By: Sarah Stone
You’ve planned the perfect trip: you’re finally going to a destination you’ve always dreamed about, and it’s going to be so exciting to explore a new place, meet wonderful people, try different foods… there’s so much to see and do!
But then you’re paired up with an unwelcome companion just as your plane lands—jet leg.
This awful disruption of your internal clock manifests as fatigue, insomnia, stomachache, and a foul mood. It immediately hinders your enjoyment of your travel adventures, and can knock an entire day (or even more!) off your trip if you don’t take steps to combat it.
Let’s take a look at what causes jet lag, how to prevent it while you’re in the sky, and how to move past it once you’ve landed.
The Science of Jet Lag: Circadian Rhythms and Symptoms
To understand how jet lag happens, we need to talk about the circadian rhythm—this is the internal biological clock that governs various bodily functions, including sleep and wake cycles. These rhythms, which operate on approximately 24-hour cycles, are influenced by external factors like sunlight and temperature. When you traverse multiple time zones in a short period, your circadian rhythms struggle to synchronize with the environment, resulting in a host of symptoms that we collectively refer to as jet lag.
Circadian rhythms are not solely responsible for jet lag; other factors, such as the homeostatic sleep drive, also play a role. The homeostatic sleep drive is your body’s natural inclination to sleep, which gradually increases throughout the day until you feel the need to rest.
Common Symptoms and Effects of Jet Lag
Jet lag is notorious for its many symptoms that impede your ability to fully enjoy your travel experiences. Some common manifestations of jet lag include:
- Fatigue and general malaise: As your body struggles to adapt to a new time zone, you may become exhausted, making it challenging to go sightseeing or participate in other activities.
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances: Your internal clock may still be operating in your home time zone, causing difficulties in falling asleep or staying asleep at your destination.
- Gastrointestinal issues: Altered mealtimes and disruptions to your internal clocks can lead to indigestion, bloating, or constipation.
- Mood disturbances: The combined effects of fatigue, sleep disruptions, and general disorientation can contribute to irritability, anxiety, or mild depression.
- Cognitive impairment: Jet lag can temporarily hinder your ability to think clearly, concentrate, or make decisions, posing challenges to your daily functioning while traveling.
Tips for Managing Jet Lag During Long Flights
Preparing to Travel
You can begin to combat jet lag well before your trip by taking note of a few different factors:
- Time zones: The more time zones you travel across, the more severe your jet lag will likely be. Account for this in your preparations and plan for additional rest time if needed.
- Direction of travel: Eastward travel tends to be more challenging for the body, as it requires you to adjust to an earlier time. Westward travel can be easier to adapt to, as it aligns with your natural inclination to stay awake longer.
- Activities upon arrival: If you have a packed schedule immediately upon arrival, consider adjusting your sleep patterns before departure to better align with your destination time zone. Or if you have a flexible itinerary, plan for downtime upon arrival to allow your body to adjust naturally.
In-Flight Tips to Combat Jet Lag
Once you’re in the air, you can do a few different things to make sure you hit the ground running and are ready to explore!
Adjust to Your Destination’s Time Zone Mid-Flight
Start adapting your sleep and meal schedule during the flight to ease the adjustment to your destination’s time zone. Set your watch to the local time of your destination upon boarding, and follow its sleep and meal patterns as closely as possible. This proactive approach can help to recalibrate your internal clock and reduce the severity of jet lag symptoms upon arrival.
Try to Sleep
If you can, try to sleep at certain times during your flight. A melatonin supplement can be helpful for this—melatonin is the hormone produced by your brain that regulates your sleep-wake cycle. If you can’t sleep naturally during any point of your flight, a small dose of melatonin can help to reset your body’s internal clock. Just make sure to check with a doctor to understand the proper dosage!
Noise-canceling headphones and eye masks can help a lot here as well.
Staying well-hydrated is crucial for overall health—and it should be no surprise that it’s also vital to combating jet lag. Dehydration can worsen symptoms, so drink lots of water before, during, and after your flight. Avoid drinking large amounts of alcohol or caffeine, as these can further dehydrate your body and disrupt your sleep patterns.
Related: 9 Tips for Staying Healthy on a Long-Haul Flight
Stretch and Move Around
Extended periods of immobility during long flights can make your jet lag symptoms much worse. Make an effort to stretch and move around the cabin periodically to promote circulation and reduce the risk of swelling or deep vein thrombosis. Basic in-seat exercises such as ankle rolls, neck stretches, or shoulder rolls can also help.
Combating Jet Lag in Your Travel Destination
Even if you’ve taken lots of precautions to ensure your jet lag is minimal once you land, there are still a few things you can do to have the best trip possible right from the start.
Get Natural Light
Exposure to natural light plays a pivotal role in regulating circadian rhythms. Upon arrival at your destination, spend time outdoors during daylight hours to help your body acclimate to the new time zone. The bright light will signal to your brain that it’s time to be awake and alert, while the fresh air will invigorate your senses and help ward off fatigue.
Get a Little Bit of Exercise
During the first day of your trip, engage in light physical activity like taking a walk or trying a restaurant close to your accommodation, which can help keep your energy up and promote alertness without becoming fatigued.
Plan Downtime During Your Trip
In the excitement of exploring a new destination, it’s easy to neglect the importance of rest. Be intentional about planning downtime during your trip to allow your body to adjust to the new time zone. To combat daytime fatigue, take power naps of 20—30 minutes, which can provide a much-needed energy boost without disrupting your nighttime sleep.
Maintain Regular Meal and Exercise Routines
Keeping to a consistent meal and exercise routine can help your body adjust to the new time zone and mitigate the effects of jet lag. Aim to eat meals at regular intervals that align with your destination’s mealtimes, even if you’re not hungry. Incorporate light to moderate exercise into your routine each day to improve sleep quality and boost energy levels.
Avoid Alcohol, Caffeine, and Other Stimulants
While it may be tempting to rely on caffeine to power through daytime fatigue or indulge in a nightcap to help you fall asleep, these substances can exacerbate jet lag symptoms. Alcohol and caffeine can dehydrate you, disrupt sleep quality, and interfere with your body’s ability to adjust to the new time zone. Opt for non-caffeinated beverages, like herbal tea or water, and limit alcohol consumption—especially during the initial adjustment period.
Take Steps to Prevent Insomnia and Sleep Disturbances
Jet lag can wreak havoc on our sleep patterns, causing insomnia or restless sleep. To promote restful slumber, try these steps:
- Create a sleep-friendly environment: Ensure your sleeping space is cool, dark, and quiet. If you need to use them, then earplugs, an eye mask, or a white noise machine can help block out disturbances.
- Establish a bedtime routine: Try relaxing activities like reading, gentle stretching, or meditation to signal to your body that it’s time for rest.
- Limit screen time: Avoid using electronic devices close to bedtime, as the blue light emitted can interfere with your body’s melatonin production.
Overcoming jet lag is a multifaceted endeavor that requires a combination of strategies, both before and during your journey. By adjusting your sleep patterns, staying hydrated, seeking natural light, and incorporating practical tips during your flight, you can effectively manage jet lag and enjoy a smoother transition to your destination’s time zone.
What are your best tips for preventing jet lag? Share your advice with the Frayed Passport community!
About the AuthorAs the managing director of Frayed Passport, my goal is to help you build a lifestyle that lets you travel the world whenever you want and however long you want, and not worry about where your next paycheck will come from. I've been to 20+ countries and five continents, lived for years as a full-time digital nomad, and have worked completely remotely since 2015. If you would like to share your story with our community, or partner with Frayed Passport, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Featured image by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash