For frequent fliers and international travelers, the symptoms of jet lag are all too familiar. Disturbed sleep, daytime fatigue, difficulty concentrating and functioning, and even stomach problems are a fact of life.
Fortunately, while you may not be able to eliminate jet lag altogether if you’re traveling across multiple time zones, you can lessen its effects with some simple strategies. First, it helps to understand what jet lag is and what causes it. Then, WebMD offers 11 ways to cope with jet lag and still enjoy your travel.
What Is Jet Lag?
Jet lag can occur any time you travel quickly across two or more time zones. The more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to be sleepy and sluggish -- and the longer and more intense the symptoms are likely to be.
Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder, but not temporary enough for many travelers. If you’re flying from San Francisco to Rome for a 10-day trip, for example, it may take six to nine days to fully recover. That’s because it can take up to a day for each time zone crossed for your body to adjust to the local time. If you’re traveling east to west, from Rome to San Francisco, jet lag could last four to five days -- about half the number of time zones crossed. Jet lag is generally worse when you “lose time” traveling west to east.
If you’re an older adult, jet lag may hit you harder and recovery may take longer.
What Causes Jet Lag?
Jet lag happens because rapid travel throws off our circadian rhythm -- the biological clock that helps control when we wake and fall asleep. “Cues such as light exposure, mealtimes, social engagement, and activities regulate our circadian rhythm,” says Allison T. Siebern, PhD, a fellow in the Insomnia and Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center. “When you cross time zones, it disrupts those, and your internal clock and the external time are desynchronized. Your body needs to get on the rhythm of the new time zone.”
Other aspects of air travel can aggravate the problem. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2007 found that air cabins pressurized to 8,000 feet lower oxygen in the blood, making passengers feel uncomfortable and dehydrated. And people don’t move around as much as usual on an airplane. “These can increase symptoms of jet lag and further disrupt your circadian rhythm from re-synchronizing,” says Siebern.
11 Tips for Dealing With Jet Lag
Some of these strategies may help prevent or ease jet lag:
1. Simulate your new schedule before you leave.
“If you’re traveling east, start moving your bedtime earlier,” says Avelino Verceles, MD, assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and director of the school’s sleep medicine fellowship. “Shift it a half-hour earlier each night for several nights before you leave.”
If you’re traveling west, do the opposite. You can also try moving your mealtimes closer to the time you’ll be taking them at your destination.
2. Adapt to your new schedule while in flight.
Change your watch when you get on the plane.“This is mostly psychological,” says Siebern, “but it helps you get into the mind-set of what you’ll be doing in the place where you’re going.”
Try to sleep on the plane if it’s nighttime where you’re going or stay awake if it’s daytime -- but don’t force it. “It can be difficult to force yourself to sleep and that can cause frustration, which can then prevent sleep,” says Siebern. “If that happens, just try to rest as much as possible.”
3. Arrive early.
If you need to be on top of your game for an event at your destination, try to arrive a few days early, so your mind and body can adjust.
4. Stay hydrated.
Drink water before, during, and after your flight to counteract dehydration. Avoid alcohol or caffeine a few hours before you plan to sleep. Alcohol and caffeine can disrupt sleep and may cause dehydration.
5. Move around.
Get up and walk around periodically, do some static exercises, and stretch on the flight. But after you land, avoid heavy exercise near bedtime, as it can delay sleep.
6. Consider melatonin.
Melatonin naturally secreted in our bodies helps regulate our circadian rhythms so that we sleep at night. But the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the supplement melatonin to combat jet lag and aid sleep. Some research shows that it can reduce jet lag on flights both east and west, but other research has not shown a benefit.
Verceles suggests taking 3 milligrams of melatonin an hour or two before bedtime at your destination, and plan to sleep for 10 hours. “This takes into account the one or two hours needed to absorb the melatonin and allow it to enter the bloodstream, as well as 10 hours for sleep,” Verceles says. “Ten hours may be a generous overestimate, but it’s better to allow more sleep time than less.”
Melatonin appears to be safe if taken short term, but its long-term effects are not known. If you want to try melatonin, check with your doctor first.
7. Try natural light therapy.
Exposure to sunlight helps regulate our circadian rhythms. ”On westward flights, get bright morning light at your new destination, and avoid afternoon and evening light exposure,” Verceles suggests. “On eastward flights, avoid early light exposure in morning and get as much light as possible in the afternoon and early evening. The light helps shift your body’s circadian clock, so that you feel rested and wake at appropriate times at your destination.”
Commercially available light boxes may also be helpful in coping with jet lag if used at appropriate times, but Siebern advises consulting with a sleep specialist first. “You want to make sure the light isn’t too intense or shifting your circadian clock in the wrong direction because this can increase the duration of jet lag,” she says. “And light boxes are not advised for some people, such as those with cataracts or bipolar disorder.”
8. Eat sensibly.
Some frequent fliers swear by jet lag diets -- such as eating a heavy diet for a few days before travel and fasting on flight day. No diets have been proven effective for preventing jet lag, however. “We do recommend not eating a high carb or fatty diet close to bedtime because that can be disruptive to sleep,” says Siebern.
9. Take a hot bath before bedtime.
A bath can ease sore muscles from travel and help you relax and wind down. The drop in your body temperature when you get out of a bath may also make you sleepy.
10. Minimize sleep distractions.
An eye mask or earplugs may help you sleep on the plane and at your destination. Try to eliminate distractions in your room at bedtime, such as light shining in through a window.
11. Consider medication.
It’s usually not necessary to get treatment for jet lag, but if these strategies don’t work for you, your doctor may prescribe or suggest medications to take temporarily to help you sleep or stay alert when necessary.
Advice for Frequent Fliers
If you fly frequently and jet lag is a problem, consider seeing a sleep specialist -- a physician or psychologist who has specialized training in sleep medicine. “There are a number of ways that sleep specialists can help with shifting your body’s circadian rhythm toward your new time zone, such as with light therapy, melatonin, or prescription medication that can help with jet lag symptoms,” Siebern says.