Let’s be real – jet lag sucks! Yes, it’s temporary, no I wouldn’t stop traveling because of it. Here are the facts and how to lessen the impact on your trip.
Jet lag – you know the feeling: You don’t know what day it is, brain fog is your middle name, your eyes pop open at random moments in the middle of the night, and it feels like your body is in one time zone while your brain is in another. With the joys of travel come the oftentimes brutal effects of jet lag. How do you deal with it?
What is Jet Lag?
Our watches and phone clocks run on a 24-hour cycle, so do our bodies. When that body clock, or circadian rhythm, is out of sync – you get jet lag. Starting out in one time zone and ending up in another causes your body to struggle to catch up; that’s jet lag. And yes, the more time zones you cross, the greater the likelihood you are to experience jet lag. So, what is it exactly?
According to The Mayo Clinic, “Jet lag, also called jet lag disorder, is a temporary sleep problem that can affect anyone who quickly travels across multiple time zones.”
- Jet lag hits us when our internal body clocks are off kilter with our destination’s time clock.
- Jet lag often causes feelings of fatigue, fogginess, difficulty focusing, gastrointestinal issues, and a lowered immune response.
- Our body’s biorhythms become affected when skirting any more than two time zones.
- Since our internal body clocks follow a natural rhythm of often a bit more than 24 hours, it’s easier for individuals to handle lengthening the day while traveling westbound as opposed to shortening it, when traveling eastbound.
- Medically, jet lag also affects our body temperatures, the regulation of hormones, our appetite and/or lack thereof, and even blood pressure.
Those time zone jumps wreak havoc on our circadian rhythms. Jet lag affects more than our sleep cycles. It can make our bowel habits, appetite, concentration, digestion, and even allergies fluctuate. When it ends, and that clarity returns, we feel better – more like ourselves again.
What Causes Jet Lag?
Most long haul travelers have experienced some sort of jet lag, or desynchronosis, at one point or another. We know it can happen, and we’ve felt the torturous effects of it, but why does it happen?
- Sunlight’s influence on our body clocks is one factor; its effect on our hypothalamus and regulation of melatonin directly affects our bodies, our brains.
- There’s some research that claims that the high altitude and the cabin pressure also contribute to symptoms of jet lag.
- Lack of humidity on planes and individual levels of dehydration contributes to jet lag symptoms.
- For most people, it takes one full 24 hour period to recover from each timezone passed (the more time zones you cross, the worse the jet lag)
- Frequency of flights (if you’re flying multiple times within just a few days, jet lag could be worse).
- Medical factors, asthma, allergies or lowered immunity could make the symptoms of jet lag feel worse.
Jet Lag Symptoms
While those wide awake and utterly exhausted feelings at inappropriate times are some of the most obvious symptoms of jet lag, there are others that take us longer to put our jet lagged finger on. Do you experience any of them?
- Insomnia/excessive tiredness
- Fatigue during the day
- Hazy concentration, confusion
- Inability to function clearly
- Gastrointestinal trouble (aka: constipation/diarrhea/bloating/nauseous)
- Mood changes for no apparent reason
- Susceptibility to allergies/asthma (for those prone to them)
Jet Lag Prevention
We all have tips, tricks, or superstitions that work for us while traveling; some are more reliable than others. Here are a few tips for lessening or preventing jet lag.
Pack for Comfort
Wear comfortable clothing, bring a blanket, and carry an eye mask, travel pillow, and earplugs or noise canceling headphones (many travelers enjoy blocking out the noise of the plane and that of other noisy travelers).
Plan for Sleep
Bring pajamas to change into and perform some of your nightly routines (brush teeth, wash face) to get your mind ready for bed. Shy of arrival change back into your clothing to be more ready to take on the world.
Skip the alcohol and caffeine that’s offered in flight and instead, take the cup of water. Drink a full bottle of water after you get through TSA and before you board your flight. Drink a bottle of water every couple of hours on your flight as well.
Pro-tip: Bring a reusable water bottle and refill often – most airports have bottle refilling stations and flight attendants will always fill your bottle with either hot or cold water.
Prep Your Sleep Times
Adjust your sleep habits at least one day prior to flight. Trying to adjust as much as possible to your destination’s time will help prepare your circadian rhythm in advance. Shift your watch to the new time zone upon boarding, do your best to sleep at the appropriate night time of your destination.
Remember, when flying east, move bedtime earlier prior to travel and when flying west stay up a little later.
Many travelers say they take a low level dosage of the supplement melatonin or over the counter sleeping pills to help adjust their sleep cycles or to help them sleep on a plane. If you’re considering taking a sleep aid, talk to your doctor first, and give it a try on the ground ahead of time to see how your body responds. Never take a new medicine or supplement in-flight for the first time.
