The inconvenient and at times unpleasant effects of jet lag can get in the way of starting or ending an incredible trip with gusto.
Following common-sense health habits will go a long way in reducing jet lag symptoms and expediting recovery. Don’t bother with fancy gadgets that exude light into your head or regulate your ear pressure. Instead, practice basic preventative health habits, keeping in mind that these will gradually nudge you toward a milder, shorter case of jet lag, but they won’t eliminate it altogether.
While there is no silver bullet for avoiding or curing jet lag, there are some techniques to reduce the severity and tenure of this flight-induced stupor.
1. Allow yourself a long recovery time.
Factor in a week or more to recover completely. We tend to expect to be back to normal in 2-3 days, which is usually unrealistic. Set different psychological expectations and, when possible, scale back on your activities and allow extra time for rest.
2. Prioritize your health in the days and weeks before you travel.
Prepare your body for the challenges of travel including jet lag in the days and, ideally, weeks before your departure. Exercise regularly, follow your familiar exercise routine (don’t suddenly try to train for a marathon the week before you embark on your European river cruise), drink plenty of fluids, and prioritize consistently good quality sleep. Boost your immunity by taking your go-to vitamins and supplements plus something extra, such as Airborne, specifically for dealing with the recycled air you will be sharing with many other people on the plane. Practice some stress management techniques, such as simple meditation and listening to calming music or even white noise.
3. Move and hydrate a lot.
Before, during, and after travel, especially on the airplane, get up and move and hydrate as much as possible. The more fluids you drink on the plane, the more you’ll need to get up to use the bathroom, which is a good thing! Take the opportunity every time you get out of your seat to do extra movement, like lifting and lowering your heels, moving your spine in all directions, and opening your chest. Movement circulates blood and oxygen, prevents stiffness, and reduces the risk of dangerous blood clots, which are no fun at all. Avoid dehydrating substances such as coffee and alcohol, and drink more water than you normally do as plane travel is drying. Drinking fluids and moving will also help keep your digestive system on track and avoid undesirable constipation that can result from dry, sedentary plane travel — not a fun way to begin (or end) an adventure.
4. Gather some sleep-enhancing tools to create a personal sleep zone.
Plan to make yourself as comfortable as possible by creating ideal sleep conditions while confined to an airplane seat. Wear comfortable, loose-fitting clothes and slip-on shoes. Bring a supportive pillow (nothing like a crick in the neck to interrupt a good long nap), an eye mask, and earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. A natural sleep aid, such as chamomile tea or melatonin, can help you conk out, but be careful not to overdo it as you want your body to reestablish a natural rhythm as soon as possible. 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 are trying to sleep, making unwanted interruptions less likely. Aim for a 4-6 hour snooze to mimic a real night’s sleep.
5. Mimic the time zone of your destination and control stimuli.
As soon as you are on the plane, start to take some steps to mimic the time zone that you are moving toward so that when you arrive you will align with the schedule of your destination as smoothly as possible. 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. Reset your clocks and shift your normal meal times toward the timeframe where you are going. Avoid alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and other stimulants, or use judiciously. Once you’ve landed and settled in, aim to get at least 4-6 hours sleep at night in your new time zone, ideally sleeping through 1:30 am – 4:30 am.
6. Enjoy an active day upon arrival.
When you arrive at your destination, get settled and take a short rest. A nap is allowed, but keep it under 2 hours. If it is morning in your new time zone, some caffeine can help. Then go out and be active, ideally getting some sun exposure in the process. Being out during daylight hours will help your body grasp what time it is in your new area. Getting some exercise, at least moderate walking, will help your body reestablish what is normal and provide oxygen, blood, and nutrients to your organs (including the valuable brain, useful for combatting jet lag-induced brain fog!). No need to go for a challenging run or intense workout at the gym, just get your blood pumping and breathe deeply. Take advantage of nearby movement opportunities and at some point in the day, do some stretching or varied movement — forward folds, chest openers, hanging from pull-up bars at a local park, or some restorative yoga.
7. Wear yourself out slightly and wind down before bedtime.
Try to stay moderately active, or at least out and about, until nighttime wherever you are, at which time you will probably feel pooped and beyond ready for a good night’s sleep. Further encourage your body toward sleep by doing something relaxing before bedtime, like taking a hot shower or reading. Before you go to bed, or if you wake up in the middle of the night, use a sleep-encouraging tool (melatonin, valerian, or passion flower are some good options).
8. Restorative Yoga.
In addition to practicing some basic stretches to keep your body’s systems working well, restorative yoga poses can work wonders on the hormonal and physiological processes. When you settle into your destination, find a place where you can 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. This will help reverse the settling of blood and fluids into the feet caused by sitting for hours on a plane, is restful, and helps the body to reset. Practice this pose daily, perhaps multiple times a day, in the days following your flight.
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