Anyone who’s travelled through multiple time zones has experienced jet lag. You spend months planning your trip and manage to survive the long-haul flight, only to arrive at your destination in an exhausted fog that can last for days. Not fun.
Jet lag is no joke and has been classified as a serious sleep disorder. It occurs when your circadian rhythm become desynchronized with your surrounding timezone, causing a myriad of body functions to feel out of whack. That means serious fatigue, mental fog and even ongoing stomach issues. So how do frequent travelers do it? Through years of trial and error, the travel pros have figured out how to hack their biorhythms, quickly adjust to the travel process, and get over jet lag faster. We’ve gathered the 11 best recommendations from travel experts to beat jet lag and get the most out of every trip.
1. Start your trip well rested
Many people recommend staying up the night before a long distance flight to tire yourself out, and sleep on the plane. That’s a very bad idea, and a good way to ensure your jet lag lasts for days. Starting out your trip exhausted means you’re beginning the travel process in sleep deficit. This will make it even more challenging for your body to adjust to a different time zone, as it’s already struggling to keep up with compounding exhaustion. Your body’s natural rhythms will be thrown off before the journey has even begun.
Because of this, seasoned travellers know to prioritize a good night’s rest for two nights before you’re set to take off. That’s right – two full nights! One night of quality sleep is good, but two nights of quality sleep will allow your body to settle into a proper sleep cycle and fully recharge. Getting quality sleep for a few days prior to travelling ensures that your body is prepared to deal with the strain of crossing multiple time zones.
2. Adjust to local time at the start of your flight, not when you arrive
Don’t wait for your plane to hit the tarmac before adjusting to local time. Once you’ve boarded the plane and settled into your seat, check out the time at your destination. If you wear a watch, adjust the time on accordingly. If you primarily use your phone to keep time, use the World Clock feature in most pre-set Clock Apps to set an extra clock for your arrival location.
Once you’ve figured out the time difference, start adjusting your rhythms accordingly. If it’s 11:00 AM when you boarded the plane but 5:00 PM at your location, you might choose to eat your largest meal of the day for lunch, to simulate eating dinner. If it’s 11:00 PM at your destination, try to shut your eyes and get some sleep. It might feel odd to eat before you’re hungry and sleep before you’re tired, but you’re sending signals to your brain that it’s time to adjust to a different cycle. By the time you arrive in your destination, your body will already have begun the process of switching to different rhythm, minimizing any lag time.
3. Simulate your sleep routine
Since you’re trying to readjust your sleep schedule, following your typical sleep routine will be extra important to get quality sleep. (Or, as quality as you can manage in an upright position). Plan ahead, and go through your nightly routines as you would at home. Wash your face, brush your teeth, write in your nightly journal. Most importantly, stay off any screens. Even the screen on the seat back in front of you.
Studies show that the body perceives light from digital screens in the same way it perceives sunlight. Screens stimulate a similarly wakeful response, and will prevent you from settling into a good sleep cycle. Rather than catching up on Netflix, browse through a magazine, listen to a podcast, or start that book you’ve been meaning to get to.
4. Get Cozy
Let’s face it; sleeping on a plane is uncomfortable. It’s worth investing in some creature comforts to increase your chances of sleeping well, and staving off terrible jet lag. Be mindful about what your body needs to relax into sleep, and pack the necessary supplies in your carry-on. For example, neck pillows may look silly, but they will stabilize your cervical spine and prevent aches in the morning. Invest in a higher quality memory foam neck pillow with a removable cover, so you can wash it after every trip.
A sleep mask can also help block-out ambient light, which will come in handy if you’re trying to adjust to your destination time and catch some Z’s while it’s still daylight. You can even find weighted sleep masks, which have been shown to promote sleep by stimulating pressure points. And, ear plugs can be a great solution if you’re sensitive to sound, but don’t want to splurge on expensive noise-cancelling headphones.
5. Use natural sleep aids
Seasoned travellers know not to use over-the-counter or prescription sleep medications while travelling, as they often leave you groggy and disoriented once you arrive at your destination. Instead, try a natural sleep aid that won’t have lingering effects. Melatonin is a popular choice, as it’s easy to pack in capsule form and is a naturally occurring hormone that helps regulate sleep-wake cycles.
