Whether you're a frequent flyer or planning your first vacation overseas, you are going to struggle with “jet lag” when you arrive. Flying from the US to Europe, you'll change your watch 6 or more hours forward and your body will rebel.
Watches and cell phones are easy to adjust, but body clocks don't reset so easily. Suddenly, after crossing the Atlantic, you'll be hungry at midnight and sleepy at lunchtime. Ugh.
Symptoms of jet lag
Jet lag doesn't only affect sleep and hunger, either. Recovery and healing occur overnight, so it also disturbs your body's ability to do its normal maintenance
If you'll have more than a 2-hour time change, you may notice these jet lag symptoms:
- Lack of appetite
- Inability to focus
- Daytime drowsiness
- Waking up too early
No, you're not getting sick. It's just jet lag.
What causes jet lag?
Basically, our bodies work on “circadian rhythm,” meaning that our bodies, minds, and behavior are on a 24-hour daily cycle. Everything about us is affected by our exposure to daylight and help determine when we sleep and when we wake. Circadian rhythms are found in most living things, including animals, plants, and even tiny microbes.
How can you avoid jet lag?
I first started researching the jet lag problem when we began to plan our move to Bali. Since then, all our time zone hopping has taught us a few tricks that help bodies adjust. Here's what we've learned: You can't avoid jet lag, but you can minimize the symptoms.
To save you the agony of trying things that don't work – like we did – here are 10 tips that do.
1. Adjust your body clock beforehand.
The most effective natural jet lag remedy is to force your body into its new routine before you leave. Begin adjusting your body clock a few days before the trip. All you'll need to do is gradually adjust your sleep and eating times to coincide with those at your destination.
If you're flying east (US to Europe), eat and go to sleep earlier each night. If you're flying west, do everything later. By the time you arrive your body will have less of a shock.
On the other hand, if you're only in town for a few days, it might not be worth trying to adjust. Yes, if you live in New York and are in California for a business meeting, that might mean you're ready for bed just as locals are going out to dinner. You'll also wake up at the crack of dawn. But at least your body won't have to deal with jet lag when you get home.
2. Book overnight flights.
If you're flying from the U.S. to Europe, most eastbound flights seem to depart in the afternoon and evening, so this shouldn't be too difficult. Depending on the length of your flight and how many time zones you'll cross, you’ll arrive at your destination in the morning or afternoon. This is the best way to adjust your normal schedule, and it’ll be easier for you to reset your clock.
3. Go easy on the caffeine.
I know, and I'm sorry. Avoid coffee, tea and chocolate at the airport and on board, as all of them contain caffeine. Even if you think you'll sleep just fine, caffeine is a diuretic, so you'll wake up more often to make trips to the loo. Result: less total sleep time.
Better to go for water and fruit juices. The air inside of an airplane can be very dry, so you will lose water due to dehydration. I realize for many people this will result in frequent bathroom visits, but hey, it's better to be hydrated!
Tip: Drink at least 8 ounces of water for every hour you’re in the air—even if you don’t feel thirsty. Airplane air is dehydrating.
4. Skip the alcohol.
Avoid the airport bar. Alcohol is dehydrating, and that will worsen symptoms of jet lag.
A cocktail may relax you, but when you're at high altitude, the lower cabin pressure will affect your body in unusual ways. That one drink in the air is the same as two or three on the ground. You can blame that on cabin pressure. A drunken stupor is not the same thing as sleep, and besides, who wants to risk a hangover on arrival?
Tip: If you're a fan of Bloody Marys, ask for a can of spicy tomato juice when they come by with the drinks cart. They will give it to you at no charge.
5. Change your mind.
We are big believers in mind over matter. The most helpful trick is mental: As soon as you board, adjust your watch to the time at your destination. Use the flight to get your body on that schedule. For example, if you're flying from New York to London at 9:20 pm, move your watch to London time and tell yourself, “It is 2:20 a.m. in London.” That's quite a late bedtime, so try to fall asleep as soon as possible.
Time your next meal for when it’s lunch or dinner time at the destination. If it’s a short flight or you're traveling westbound very early in the day, consider fasting until you've landed. You're not missing much if you skip the airplane food.
6. Try to sleep on the plane.
Even with sitting on a plane for hours, travel is exhausting. Time change creates a lot of stress on the body, so the more rest your body gets en route, the easier it will be to deal with jet lag after you land.
If you’re taking a very long flight—U.S. to Asia, for example—consider using your frequent flyer miles for a business or first class upgrade. You'll have more room to stretch out, and those seats recline further back. it’s a lot easier to sleep when your seat reclines all the way back.
If you can’t avoid coach, opt for a window seat. On many planes, armrests can be raised for more comfort. (The release lever is underneath, near the hinge.) You can use your coat, blanket or pillows for padding to prop yourself up against the wall.
Tip: When you arrive at the counter to check in, ask if any upgrades are available. Many airlines offer last-minute upgrades at a significant discount. We have paid as little as $125 each to change our economy tickets to first class.
7. Consider medication
What if we told you that there is a homeopathic medication that helps the body adjust its daily circadian rhythm? Many flight attendants swear by No-Jet-Lag, and so do we. We take it every time we travel and believe me, it helps … but only if you take it as directed, haha. We forgot about it on one flight and dealt with flu-like symptoms for a week. Not doing that again.
