Jet lag is the obnoxious sidekick of long-haul travel, always waiting for us at the arrivals terminal with unpleasant welcome gifts such as drowsiness, irritability, headaches, indigestion, and confusion. There’s no way to avoid jet lag if you’re traveling long distances, but the science of exploring how our body’s routines affect our overall health has come up with helpful travel hacks to reset our internal clocks at a faster rate. From expert advice to tricks used by frequent travelers, here’s everything you need to know about jet lag, including how to avoid and overcome it.
- What is jet lag?
- Jet lag symptoms
- Can jet lag be prevented?
- Can fasting prevent jet lag?
- How to get over jet lag
- Jet lag treatments
- Melatonin for jet lag
- Jet lag self-care
- Is jet lag worse going east?
What is jet lag, and what causes it?
Jet lag is a phenomenon that occurs when you cross multiple time zones quickly. It’s characterized by a disruption in the body’s circadian rhythm, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle, hormonal secretions, and various physiological processes.
Think of a person’s sleep-wake cycle as their master clock. It tells the body when to start its daytime activities and when to do repairs during sleep. This cycle is so crucial that the body sets up backup alarms in other organs, such as the digestive cycle and skeletal muscle activation. Our circadian rhythms are initially set by exposure to daylight and darkness and then become habitual based on the time of day. Once these habits are formed, our bodies can wake up at normal times for a period of days even without sunlight. But when time drastically changes, such as after a long flight, our circadian rhythms are thrown off and struggle to catch up.
The master clock that runs our routines can only naturally reset at an average rate of an hour a day. For instance, if you have a six-hour time change, your biological rhythms aren’t fully back to normal for six days. In the meantime, travelers experience the effects of jet lag, most notably in our immune systems and thought processes.
Jet lag symptoms: What does jet lag feel like, and how long does it last?
Jet lag is a nebulous affliction. Many travelers associate jet lag with daytime fatigue and nighttime sleeplessness after jumping time zones. Some travelers experience more targeted symptoms, such as headaches and upset stomachs. According to the Mayo Clinic, the most common symptoms of jet lag include difficulties adapting to time changes, an inability to focus or function, digestive issues such as constipation or diarrhea, generally feeling unwell, and moodiness.
Mattress company Leesa polled more than 1,000 frequent travelers between the ages of 18 and 85 to better understand jet lag. The survey broke down the results by age group, comparing the experiences of baby boomers, Generation X, and millennials. According to the study, the most common symptom of jet lag across travelers of all ages is headaches, which 42.4 percent of millennials and 41.2 percent of Gen Xers reported experiencing after flying. That number increased among baby boomers, 49.8 percent of whom reported experiencing headaches as a symptom of jet lag.
More than one in 10 baby boomers also reported experiencing backaches and constipation after flying. Younger travelers, on the other hand, noted non-physical symptoms of jet lag, namely missing social plans for millennials and missing work for Gen Xers. The study found that nearly 50 percent of travelers experience jet lag on both ends of their trips for roughly two to three days. Perhaps surprisingly, baby boomers, the oldest of the three age groups studied, were able to recharge fastest, generally needing about 2.5 days to recover from jet lag. Millennials reported needing between 2.5 and three days and Gen Xers nearly 72 hours.
Can jet lag be prevented?
The question of whether or not jet lag is preventable depends on your definition of prevention. Is there an over-the-counter pill you can take to stop the onset of jet lag? No. But there are measures you can take to reduce its impact — even before you touch down in your destination.
One strategy for beating jet lag is to start adjusting to your destination’s time zone before your trip. The most basic way to reset your sleep schedule is this: A week before you leave, start moving your meal and sleep times by either 30 minutes or an hour each day. If you’re heading east, go to bed and wake up a little earlier each day. Heading west, start pushing your sleep and wake times back as much as you reasonably can. Even small shifts make a difference before departure. Online calculators, such as Jet Lag Rooster and British Airways’ jet lag fighter, as well as apps like Timeshifter, do the math for you and provide detailed, individualized plans.
If reworking your sleep schedule before travel isn’t feasible, try to start adjusting on the plane by sleeping when it aligns with your destination’s bedtime. As soon as you board, take steps to mimic the time zone that you’re moving toward. Block out or minimize light (including screens of electronics) and noise when it should be nighttime, and expose yourself to light, ideally sunshine, when it should be daytime.
When it’s time to sleep, try to create ideal sleep conditions. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes and slip-on shoes. Bring a supportive pillow, an eye mask, and earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. Shrouding yourself in stimuli-blocking sleep paraphernalia, such as headphones, a mask, a pillow, and possibly a cinched-down hoody creates a cozy personal sleep zone and sends a clear signal to those around you that you’re trying to sleep.
