If your travels take you across multiple time zones, then jet lag can be a hurdle to get over before your adventures can really begin in earnest. It’s not a disease, so you can’t get a vaccine to prevent it, but there are definitely steps you can take to lessen its effect.
What Is Jet Lag?
Dr. Khushboo Mehta, physician in chief at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Redmond, Washington, says that jet lag happens “because air travel allows us to traverse time zones much faster than our body’s internal clock (circadian rhythms) can adjust.”
Jet lag leads to a range of potential symptoms, not the least of which is the classic tiredness we all associate with it:
- Insomnia at night and sleepiness during the day
- Digestive problems like constipation
- Impaired physical and cognitive performance (lack of energy and fuzzy thinking)
- Impaired ability to manage our emotions
One effect sometimes attributed to jet lag is that it weakens your immune system. Studies have yet to confirm this, though, in large part because so many other factors are in play. To learn more about illness prevention abroad, read How to Avoid Getting Sick When You Travel.
The follow factors make jet lag more intense:
- Traveling eastbound, because going to bed earlier is a harder adjustment for our bodies than going to bed later (the case for westbound travelers)
- Traveling multiple time zones (rules of thumb like “a day of recovery per time zone crossed” are oversimplified; just know that more zones equals more fatigue)
- Being old or young, because sleep cycles are more fragile in older adults and kids
How jet lag differs from travel fatigue: Because both involve low energy, jet lag is sometimes confused with travel fatigue. “Travel fatigue” relates to how we can lose energy after we’re well into a trip. The culprit in this case is the action-packed agenda that we tend to create for ourselves (long days and nonstop stimuli can simply wear us down over time). The good news about jet lag is that it will subside as your trip goes on, not get worse—and your jet lag will go away even sooner if you act proactively to keep it at bay.
3 Tips for Dealing with Jet Lag
To keep things simple, we asked Dr. Mehta to pare her list of advice down to the most effective strategies. “There’s so much information out there, so you might want to refocus your efforts on the top things you can do to adjust better,” she affirms. The following three strategies will give you the most bang for your jet-lag buck.
Sync Your Sleep Schedule Prior to Leaving
Gradually shift home bedtime until it matches the bedtime you’ll need on your trip. Do this by moving home bedtime by 30 minutes each day. So, if the time at your destination is three hours ahead, you’ll need to shift bedtime 30 minutes earlier for six consecutive days before departure (6 x 0.5 hour per day = a 3-hour bedtime shift).
Light is a major cue to your body’s biological clock, so use it to your advantage. If it’s still light out when you want to go to sleep, then ensure that none of that daylight reaches your eyes. If your window blinds or drapes won’t do the trick, try a pair of eye shades. Avoid illuminated screens on your TV and your phone beginning an hour or so before bedtime. And when you wake up, both at home and at your destination, bask in bright light or daylight as soon as you can each day.
Some people also choose to set their watch to their destination time zone while they’re still at home. The effect of that is more psychological than physiological, but it can help you be more mindful of bedtime and wake-up time shifts you’ll need to make.
Digestion timing is another cue to help your body sync to its new biological schedule. You don’t necessarily have to shift meal times before you leave, but it’s a good idea to shift to your destination dining schedule immediately when you start your travels, even if that means skipping a meal or eating before hunger pangs arise.
Hydrate Fully and Caffeinate Judiciously
Being dehydrated makes your body less resilient generally and it can exacerbate jet lag-induced digestion issues like constipation. Because airline cabins are notoriously dehydrating environments, it’s easy to end up with a fluid deficit when you arrive. So drink water (not caffeine or alcohol) on your flight and continue a healthy fluid intake after you arrive.
If you love coffee or tea, it can be tempting to use caffeine to power through low-energy periods during the first few days. That’s fine in the morning, but avoid caffeine in late-afternoon hours when its lingering affect can sabotage your carefully recalibrated bedtime drowsiness.
Alcohol, which might initially make you sleepy, will ultimately mess with nighttime slumber. So avoid or minimize the amount of wine, beer and cocktails you have during the first few days of your trip.
Use Melatonin as a Sleep Aid
Melatonin, available widely as an over-the-counter synthetic supplement, is a hormone that the body produces naturally. Triggered in part by the onset of darkness, melatonin helps your body regulate its sleeping and waking cycles. Dr. Mehta says that taking a small dose for the first few nights after you arrive can help your body get into bedtime-sync more quickly. (Consult with your physician and pharmacist to find out the correct dosage for you and to be sure there are no potentially harmful interactions with your current meds.) Like any sleep medication, melatonin loses effectiveness over time. So only use it for the first few days of your trip.
Many people take prescription meds as a sleep aid when they travel. That’s fine, too, with your doctor’s oversight. One downside to doing this, though, is that prescription sleep medications can have lingering effects on your alertness during the day. Melatonin, unless taken in the wee hours, is far less likely to make you mentally foggy in the morning.