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How to Avoid Jet Lag When You Travel

Women on the Road
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As a journalist traveling the world, avoiding jet lag was always near the top of my list. I had to hit the ground running, not like a ragged cloth ejected by a washing machine, which is how I often felt. 

So I experimented with jet lag remedies and finally found what worked for me. It won't work for everyone - we have yet to find out how to cure jet lag for everyone.

DISCLAIMER: This information is collected from published sources and personal experience so always, always check with a medical professional or a travel health clinic about jet lag and other travel medical advice. The information on this page in no way constitutes travel health advice, as I am a writer, not a doctor - but it will help you ask the right questions.

What is jet lag, anyway?

Lets get a few technical things out of the way.

Jet lag is a misalignment of circadian rhythms that occurs when you travel quickly across time zones. Simply put, it means that you've traveled so fast that your insides haven't quite caught up to the outside world, resulting in what the medical world calls a secondary circadian dysrhythmia.

Symptoms of jet lag can include sleepiness and a drop in alertness - when I'm jetlagged I'm woozy and all I can think of is getting to bed. It's often known as jet lag sickness or jet lag nausea.

These symptoms can last for several days until you adapt to your new time zone.

how to prevent jet lag: sleep and other helpful things

It might be worth exercising some jet lag prevention, even before you get on the plane. There are things you can do even before you get on the flight to help minimize jet lag (The Cure for Jet Lag by Lynne Waller Scanlo gets rave reviews on what to do to avoid jet lag).

You can eat well and hydrate yourself before you fly, so you're feeling at your best when you board. Flying dehydrates you so anything you can do to counter that is a good idea.

You can try to be as relaxed as possible by making sure you have everything at hand - passport, ticket, money. All that last-minute fumbling causes stress.

You can try to get plenty of exercise in the few days before your trip. This will expend some of that excess energy and help you relax you on 'the day', although it won't really do much for your jet lag.

And if you have the possibility, you can build in a stopover to your journey. Flying from Europe to Australia? Stop in Bangkok or Tokyo for a couple of days and see the sights. Even a layover of half a day may help between flights.

But no matter how much advance work you do towards avoiding jet lag, at some point you will have to fly...

  • Get on the flight as rested and calm as possible. Meditate, breathe deeply, do whatever you need to feel serene while you're waiting at the gate.
  • Note the direction of your flight. Traveling East to West will usually be easier on you than the other way around.
  • Wear comfortable clothes. You'd be amazed at what some people think is comfortable, like tight jeans or high heels. I try to wear a cotton or light fleece track suit, which also keeps me warm on the plane. It may not be the most elegant way to travel, but I tend to get to my destination relatively rested.
  • Beware your feet. Bring some thick socks with you and change into them as soon as you sit down. Make sure you've brought the most comfortable shoes you have because hours in a plane will bloat your feet and getting those shoes back on is murder.
  • Set your watch at your destination's time as soon as you get on the flight. You'll have a head start on adjusting to the new time zone when you land.
  • Conversely, start adjusting your internal clock a few days before you leave, by going to sleep or getting up an hour earlier or later each day to get closer to your time at destination. So if you're headed east, go to bed and get up an hour earlier each day. Heading west, do the opposite - stay up and sleep in, one hour a day. This is especially important if you're traveling for several days or more. (Confused? Use an online jet lag calculator to figure out how many hours to sleep.)
Avoiding jet lagWaiting to take off on a night flight
  • Sleep if you're on a night flight - if you can. Carry some earplugs, an eye mask and a soft or inflatable travel pillow to snooze more comfortably. I have a wonderful tempur-like pillow that helps me get to dreamland quickly!
  • Exercise when you're awake. This not only helps reduce the likelihood of blood clots on long flights but it also helps reduce jet lag. I prefer an aisle seat (although the window seat does allow you to lean against the wall...) so I don't have to climb over anyone too often. Just get up once the cart is out of the way, walk down the aisle, and do those little stretching exercises you'll find in the inflight magazine or on your audio channel.
  • Stay away from alcohol, not just during the flight but for 24 hours beforehand. The effect of alcohol is compounded when you fly so even a bit of booze will have more of an impact on you than you might think. The same goes for coffee.
  • Drink bottled water, lots of it (not juice, coffee or alcohol, none of which will help hydrate you). I always fill up my empty bottle right after security, in case they run out on the plane (hasn't happened yet but that's how my mind works). Keeping your bottle topped up will force you to get up and walk to the back of the plane (aka lavatories) every so often - so you get exercise too.
  • Do yoga or stretch. I'm not suggesting you strike a pose in mid-flight but a stretching routine is perfectly acceptable during air travel and a yoga session once you land will both help you relax and feel better.
  • Drinking isn't the only way to stay hydrated. Keep your skin clean and breathing by bringing along some moisturizing wipes or your own face cloth - you can always moisten it by using your bottled water.
  • Don't eat the food. Seriously. It's all dried out and you'll do better on an emptier stomach. I'm not sure how this works, but there is a scientific basis for it, at least when tested on - rats. If you must eat, ask for a fruit platter - you can usually get one if you ask 2-3 days ahead of time (check the airline's website). Like water, the fruit will help hydrate you. Not everyone agrees this makes a difference, but it does - for me.
  • Sleeping pills are also used by some people to combat jet lag but there are different opinions about this. While some people swear by pills because they sleep deeply and may arrive rested, there are concerns that immobility caused by deep sleep could provoke blood clots (known as DVT, or deep vein thrombosis). Many pills also contain addictive substances and may not be worth risking simply to avoid jet lag. I wouldn't touch them myself.
  • Split your trip in half over long distances. When I fly to the Far East from Europe, I try to break my trip in the Gulf States for a day. Many airlines offer good deals on stopovers so if you can grab one, you can use it to ease your body into its new time zone.

