Dealing With Jet Lag

Updated on August 26, 2018

Jet lag happens when the body’s circadian rhythm (or sleep-wake cycle) becomes misaligned because of a change in environment. It is most well-known with air travel across multiple time zones because your sleep-wake cycle is different from the day-night cycle in the place where you’ve landed. However, it can also occur if you travel to a place with very different daylight hours (such as Alaska or Patagonia).

Jet lag tends to be worse when traveling east and over many time zones. It can cause feelings of drowsiness, fatigue (both mental and physical), and irritability. It is not uncommon for jet lag to last for several days until you can adjust to your new location.

Even though jet lag is common for travelers, there are steps you can take to help prevent or reduce it. Below we’ve listed some tips for before, during, and after your trip.

Before Traveling

  • Optimize your travel schedule: as much as possible, select flights that will let you acclimate your sleep schedule appropriately whether that be by trying to sleep on the entire flight or by arriving at a time that will facilitate an easier transition to local hours.
  • Adjust your daily schedule in advance: starting up to a week before your trip, you can start making minor adjustments to your mealtimes and bedtimes to help prepare your body for the upcoming change from travel. A number of different apps (such as Timeshifter) and websites (such as Jet Lag Rooster) can help you prepare a schedule to best combat jet lag.
  • Avoid compounding factors: flying when you’re extremely frustrated, stressed, drunk, hungover, malnourished, dehydrated, or sick can only make it more difficult to respond mentally and physically to the challenges of major travel. Try to avoid any of these extra stressors when preparing for a big trip.

While Traveling

  • Make yourself comfortable: if you can, get an airplane seat with extra leg room or whatever type of seat (aisle or window) that you find most palatable. Bring along a good travel pillow if you have one, an extra sweater in case the plane is cold, headphones or earplugs, relaxing music or a white noise app, and an eye mask. Make sure to wear clothes that you find comfortable to wear for long periods.
  • Make healthy choices: people often let themselves go when in the airport, but it’s important to try to make smart decisions when it comes to eating, drinking, and exercising. If you can, stretch your legs before the flight and take some bathroom breaks or stretch breaks during the trip. Avoid eating really heavy or spicy foods, and remember to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. It’s fine to drink coffee or an adult beverage, but do so in moderation and alongside water.
  • Follow your sleep plan: if you’ve made a plan in advance about your sleeping schedule, stick to it. For example, if you’re on a red eye with a plan to sleep through the flight, don’t start up watching a movie on the plane. It might seem appealing at the time, but you’ll regret it when you land. Stick to your plan for the best results.

After Arrival

  • Continue with your plan: again, there’s a reason why you strategized ahead of time for avoiding jet lag. Now is the time to stay with your plan so that it can prevent more serious jet lag.
  • Get onto the local schedule: do whatever you can to get yourself aligned with the local schedule both in terms of daylight and in terms of the social activities of your new locale. For example, if you arrive in the mid-afternoon, try to take in some daylight while getting in a short walk. If you arrive when it’s dark, avoid really bright lights. Try to get your meal schedule aligned with the local schedule. If necessary, have a small snack to tide you over to a bigger mealtime.
  • Consider melatonin: melatonin is produced by the body in accordance with the day-night cycle of each day. The release of melatonin as daylight ends is a signal to the body to start getting ready to rest. In order to help align the body’s sleep-wake cycle in a new time zone, some people find it helpful to take melatonin supplements before bed. In general, these supplements are very well tolerated and have few side effects, but you can always talk with your doctor or a nurse about using melatonin before you start your trip.
  • Don’t despair: some people, upon feeling jet lag, give in and stop trying to adjust or let themselves get very anxious or upset about the situation. Remember that some amount of jet lag is normal and that with time and commitment to shifting your circadian rhythm, you can prevent this issue from ruining your trip.

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