Jet Lag: The Ultimate Tips and Tricks Guide
What is Jet Lag?
Jet lag is sometimes an unavoidable consequence of travel. Airline travel allows us to reach far-flung corners of the globe in just a few hours, and technical improvements to aircraft mean we can travel further and faster than ever before. That’s great for globetrotters, but the downside to being able to cross so many time zones so quickly is jet lag, a condition that arises from our internal body clocks being out of sync with the local time at our destination. Crossing up to three timezones rarely causes jet lag; crossing more than seven in one journey can bring on more severe problems.
Symptoms of jet lag include: lack of appetite and lethargy during the day, and difficulty sleeping at night. Depending on the direction of travel, travellers suffering from jet lag may either find it difficult to fall asleep at bedtime, or may wake in the middle of the night (when the body thinks it’s morning) and have trouble getting back to sleep. Travelling west to east often causes more severe symptoms: flying against the direction of the sun’s travel and missing several hours from the body’s day can be very disorientating. Many travellers find it easier to sleep off the longer day that results from travelling east to west, but a long journey westward can still leave you feeling quite groggy.
Jet lag typically takes one day per time zone to adjust to when travelling eastward, so the most effective treatment for the condition is to simply wait for your body to readjust; but there are some things you can do to help minimise the effects of jetting around the world.
Before You Go: Preparing for Jet Lag
Following a few simple tips when planning your travel and in the days before your flight can help reduce fatigue and disorientation on arrival:
- If possible, book a flight that arrives in the afternoon or early evening. Exposure to light at this time (especially when travelling eastwards) can help your body clock to settle into its new pattern; and fading light in the evening should cue you to go to sleep at bedtime. If you can, avoid overnight flights that arrive in the morning.
- If your flight is very long, adding a stopover can help break the journey (and the attendant jet lag) into stages. A few hours spent with your feet on the ground – and ideally with your head on a pillow – can really make a long-haul trip more manageable.
- Start resetting your body clock a few days before you travel. If you’re heading east, go to bed an hour earlier than usual at night and set your alarm to wake up an hour earlier in the morning. If you’re going west, go to bed and wake up an hour later than normal (work allowing!) This will help your system get used to the change in routine, so when you arrive at your destination the change won’t be so extreme.
- Rest up before you travel – tiredness and general travel fatigue can make the symptoms of jet lag feel worse. Avoid early starts and stressful travel to the airport with a relaxing night at an airport hotel the day before you fly – this should get your journey off to a restful start.
If you use medication that needs to be taken at a specific time (or times) of day, check with your GP before you travel to find out how you should manage your dosage.
On the Flight: Avoiding Jet Lag
A few simple steps can help you reduce fatigue and start to reset your routine while you’re still in the air:
- Set your watch to your destination time as soon as you board and try (as far as possible) to eat and sleep according to this time. A few light, healthy snacks in your hand luggage can help keep you on your new mealtime routine if the in-flight service comes round at unhelpful times. Smaller, lighter meals will be easier on the stomach; a heavy meal may interfere further with your sleep cycle by keeping you awake with indigestion.
- If you’re flying overnight, a few hours of shuteye can help you feel fresher when you arrive at your destination. Take a sleep mask and earplugs to help you drift off and a comfortable neck pillow to sleep on; soothing music, lavender oil or herbal sleep aids can also be helpful if you don’t sleep well on planes. Sleeping pills can leave you feeling groggier at the other end of your journey so aren’t recommended for use on the plane.
- Avoid sleeping on the plane if it’s not night-time at your destination – that can really confuse your body clock. Try to stay awake until around 10pm at your destination time to help re-programme your sleep systems.
- Keep hydrated on the flight – although fluids won’t affect your circadian rhythms, dehydration from cabin air will make you feel groggier and less comfortable, intensifying the effects of jet lag. Water and fruit juice are the best options; alcohol, sugary soft drinks and coffee can be very dehydrating and are best avoided.
When you Arrive: Keeping Jet Lag at Bay
Hopefully if you’ve followed our tips above you’ll arrive fresh and relaxed; now get your body set to its new time zone as efficiently as possible by doing the following:
- When it comes to re-tuning your body clock, daylight is your friend – so take a stroll in the sunshine as soon as you can. Hopefully you’ve managed to arrive at a time of day that makes this possible soon after landing; if you do arrive after dark, then get outside in the daylight as soon as you can the next morning.
- Have a restful first day and evening. After a long flight, the last thing you want to do is a tiring long drive or train ride, so if your final destination is not in the same place as your arrival airport book a stay at a local hotel to help you get your head in the right longitude.
- At bedtime, follow your usual sleep routine to help signal to your brain that it’s time for rest. Take a soothing warm bath, a relaxing mug of hot milk, or some soft music – whatever usually helps you to drift off. Herbal sleep aids such as chamomile or valerian may help you to nod off if a strange bed is keeping you awake.
- Help your body understand when your new day finishes and night starts by being outside in natural light in the daytime, and keeping your bedroom as dark as possible at night. Darkness stimulates the body’s natural production of melatonin, the hormone that regulates sleep – so if the curtains leave something to be desired in the light-blocking department, use a sleep mask; and avoid artificial light sources including lamps, TVs and mobile devices once it’s time to go to bed.
- Try a jet lag calculator to help you plan when to get out in the light and when to keep things dark.
Going Home: Avoiding the Jet Lag Slump
Don’t forget to follow these tips in reverse when you travel home again – try to arrive in the afternoon again when you book your homeward flight, and start gently getting your body back into home gear a couple of days before you depart. Plan a restful day when you arrive home too – no rushing off to meetings or all-night soirees!
If you follow these tips, you’ll adjust quicker and more easily to your new time zone in each direction of travel, and feel perkier on the first few days of your holiday and when you get home.