Ah, jet lag: that general sense of exhaustion that accompanies air travel.
Travel east and you find yourself staying up late, unable to sleep, and sluggish in the morning. Travel westward and you experience the reverse, bounding out of bed earlier than you want and exhausted after dinner.
There’s no way around it. Travel is tough on sleep.
Why do we have jet lag?
Jet lag is a result of your body’s circadian rhythms being out of sync with the new biological schedule of your destination.
Although it most commonly occurs with the distances travelled by plane (putting the jet in jet lag), it can occur whenever you travel somewhere where the external environmental cues differ from the ones from whence you came. For instance, if you stay in the same time zone but travel way north or south during the extremes of summer or winter, the sun will rise and set much later or sooner than you’re used to and induce jet lag.
While jet lag affects, or doesn’t affect, everyone differently, there are a few general rules of thumb. Traveling east is harder than traveling west, and morning larks and adults over age 50 typically experience symptoms more intensely.
Tips for avoiding jet lag
Fortunately, you can make things easier on yourself by taking a few precautions to minimize symptoms of jet lag.
Follow these tips before, during, and after your trip to avoid jet lag.
Before you travel
1. Schedule smart.
That’s right – before you even book your flight, there’s much you can do to avoid jet lag.
- Travel time: If you’re traveling far enough that the trip will take several hours, opt for a departure time that suits your sleep schedule. If you’re able to sleep while you fly, go for a red-eye so you can sleep overnight and make the transition as seamless as possible. If you’re not able to sleep on a plane, choose a flight that arrives early enough for you to get to your final destination, into bed, and sleep to get a full night’s rest.
- Seat selection: Choose a window seat so you can lean against it and not be woken up by other passengers who need to use the restroom. Consider upgrading your seat for more legroom so you can stretch out and recline.
- Trip purpose: If you’re traveling for an important event, work or personal, try to arrive at leat a day ahead of time if you’re going to be traveling 2 or more time zones. This will give you extra time to adjust your mind and body to local time.
2. Adjust your sleep schedule ahead of time.
In the days before your trip, gradually adjust your schedule to the timezone of your destination.
- Experts recommend adjusting your sleep by 1 hour each day per time zone traveled. If it’s helpful, you may take melatonin at night to help you fall asleep faster. Jet lag calculators like this one can help you plan your sleep schedule before and after your flight.
- Besides sleep, we also tend to eat according to schedule, so adjust that as well according to the time zone of your destination (e.g. moving dinner up earlier or later).
- You could even adjust your clocks and strategically use the lights in your house to mimic the conditions of where you’re traveling.
- The night before your trip, go to bed even earlier, just to ensure you’re as well-rested and as less stressed as possible while dealing with the hassles of travel.
3. Use common sense.
Besides adjusting your schedule, do what you can to act healthy in the days before your trip.
- If possible, don’t travel when you’re sick, hungover, or already tired and stressed out.
- Exercise and eat well to avoid putting yourself in one of those conditions, and limit your caffeine and alcohol.
- Pack ahead of time to minimize stress.
During your trip
1. Make yourself comfortable.
The more comfortable you are on the plane, the easier it will be to sleep or rest.
- Wear comfortable, loose clothing with layers so you can adjust as needed depending on the conditions of the plane.
- Bring along a sleep mask or ear plugs so you can block out distractions from the plane and other passengers.
- Pack a neck pillow or blanket to make sleep easier if that’s in your travel plan.
- Download a white noise app and listen on your headphones.
- Take a few strolls up and down the aisle, periodically point and flex your feet and toes, and stretch out your arms and legs if possible.
2. Watch what you eat (and drink).
Be thoughtful about what you put in your body while you fly, as it can impact your ability to sleep and stay healthy during your trip.
- Drink 8 ounces of water for every hour you’re flying. The low humidity inside an airplane dries everyone out. Bring along plenty of water so you can stay hydrated and stave off sickness.
- Don’t overdo it on the alcohol and caffeine. Neither of these is a friend to sleep, and air travel affects how your body reacts to these substances. Limit alcohol to one drink at the most, or avoid it altogether.
- Bring along a few healthy snack packs to munch on if you get hungry.
- Avoid sleeping pills. With all the differences in humidity, environment, they may make you groggier than expected.
3. Sleep strategically.
Unless you’re traveling overnight, you should avoid sleeping for longer than 30 minutes.
- Power naps are ideal for daytime flights because they’re long enough to refresh you and short enough to keep you from falling into deep sleep and waking up even groggier than before.
- Recline and stretch out your legs if you sleep upright, or lean forward onto the tray table.
- Keep your seatbelt buckled over your blanket and clothes so flight attendants don’t wake you up.
- Change the clock on your watch, phone, and other electronics.
Once you arrive
1. Stick to your new sleep schedule.
Once you arrive at your destination, stay awake or go to sleep according to local time.
- If you arrived at night, go to sleep once you reach your destination.
- If you took a redeye or arrive earlier in the day, avoid napping altogether or limit it to under 2 hours.
- If you travelled westward, you may take melatonin a few hours before bedtime. One study found that 0.5 mg dose taken on the first day can be enough to offset symptoms of jet lag.
2. Meet the sunshine.
Sunlight helps reset your circadian clock, so your brain can relearn when it’s night and when it’s day.
- If you arrived in the morning, spend an hour outside walking. The sunshine and exercise will give you an energy boost.
- If you travelled westward, spend some time in the late afternoon outside.
3. Sync your social clock.
Being social with people at normal local time hours will help your brain recognize and adapt to local time.
- Eat when other people eat (but still keep it easy on the caffeine and alcohol for the first day or a few depending on how far you traveled).
- Know that it will take time to recover. Traveling east can take 1 full day per time zone traveled, while traveling west can take as many days as are equal to half the number of time zones traveled.