In between, hydrate. Drinking plenty of water can reduce jet lag and help you acclimate quicker to new destinations. It also helps if you indulged in a drink or two. Alcohol hits you harder in the air due to the lack of oxygen and dry atmosphere in flight. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants, or use judiciously. Drinking fluids will also help keep your digestive system on track to avoid undesirable constipation that can result from dry, sedentary plane travel.
Plus, the more water you drink, the more you’ll need to get up to use the bathroom, which is a good thing. Movement circulates blood and oxygen, prevents stiffness, and reduces the risk of dangerous blood clots. In your seat, try exercises like lifting and lowering your heels, moving your spine in all directions, and opening your chest.
Can fasting prevent jet lag?
Science says there might be another trick to overcoming jet lag: fasting. In 2008, Dr. Clifford Saper and a team of researchers from Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center located a second body clock in mice that operates based on food availability rather than the light-dark cycle.
As it relates to jet lag in people, Dr. Saper told NPR, “The prediction would be that if you want to engage the [food-oriented body clock] the way to do it would be to take a fast of maybe 12 to 16 hours, and then eat breakfast, so to speak, on the same time that they eat breakfast in the country you’re going to.”
The methodology has only been tested anecdotally, but it’s not the first time regulating food intake has been used as a method of preventing jet lag. In the 1980s, a chronobiologist at the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory developed a diet to help prevent jet lag.
A streamlined version of the Argonne Anti-Jet-Lag Diet, the anti-jet-lag fast disrupts and resyncs a person’s master clock. When a body is fasting for at least 12 hours, the back-up “digest clock” suspends the circadian rhythm to conserve energy, effectively stopping time-based routines. When we eat, we start the clock again, and the body pays attention to daylight and darkness to reset the clock instead of time.
Simply, if you fast, your body won’t care as much what time it is back home but will instead pay attention to the light cues when you’re at your destination, making jet lag recovery faster. Watch your fasting start time before departure to get at least 12 hours and pass on those flight meals and snacks. Instead, jump-start your trip and your internal clock with a good meal when you arrive.
Upon landing, Caleb Backe, a health and wellness expert with Maple Holistics, suggests that you “plan where you will be eating ahead of time so that you don’t find yourself starving and winding up at the nearest fast food joint. If you’re able to stay somewhere with a kitchen that’s ideal, but if not, look up farmers markets nearby, as well as clean restaurants in the area to make sure you’ve got healthy options around you.”
How to get over jet lag
To get over jet lag once you’ve arrived at your destination, the most important thing you can do to maintain a healthy energy level, immunity, and metabolism is to continue your efforts to adjust to the local sleep schedule. The first nights of your arrival are key to this. Good sleep hygiene routines can help trigger sleepiness if the timing is challenging. Things like limiting screen time before bed, keeping your room dark and cool, not skipping bedtime hygiene routines, reading with gentle light, and listening to music are helpful ways to get your sleep back on track.
If you hit a wall during the day, a nap is allowed, but the CDC recommends limiting naps to 15 or 20 minutes to combat jet lag. Caffeine can also help, but try to resist late-in-the-day coffee runs. It’ll be easier to adjust to the local time and schedule without the 4 PM espresso.
During waking hours, the science of health routines emphasizes one main truth: You need natural light to reset and feel like yourself. If you need help waking up earlier than you otherwise might, push yourself to get outside and get natural light as soon as possible. If you need to stay awake for longer, make sure you are out and moving in the late afternoon sun all the way to sunset. If you’re at a location that lacks radiant sunshine, never fear, even a gloomy, cloudy sky allows for natural light, and it can still help reset your clock.
Exercise can also help to reset your clock, especially in the natural light. That might mean skipping the hotel gym to plan runs, walks, or stretches outside, although sightseeing alone is a good way to achieve your daily step count abroad. There are even things you can do from the comfort of your hotel room. Restorative yoga poses can work wonders on your hormonal and physiological processes. One simple move is to lay on the floor and raise your legs up the wall over your hips, position your bum several inches from the wall, and use a thin head support for comfort to reverse the settling of blood and fluids into the feet that’s caused by sitting for hours on a plane. Practice this pose daily in the days following your flight.
Fitness and nutrition specialists suggest that, when it comes to sleep, you should focus on aerobic efforts in the morning and do anaerobic activities — such as weight lifting, sprinting, and any intense exertion — later in the day.
As far as nutrition is concerned, in the early days of your travels, it’s better to eat the bulk of your calories earlier in the day and try to be done eating by 6 or 7 PM local time. Our body clocks are powerful — even our livers have clocks to turn on the conversion of calories to energy by day and to shut down and store calories at night. Pushing our livers into overtime work with full meals late in the evening throws all of the other functions off tempo too, making it even harder to reset to a new time. Once the rest of the body resets to the new time zone, the liver will be able to be more flexible with late meals and free-flowing libations.