what are the risk factors that can make jet lag worse?

Jet lag is unpleasant enough, but it can feel even worse depending on a several factors.

  • How far you're traveling and how many time zones you're crossing: assume that the effects of jet lag will get worse the more time zones you cross, especially if you cross more than three or four.
  • How often you travel: if you take back-to-back trips that criss-cross time zones, expect to feel worse than usual. The more time zone changes you accumulate, the worse the jet lag.
  • How old you are: this isn't always the case (I'm not suffering more now than I did decades ago) but most people tend to feel the side effects of jet lag the older they get.
  • Your health. If you're already stressed or suffer from sleep disorders, there's every chance your jet lag will be worse.
  • Your flight direction: I find flying west is easier than flying east - when I get to my destination, it's easier to stay up until evening and pick up my regular rhythm.
  • The flight itself: a combination of recycled and pressurized air, dryness and irregular lighting can also make jet lag worse.

Here's how I deal with jet lag

I use all the above tips in various combinations, depending on my mood.

But there's one absolute rule I follow when I'm flying across time zones: I don't go to sleep until the evening, local time, wherever I am.

Whether I arrive at my destination at 10 in the morning or halfway through the afternoon, I stay up until nighttime. I may be dragging myself around in a wretched sleep daze, but no matter. If I give in and sleep, the jet lag will immediately kick in. If I manage to stay up until my usual bedtime, it'll be much less noticeable, and often I'll avoid jet lag altogether.

If you take a night flight and arrive in the morning:

Try to sleep during the flight. You'll have a few energy reserves when you land, and you'll be respecting your natural cycle - asleep at night, awake during the day. Then stay up all day, go sightseeing as though it were a normal day, and go to bed as usual in the evening. You'll probably have to fight drowsiness during the day and drag yourself around a bit but it could be well be worth it if you want to shave days off your jet lag.

If you take a day flight and arrive in the evening:

Do your best not to sleep during the flight or you'll be throwing off that natural cycle and encouraging jet lag. Make sure you've got a few books and games, and catch up on your inflight movies. Once you land, eat something if you're starved (I usually am because I don't usually eat on planes) and go to bed. You'll again be respecting your natural rhythms by sleeping at night and will avoid those jet lag sleep patterns. 

Preventing jet lag naturally

There's a popular belief - at least I believe it - that it takes one day per time zone to recover from jet lag.

In other words, if you cross eight time zones, your body clock should take eight days to get back to normal. There isn't a scientific basis for this but for me, as a rule of thumb, it has proven effective.

So yes - you could simply ride it out, feel the jet lag and let it dissipate slowly. But if you suffer from severe jet lag and don't want chemical help, here are some natural jet lag remedies that might help.

jet lag homeopathic remedies

Homeopathic remedies for jet lag are on the market and some travelers say they work beautifully. Homeopathy, for those unfamiliar with it, is a type of alternative medicine that uses a diluted form of the symptoms it's trying to cure. Diluted is key here because the amount of each substance is minute - larger doses would be toxic.

