighting off jet lag. Be sure to read Pack a sleep travel kit to help you sleep when traveling.
Avoid caffeine. You’re already minimizing or avoiding alcohol. Now try to eliminate caffeine. Both will disturb the sleep you must get when flying eastward.
Sleep, sleep, sleep! Since you are losing time, you want to sleep as much as possible. Frankly, I calculate when I will arrive, when I’ll need to be awake, when I need to “bed down” to get my minimum of four or five hours of sleep, and then I make sure I am finishing a meal or shutting down prior to that. Some people may be fine with a shorter nap of two or three hours. But avoid getting sucked into movie marathons, and please avoid staring at your tablet or computer since that blue light has been shown to wake up your body.
Are sleep aids for you? Some savvy travelers do use a prescription sleep aid to ensure they get those four or five hours. That is something for you to discuss with your physician. Others swear by over-the-counter medications, herbal sleep aids or melatonin. Consider something to help you relax so you can get to sleep.
Like a really long afternoon with a short nap. Depending on the length of your flight, you may want only a short nap, 30-60 minutes. Basically, you want to try to stay awake, treating the time like a really long afternoon, so when you arrive at your destination, you are really ready for bed.
Move around the cabin. Don’t glue your behind to the seat. Every hour, get up and amble up and down the aisle to stretch your legs and get blood moving.
What to do upon arrival for avoiding jet lag
Stay awake! Ah, so counter-intuitive to what your body seems to want. You may be tired, but do not sleep if you arrive at your destination in the morning or in the afternoon. The last thing you want to do is sleep all afternoon or all evening and be up raring to go again at 10 p.m. or 12 a.m. This will only complicate avoiding jet lag since you have not started to reset your inner clock. (Some people can take a 15-minute power nap and then be fine. Just be sure to make it a super-shorty shut-eye.)
Get fresh air and maybe a little caffeine. Go for a walk or run or bike ride, or meander around a park. Fresh air is what will keep you alive and awake. Although overdosing on coffee isn’t a good thing, perhaps indulging in that cup o’ joe you avoided on the plane will rev up your motors a bit.
Hit the sack early. Get an early meal, don’t plan a big night out, and get to bed early. If you’ve done the above, you will be tired and you will sleep. There’s nothing so satisfying as waking up on your first day feeling like a million bucks.
Know the tricks to sleep better in hotel rooms no matter what. Be sure to read 10 top tips to help you sleep better in hotels.
Need sleep aids? As mentioned above, some people may need a little help for the first night or two to be sure they acclimatize. There is of course the prescription aid, but others use things like antihistamines or nighttime painkillers. Others will swear by herbals, even chamomile teas. You choose what you think will work.
Staying on track to avoiding jet lag
You may still have those sleepy spells the first day or two, so simply revisit the above: plenty of water, fresh air and exercise, a little well-timed caffeine if you are a caffeine user, and a couple of solid night’s sleep.
My recipe upon arrival when traveling eastward is to stay awake, have a strong cup of coffee, walk a LOT, have an early dinner, and get as much sleep as possible. Best scenario is not having any appointments the first morning so I can also get outdoors for some exercise and fresh air. Then, indeed, I’m good to go for the rest of the trip. Follow the above tips and you will be too!
Take a look at more information for staying healthy in our earlier story, Tips for staying healthy while traveling.