Shift Light Exposure
Regulate your exposure to both natural sunlight and that digital blue light of phones and other screens. You can adjust the light in your home to match the time zone of your intended destination. Use room darkening shades to convince your body it’s time to sleep when you’re adjusting your sleep times.
Jodi Ettenberg, of Legal Nomads, swears by JustGetFlux which limits exposure to blue light allowing you to continue to work in the evenings without eye strain and matching your computer screen to the light of the room in which it’s located. This can help in adjusting to the new time zone you find yourself in.
Time Your Meals
Shift your meal times and types to match your destination. That might mean having breakfast for dinner, lunch at snack time, and dinner when you land, event though your body thinks it’s morning. Adjusting your physical rhythms as quickly as possible during your journey will make jet lag easier upon arrival.
Choose Your Seat Wisely
Depending on your flight preference, height, and comfort level, different seats work for different travelers. Of course, first or business class would always be preferable to allow our bodies to lie down and rest, but budgets, flights, and flexibility of travel do not always allow for that luxury. Select the best seat for you.
Want to lean – grab a window. Like to be able to have easy access to move – choose an aisle. Need extra legroom but don’t want to pay the hefty fees – see if you can get a bulkhead row.
If flying Air New Zealand, give their Skycouch a try – it’s a little extra cash, but not as pricey as a shift in seat class.
Select Your Aircraft
Some airplanes are actually designed to help passengers reduce jet lag. Give the Airbus A350 or Boeing 787 Dreamliner a try. Apparently, these planes are specially designed to help travelers shift that jet lag faster. The design of these aircraft include higher level humidification and air purification systems, bigger windows to let in more light, and higher ceilings to make moving around easier.
Jet Lag Treatment
So you’re suffering from jet lag. What can you do about it? There are ways to lessen the effects, shorten length of the process, or eliminate it altogether. If, in spite of prevention measures, you’re suffering from jet lag, here are some things you can to do mitigate the effects.
Arrive Early, Get Sunshine
If you can swing it, try to arrive early in the day at your destination. If it’s super early, sure, you can grab a few winks to regulate your body clock but then do your best to power through the duration of the day. Get as much natural sunlight as you can. Resist the urge for that afternoon nap and stay up as late as possible to begin to shift your timing to your new spot.
Plan a Stopover Two to Split the Jet Lag
If time allows, plan a stopover of an extra day or two on your way to your intended destination and split the jet lag in half. Stay in Hawaii for a few days on a journey from LA to Melbourne. Take a few days in Hong Kong on a trip from Toronto to Bali, or hang in Dubai for a bit on an adventure from The Chennai to New York. If your travel plans and budget allow, the few extra days will give your body clock a bit of time to catch up to those time zones already crossed, thereby making that jet lag at your final destination that much easier.
Get Up and Move
Onboard and especially upon arrival, get out and move. Onboard, the movement will help with blood flow and lower the risk of DVT in flight (compression socks can also help) and upon arrival, the walk will do you good.
Exposure to sunlight on arrival is the best way to start the process of shifting your body to the appropriate cycles.
Caroline Makepeace of yTravelblog swears by earthing. Her method for reducing jet lag calls for getting your feet on that bare ground for approximately 30 minutes upon arrival. There’s science behind that earthing. In her blog post ‘My secret jet lag cure plus 9 more helpful tips to recover from a flight’, she writes, “The earth holds tons of negative electrons and when we connect with our bare skin (most notable the feet) they buzz on up inside of us and overpower all the positive electrons (the bad stuff) that is wreaking havoc on our body causing inflammation, imbalance and general all around wackiness… Think of the Earth as the world’s biggest anti-inflammatory.”
Why not give it a try, there’s minimal risk for the possibility of a whole heap of reward.
Apps for Reducing Jet Lag
Jodi Ettenberg and others also tout Timeshifter: The Jet Lag App. According to the website, the “co-founder, Dr. Steven Lockley is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a world-renowned expert in circadian rhythms, sleep and jet lag.” This app claims that it’s personalized approach to ebbing jet lag can help get individuals back to that peak performance level faster. For all of us who suffer from jet lag – this sounds golden!
How to Overcome Jet Lag Once You Get Home
Do your best to get back on your regular schedule as soon as possible, but take it slow. We’ve all had those times where we’ve flown back in at 6 a.m. and gone straight to the office; sometimes it works and other times it’s not what you need.
Know your body, give yourself time, drink water, take in that sunlight, continue your exercise regimen, and rest when you can. All of the strategies you used at the beginning of your trip can be employed to ease your transition home as well.