We'll admit that the glowing reviews made us skeptical, and we were more inclined to believe the people who said it didn't work. Still, when you're facing a 32-hour flight to the other side of a planet – as we did when we flew to Bali – you'll try anything.
We took it as directed and were shocked at how much easier it was to adjust to the 12-hour time difference. Friends who hadn't taken it were jealous. Their bodies were still adjusting to the time change a week later. BUY IT HERE
We have no personal experience with melatonin, but many people swear by it. Melatonin is available over the counter.
The body uses this hormone to regulates sleep and wakefulness. Some studies suggest that it helps to take 3 milligrams of fast-release melatonin at bedtime for several days after arrival. BUY IT HERE
Prescription sleeping pills
This is between you and your doctor. We don't recommend taking drugs, but some people find sleeping pills helpful. Just make sure that you try them ahead of time to see how they affect you. You don't want to be groggy when you land.
8. Break up your trip
There's no rule that you have to fly directly to your final destination. If you're traveling across multiple time zones, it can help to break up your trip, Consider staying in a city midway to your destination.
For example, when we relocated from Bali to Panama, we scheduled stopovers in both Singapore and London. The difference in airfare was minimal. Not only did we get to explore two cities we hadn't seen before, we avoided the risk of DVT.
What's the difference between a layover and a stopover?
Here's a simple explanation:
Layover: Any stay less than 24 hours counts as a layover. If you plan it right, you can leave the airport to explore the city or elevate your legs with a long sleep in a hotel bed.
Stopover: Any stay that exceeds 23 hours and 59 minutes. This offers unlimited flexibility. You even have time to take a multi-day tour around the country.
Tip: Our website offers a lot of one day itineraries that are perfect for stopovers and long layovers. If we don't have what you need, let us know and we'll try to help you out.
9. Get sunlight and exercise.
Jet lag hates fresh air, activity and bright light. Exercise and exposure to bright light helps the brain wake up and stay awake.
En route. The lighting systems on newer planes can help lessen jet lag by transitioning the cabin lighting based on outside light, and gradually awaken you on red-eye flights.
Are you changing planes?
- Walk around the airport during your layover.
- If it's daytime, try to get outside in the sunlight or stay near a window.
- Ask if there are any outdoor facilities; some airports have gardens, and a few even have swimming pools!
Tip: If you have the time, some airports offer free tours during your layover. That's much better than wasting time waiting for a plane! Get the list of airports offering layover tours here.
Once you arrive, don't go to your room. Rather, go out and explore your new surroundings until it gets dark.
Should you get a headache as you adjust to the new time, don't lay down to get rid of it. Take a painkiller or suck it up. If you lay down, you'll fall asleep early and wake up in the middle of the night.
Conversely, if you wake up in the middle of the night, keep it as dark as possible and don't look at the clock. Close your eyes and try prayer or meditation.
Tip: While aboard, try to open the window shade a bit if you can, to get more light. Though I should warn you that the challenge is getting away with it. Some flight attendants get really irate because they want to keep the lights dimmed. They want passengers to sleep. Sleeping passengers reduce their workload.
10. Get grounded – try Earthing after you land
Remember when your science teacher taught you that all matter is actually just energy? That's true, and that even includes this planet. The earth holds tons of negative electrons, and those are beneficial. So some say that direct contact with the Earth's surface will help our bodies receive energy that makes us feel better fast.
Yes, it sounds totally out-there, but the scientific community agrees that earthing—AKA grounding—has a bunch of legit health benefits. For instance, various studies have proven that the practice helps improve sleep, normalizes stress hormones, improves immune response, and more. (All are super helpful when you’re clocking tons of air miles—or even if you’re just living in the modern world.)wellandgood.com
All you need to do is find some grass or sand, then take your shoes off and put your bare feet on the earth for a while.
Can any technology help?
Here is a list of gear other people have found helpful. If you know of any others we can add, please share in the comments.
- eye mask
- noise machine
- noise-canceling headphones
- neck pillow
- AYO light therapy glasses – According to the company, this compact light therapy solution allows you to adapt to a new time zone 2 to 3 times faster making traveling smooth sailing from here on out. Based on your flight itinerary and user profile, the goAYO app uses proprietary algorithms to calculate the best time for you to use AYO as well as to avoid light, making international travel less stressful and more productive. Find it on Amazon.
How long does it take to recover from jet lag?
Worst-case scenario, here's what we've learned:
- Traveling east: The general rule of thumb is that you should allow one full day to recover for every time zone (hour gained) you traveled east.
- Traveling west: According to one study, recovery from jet lag will take a number of days equal to half the time zones crossed. For those flying halfway around the world (New York to Singapore, for instance), it will take around 6 days to completely beat jet lag.
After a long-haul flight, you'll sleep better on a comfortable mattress. So book a decent hotel, at least for the first night or two.
Bodies are different and your mileage may vary, but we hope these tips help. If you have any other tips on how to avoid jet lag, please share them in the comments.
Other travel tips on As We Saw It include
- How to Keep Your Cool Getting to the Airport
- Want to Avoid DVT on Long-Haul Flights? Try This Technique
- 21 Helpful Tips for First Time Cruisers
- 10 Best Ways to Stay Healthy on a Plane
- Should You Set a Goal to Travel to Every Country?
- Things to Prepare Before Traveling Abroad: A Checklist
Find our favorite travel gear in our Amazon shop.