Jet lag treatments
There’s no cure for jet lag, but light therapy and sleep aids can help travelers combat it. In lieu of natural light, Mayo Clinic suggests using artificial lights to simulate sunlight during waking periods, such as light boxes, desk lamps, or light visors. The nonprofit also notes that sleep medications such as Ambien, Edluar, ZolpiMist, Lunesta, and Sonata (nonbenzodiazepines) or Restoril and Nayzilam (benzodiazepines) can be used during flights and upon arrival but should only be taken if no other jet lag treatments have worked.
Chamomile, valerian root, and passion flower are among the most popular choices for natural sleep aids in addition to melatonin supplements — more on that below.
Melatonin for jet lag
Fundamentally, jet lag is a sleep disorder. Melatonin is a hormone that the brain produces to help regulate the sleep cycle, which can also be taken orally as a supplement to combat sleep disorders. Some travelers swear by over-the-counter melatonin as a jet lag remedy.
When our bodies are adjusted to a particular time zone, outside darkness signals the release of naturally occurring melatonin to help us fall asleep in the evening. Melatonin continues to be secreted throughout the night, generally peaking between 2 and 4 AM. When we travel, the night sky may reflect that it’s time to sleep, but if our body clocks are set to an earlier time zone, our brains will resist releasing melatonin, therefore preventing sleep.
Melatonin supplements can help reset our body clocks. Travelers may opt to take melatonin supplements during a long plane ride to get a jumpstart on adjusting to a time change or choose to take melatonin as needed on arrival. Physicians recommend taking 0.5 to five milligrams of melatonin 30 minutes before you intend to sleep, according to the local bedtime. Studies show that melatonin supplements are most effective when travelers cross five or more time zones and that doses above five milligrams are ineffective at providing additional sleep support.
Sounds like a perfect jet lag remedy, right? Unfortunately, some people report increased feelings of grogginess after taking melatonin, especially if taken too early in the evening. In fact, according to the Leesa poll, travelers cited medications such as melatonin as the one factor that delayed their recoveries the most, with all three generations saying it took well over three days to feel ripe again. In contrast, taking naps and, perhaps contradicting that, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule were cited as the best way to recover from jet lag quickly.
Jet lag self-care
A lot of what could be considered jet lag self-care has already been covered as methods of preventing and overcoming jet lag. This includes restful sleep at appropriate times; getting fresh air, sunlight, and exercise; and eating fresh foods full of fiber and antioxidants. However, time is a key factor in the jet lag equation, as well.
One of the most important things you can do to ensure that jet lag doesn’t disrupt your schedule too much on either side of your travels is to budget time for it. If there’s a specific reason for your travels, such as an event, try to give yourself a few days on the front end to adjust to your destination’s time zone. Even if there’s nothing particular you’d like to be fresh-faced for abroad, acknowledge that you might have trouble hitting the ground running from day one of your vacation — that’s okay.
The same thinking applies to your return trip. Back home, factor in at least a week to recover completely from jet lag. Set different psychological expectations and, when possible, scale back on your activities to allow extra time for rest. Consider booking flights that ensure you have a weekend of rest before you get back to work. Those first few days of work might still be challenging as you reset your body clock, so try to limit your social commitments and prioritize self-care when you return, as well.
Is jet lag worse going east?
While everyone’s body clock is different, science has shown that circadian rhythms tend to last slightly longer than 24 hours, which affects how we experience jet lag both individually and universally. Because most of our body clocks are tuned to longer days, it’s generally easier to adapt to westward travel.
Analyzing data equivalent to more than 1.5 million nights of sleep from people traveling in all directions across different time zones, the Sleep Cycle Institute determined that traveling east is, in fact, much worse for sleep than traveling west.
Looking at the first five days of travel, the study showed that people experience far less severe jet lag when traveling west. Furthermore, their quantity and quality of sleep, as well as their wake-up mood, actually improved over those who hadn’t traveled at all. Interestingly, according to the data, travelers tend to sleep fairly well on the first night of their trips, but sleep quality declines on the second night — not fully returning to normal until day 10.
Natural sleep expert Dr. Catherine Darley says, “Based on sleep physiology, it makes sense that westward travel is easier, as it’s easier to lengthen the circadian rhythm. Not only is mood worse but people can feel an increase in anger and performance problems. It’s important to note that these effects can last for several days and to take that into account when planning.”
Additional reporting for this story by Ilana Murphy, Jen Ruiz, and Rebecca Toy.