You'll find homeopathic jet lag remedies, most of them arnica-based, in health food stores and drugstores that deal with homeopathy.

Some travelers say the popular over-the-counter No Jet Lag pills work better at avoiding jet lag than anything they've ever tried. I can't vouch for them (so far I've managed without the extra help) but if I ever do feel the need I'll definitely give them a try. Just read some of the reviews to see how people swear by them and consider them the best jet lag pills on the market.

other natural remedies for jet lag

Some travelers use lavender essential oil, whose relaxing properties may help with sleep, although the research about its effectiveness as jet lag medicine is still anecdotal and infrequent. That said, a few drops into a bath or a pillow have been known to help calm people down (and ward off those airborne germs), along with a good sleep schedule and avoiding things like caffeine and alcohol.

Vitamins, too, are acceptable jet lag supplements, especially B12 for energy and D for melatonin.

And why not valerian root? It is also used by some travelers because it is a natural herb that helps you sleep. Just don't mix with alcohol and again, as with any supplement, check with a medical specialist.

melatonin and jet lag (and other therapies)

Melatonin for travel is an increasingly popular jet lag remedy and these days, accepted by many health experts. It acts by supplementing your hormones to manage your sleep cycles (or more technically, regulating your body's circadian rhythm).

Here's what happens: your melatonin levels will go up in the dark (or at night) and down in the light (or in the morning). When you get light at the wrong time - in the middle of the night, for example - your melatonin cycles go haywire and you get jetlagged, until your body clock adjusts to its new time.

This is exactly what seems to happen when you take a long haul flight and cross several time zones.

In other words, a melatonin sleep aid may help you adjust to your new time zone. (We naturally manufacture melatonin in our bodies and release it according to the amount of light outside.)

Long-term effects of using a melatonin supplement haven't been studied and while some people swear by it, there is at least one study that reports it can actually make jet lag worse if it's not taken when it should be. Melatonin is also credited with possible side effects like insomnia or nightmares or fatigue if taken in high doses.

In the US it's available over the counter as a natural substance (even though synthetic melatonin is what you usually get) whereas in other countries it is either forbidden or requires a prescription. Make sure you get sound medical advice before trying this!

And remember that it might interact with other medication (check!).

Jet lag light therapy

Another possible way of avoiding jet lag - a few studies exist but this is still a new area - is the use of bright light therapy to help reset your body clock.

A number of lights are touted for their anti-jet lag properties but research has yet to prove that bright lights really make a difference.

Still, it's not an unpleasant alternative so whether or not it works, there seems to be no harm in it as long as you use them at the right time of day - to stretch the day rather than truncate it. And remember, an artificial light isn't your only choice: there's always sunlight if it's available.

is there such a thing as a jet lag cure?

About a quarter of people who fly suffer significantly from jet lag - and about a quarter hardly suffer at all. The rest fall somewhere in-between.

In addition to many of the jet lag solutions presented above, any travelers swear by self-hypnosis, accupressure, an anti jet lag diet or eating at certain times of day only. Some methods are more complex than others, but there still doesn't seem to be a failsafe way to prevent jet lag that works for everyone.

For me, the easiest is the most natural: let your body talk to you.

Stay up during the day, sleep at night.

And avoid ending up like Stripey here.

FAQS about how to get over jet lag

Jet lag definition - what does jet lag mean?

According to Wikipedia, jet lag is a physiological condition that results from alterations to the body's circadian rhythms caused by rapid long-distance trans-meridian (east–west or west–east) travel. 

What are typical jet lag symptoms?

A typical symptom is the feeling of dizziness and tiredness, a bit like a hangover. There are plenty of other symptoms ranging from anxiety to insomnia to occasional memory loss.

How long does it take to get over jet lag?

The body usually adjusts to one time zone a day, possibly two. So if you cross six time zones, you'll need an absolute minimum of three days, but usually six.

What causes jet lag?

Jet lag is when our bodies fail to instantly adjust to a different time zone and are playing catch-up.

How can I avoid jet lag?

Jet lag can be avoided or at least minimized by accustoming your body to the new time zone as soon as possible. This can be done by starting the adjustment before you fly, by adopting the time at your destination immediately, by getting enough sleep and by using natural aids. There is no fully effective jet lag medication but much can be done to provide jet lag help.

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