Herbal tea can also be a great alternative, and is easy to pack and carry with you on the plane. Bring some of your favorite tea with you, and take advantage of the free hot water on nearly all international flights.
6. Drink water
It may sound obvious, but drinking water is one of the best things you can do to keep your body energized and beat jet lag. Modern planes are climate controlled, which means they artificially regulate the air at levels that are slightly less humid and less oxygen rich than a typical environment. A slightly hypoxic environment means your breathing rate will increase, causing you to lose moisture at a quicker rate than normal. In fact, recent studies have shown that during a 10 hour flight, a healthy adult may lose as much as 8% of their body water.
To prevent this from happening, be sure to drink plenty of water while flying. Accept water when offered by the flight stewards. Or, bring an empty water bottle with you to the airport and fill it once you’re through security, so you’ll always have water handy while you’re in-air. And don’t be afraid to get up and use the bathroom. Keeping your body well hydrated will help you sleep better, and will keep your rhythms regulated to prevent serious jet lag. Those bathroom trips will be worth it.
7. Avoid alcohol or coffee
Alcohol and caffeine are diuretics, which means they cause the kidneys to draw in excessive amounts of water. Diuretics contribute to the process of dehydration, causing you to pee out bodily water rather than retain it. And, both caffeine and alcohol are noted sleep disruptors, preventing quality sleep even in the best environments. As much fun as an in-flight glass of wine may be, avoiding alcohol and coffee is the smartest move. By staying hydrated and avoiding sleep inhibitors, you’ll be prepared for a good night’s rest.
8. Get moving
Exercise is a key signal that helps regulate circadian rhythms, and you can utilize movement to biohack jet lag as well. Once you’ve set your clock to the time at your destination, be sure to get up and walk around the plane during times when you should be wakeful. If it’s 2:00 AM your time but 8:00 AM at your destination, get up and take a stroll around the cabin. Stretch at the back of the plane or in the aisles if possible. Even standing for a few minutes will tell your body that it’s time to awaken.
Similarly, exercise is a great way to get on track with local time once you’ve arrived at your destination. Take a jog around your hotel, walk to lunch rather than taking a cab, or rent a bike and go for a ride. Movement will naturally alert your body that it’s time to be wakeful and will, in turn, promote a good night’s sleep once it’s time for bed.
9. Don’t sleep as soon as you arrive
It may be tempting to fall straight into bed after an exhausting day of travel, but this will only prolong the jet lag. Do not allow yourself to go to bed until it’s a normal time to do so at your destination. Falling asleep at 4:00 PM will prevent your circadian rhythms from shifting to align with your destination time. You’ll end up suffering for days – some sources even estimate jet lag can last up to seven days. Don’t allow your entire trip to be affected by jet lag. Stay awake and active until it’s an appropriate time for bed.
10. Go outside
Sunlight is another key signal that regulates the body’s circadian rhythm and one you can easily use to combat jet lag. And since you won’t allow yourself to fall straight to sleep upon arrival, the best way to keep your body awake is by getting some vitamin D. As your brain registers sunlight, it acts on the hypothalamus which regulates the body’s circadian rhythms. In tern, the hypothalamus will adjust the body’s hormones and processes to align with a wakeful state. After a long day of travel, you might want to relax indoors, but getting sunlight is one of the best ways to adjust your body’s rhythms to local time and get over jet lag quickly. Go for a walk to the nearest museum, check out an outdoor market or just hang out at a street-side cafe to get your dose of sunlight.
11. If extreme, get a flight that arrives around bedtime
Sometimes crossing multiple times zones is unavoidable, which means you’ll be at risk for an extra painful bout of jet lag. If you’re planning on enduring the 17 hour ride to Perth, Australia anytime soon, try to select a flight that lands close to bedtime. No matter what happens on your flight, you’ll be able to land and go to bed, then start the next day totally fresh and jet-lag free.
The key to getting over jet lag quickly is to be proactive. Think through your normal daily rhythms, and consider what you need to complete them. What time do you normally go to sleep, and what do you need in order to sleep well? Pack items that will allow you to mimic your daily biorhythms while travelling, then adjust your patterns to match the clock at your destination. With a little planning, you’ll be able to beat jet lag and enjoy your trip like a seasoned pro.