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The Best Ways to Power Through Jet Lag

Updated on 27. Dec. 2018

Jet lag, the dreaded negative side effect of travel. You have been looking forward to your vacation for weeks, but unfortunately, the first few days of your vacation become slightly muddled as your body attempts to adjust to a new time zone. You find yourself awake at 3 AM with nothing to do but watch TV in your hotel room in a foreign language. Can jet lag be prevented? How can you minimize the effects of jet lag? Keep reading for EatSmarter’s tips on powering through and minimizing jet lag symptoms!

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Jet lag refers to the symptoms experienced when you switch to a new time zone. You suffer from jet lag because your body must adapt itself to a different light-dark schedule. While you can easily switch your watch to a new time zone, your body’s internal clock, its circadian rhythm, takes a bit longer to adjust. Your body’s internal clock automatically sets itself to the local time of wherever you are. This is primarily due to the major determinants of both light patterns and social interaction. Your circadian rhythm--the 24-hour cycle of your body determined by rises and falls in body temperature, hormone release, and other biological components--coordinates with your surroundings to let your body know when it is time to be active and when it is time to go to sleep.1

The symptoms of jet lag include, but are not limited to, trouble sleeping at night, drowsiness or lethargy during the day, poor concentration, irritability and digestive issues. Fun fact, or perhaps not so fun, the more time zones you cross, the more severe your symptoms. Additionally, researchers have found that the symptoms of jet lag are more severe when traveling eastwardly than traveling westwardly, even for the same number of time zones crossed.2

Fortunately, for you world travelers, researchers have found no long-term negative health effects of jet lag. The couple days after wheels down may not be the most fun or pleasant, but jet lag should pass without treatment in a few days.3

For those of you wanting to get a jump on jet lag, there are some ways to minimize its effects even before you leave home. A couple days before your departure, adjust your sleeping pattern. If you are traveling west, go to bed an hour later and wake up an hour later. If you are traveling east, go to bed an hour earlier and wake up an hour earlier. It is also important to be well rested before you travel.4

Choosing a flight is also important. The ideal flight is one that allows you to arrive at your destination in the early evening. Stay up until 10 PM local time and then hit the hay! If you have the amazing ability to sleep anywhere and plane seats present no obstacle to you, try choosing an overnight flight as this will allow you to maintain a semi-regular sleep schedule. You may want to spring for a premium or first class seat to ensure the best quality of sleep or choose a window seat.5 You may want to bring an eye mask or earplugs with you to minimize disruptions.

During the flight, make sure you stay hydrated. Poor hydration will only amplify the negative effects of jet lag. Additionally, limit your caffeine and alcohol consumption during the flight, and avoid both completely three to four hours before your intended bedtime. Both act as stimulants and can throw off your body’s ability to adjust to a new sleeping rhythm. Finally, the moment you step onto the plane, you should switch your watch to the time of your destination.6 The sooner you do this, the sooner your body can start to adjust.

When you arrive at your new location, be quick to establish a new routine for your body. Make sure you eat and sleep at the regular times of your destination. Implementing the new routine as soon as possible will signal to your body’s circadian rhythm that it needs to adapt to new surroundings. As hard as it may be to fight the urge to sleep as soon as you check into your hotel, do not go to sleep! It is important to wait until bedtime in your new location. If necessary, you can slip in a 20 to 30-minute cat nap, but try to be awake for a full four hours before bedtime.7

Finally, make sure you spend time outdoors, especially the first few days of your trip. Natural light is one of the major stimulants for regulating your circadian rhythm and spending time outdoors during the day will help your body adjust more quickly.8

Another possible aid to help you sleep in the midst of jet lag is to take a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is a hormone in the body that increases the tendency to sleep and can be taken just before your intended sleep time. The effectiveness of melatonin is debated, but in a review of sleep trials, researchers found that individuals, flying across five or more time zones, who took melatonin close to the target bedtime at their destination decreased their jet lag symptoms. The researchers concluded that melatonin’s benefits are likely greater when more time zones are crossed and when the direction of travel is eastward.9 Consult with your healthcare professional or physician before taking melatonin.

For more advice on combatting jet lag, check out British Airway’s jet lag advisor.

To learn how to stay healthy while traveling, check out this article with helpful tips! 

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1. "Jet Lag," NHS Choices, NHS UK, 14 Nov. 2014, Web.; "Jet Lag and Sleep," National Sleep Foundation, National Sleep Foundation, n.d., Web.

2. "Top 10 Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag," Fodor's Travel, Internet Brands, Inc., 2 Feb. 2014, Web.; "Jet Lag," NHS Choices.

3. Ibid. 

4. Ibid.; "Jet Lag and Sleep," National Sleep Foundation.

5. Ibid.; "Top 10 Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag," Fodor's Travel.

6. Jet Lag," NHS Choices.; "Jet Lag and Sleep," National Sleep Foundation.; “Ten Tips to Help Combat Jet Lag,” Sleep Health Foundation, Blacktown NSW: Sleep Health Foundation, 2011, Print.; "Top 10 Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag," Fodor's Travel.

7. Jet Lag," NHS Choices.; “Ten Tips to Help Combat Jet Lag,” Sleep Health Foundation.; "Top 10 Tips for Avoiding Jet Lag," Fodor's Travel.

8. Jet Lag," NHS Choices.; "Jet Lag and Sleep," National Sleep Foundation.; “Ten Tips to Help Combat Jet Lag,” Sleep Health Foundation.

9. "Jet Lag and Sleep," National Sleep Foundation.; “Ten Tips to Help Combat Jet Lag,” Sleep Health Foundation.; Andrew Herxheimer and Keith J. Petrie, "Melatonin for the Prevention and Treatment of Jet Lag," Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2 (2002): n. pag., Cochrane Library, Web

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