Jet lag, suffered by international travelers, as well as coast-to-coast domestic travelers in the U.S. and Canada, can have you dragging for days during and after a trip. It’s one of the top questions I get asked on how to avoid jet lag or recover from it quickly. You’ll read below that there isn’t one “magic button” but a combination of several easy ways that have helped me be a jet lag survivor.
What is Jet Lag?
Jet lag is medically referred to as desynchronosis. For many travelers, this is when they feel that their body isn’t synchronized with reality. Many of you may be thinking that this is you every day! I can relate.
But seriously, jet lag is actually caused by disruption to your “body clock,” a small cluster of brain cells that controls the timing of biological functions (circadian rhythms), including when you eat and sleep. The body clock is designed for a regular rhythm of daylight and darkness, so it is thrown out of sync when it experiences daylight and darkness at the “wrong” times in a new time zone.
Jet lag results from rapid long-distance (east-west or west-east) travel, most common when flying rather than driving through time zones. Jet lag is worse when you move from west to east because the body finds it harder to adapt to a shorter day than a longer one. It is not unusual for the condition to last several days.
Symptoms of Jet Lag
- Disorientation, lack of concentration or fuzziness.
- Becoming irrational or unreasonable – “Losing it” is another symptom reported by frequent travelers.
- Fatigue – Tiredness will make it difficult for you to concentrate and enjoy your business trip or vacation.
- Digestive problems.
- Dehydration – This can cause headaches, dry skin and nasal irritation, as well as make you more susceptible to colds, coughs, sore throats and flu germs that are swirling around you.
- Discomfort in legs and feet – Limbs can swell while flying and can become very uncomfortable.
- Broken sleep after arrival – Crossing time zones can cause you to wake during the night and then want to fall asleep during the day. Your built-in circadian rhythms have been disturbed, and it can take many days for the body to readjust to the new time zone.
Reducing the Effects of Jet Lag
Here are several tips to help reduce the effects of jet lag:
- Start even before you fly with at least two good nights’ sleep. Some travelers prefer to begin their time zone adjustment at least a few days ahead of time.
- Once on your flight, drink a lot of water. Many travelers find it a pain to get up and walk to the bathroom so they don’t drink when flying. That can be unhealthy because dehydration reduces your immune system.
- Bring along an eye mask, neck pillow, slippers, earplugs, and anything else that helps you sleep on the plane.
- Take supplements. Some people feel that melatonin will help prevent jet lag by promoting sleep. (Know that melatonin may be banned without a prescription or entirely in some countries.) Others swear by a homeopathic product called No Jet Lag. I haven’t used either enough times to notice a difference. I do, however, swear by magnesium and probiotic supplements to help with digestion, and sleep as well, so ask your nutritionist or doctor about these.
- Set your watch to the destination time as soon as you leave for a trip. This way you might trick your mind and body into believing you are already on the new time.
- Be as relaxed as possible when you fly. Wear loose, comfortable clothing. Noise canceling headphones are also very helpful for long flights where you want to get some sleep. (I pack them on every flight, long or short)
- Skip the in-flight meal service. I prefer to either eat before boarding or have my own snack early into the flight, then nod off to sleep. Window seats are best for this. The meal service is usually well into the flight by an hour or more and that’s taking up valuable sleeping time.
- If you are looking for rest, avoid the in-flight movies and settle for soft music or meditation. It can work wonders to not only help you sleep but also help you feel more at peace.
- Sleeping aids. Definitely speak with your physician if you feel this will help with the time adjustment and of course, never drink alcohol when taking any medication to help you sleep.
- Avoid alcohol altogether. While there are some travelers who believe it relaxes them, alcohol is known to dehydrate the body, not to mention act as a depressant. This can lead to the exact opposite result of what you intended. I actually hate this tip as I love my wine, but I do heed it most of the time on international trips and always feel better when I do. I’ll reward myself with a beautiful glass of red wine at my first dinner.
- Avoid caffeine because it acts as a stimulant, not the best choice sitting in a pressurized airplane cabin where the air is very dry. The best choice is to drink lots of water (preferably) or fruit juice. I ask for water with a piece of lemon or lime – my favorite. This keeps your body refreshed and hydrated.
- On long flights, periodically leave your seat and walk the aisles. This can do wonders for circulation and improve your overall well-being. I need to pin a reminder of this on the seatback in front of me. When I get lazy and don’t want to leave my seat, that’s when I end up with swollen ankles by the end of the flight. So when you’re awake during the flight, walk around.
- Get on an eating schedule in your destination city as soon as possible.
If you arrive early at your destination, a shower and change of clothing can help refresh you for the day. If you are at an interim stop, such as a connecting airport before your final destination, consider using either an airport lounge or perhaps a local service that provides showers and a place to relax for a little while.
The longer the journey, the more appreciative you will be to have some non-work days at the beginning of the trip. If your work week begins on Monday, try and complete your flight a couple of days earlier to allow some time for adjustment. If you’re traveling for your employer, ask if you can go in earlier or enjoy a day or two at your stopover mid-point location. It may cost another night or two in hotels, but you’ll get some more sightseeing time and be more productive once the work begins.
On arrival, plan a good walk. Use the stairs and avoid the elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks. Jet lag hates fresh air, daylight, and exercise.
Stay awake at least until the early evening, rather than take a nap upon arrival. Yes, you’ll probably wake up very early on your first morning, but this method has been my #1 success method for dealing with jet lag – even when really, really want to take a nap! Day by day your hours become more “normal” for the time zone you’re in.
At your destination, walk barefoot on the ground, if possible, swim in the ocean, or soak in an Epsom salt bath (bring a small bag of this from home). This will help ground your electromagnetic system. As soon as possible, stand in direct sunlight for 10-20 minutes without sunglasses.
Keep your mind off of the time difference. Mentally, be IN the local timezone. Don’t think about what time it is at home and again – make sure your watch is set to the local time. And don’t forget to keep drinking plenty of water.
These solutions have worked for me over the years. If you have other ways that have worked for you, do share in the comments below.