Traveling, whether for business or pleasure, is a fun and exciting experience. However, it has its downsides too, especially if you’re unable to sleep during your flight. Visiting a part of the world which runs on a different time zone can result in the dreaded jet lag.
Whether you’ve just arrived on vacation, or you’ve just got home, jet lag can make life difficult. It leaves you feeling disoriented, as your body is running on the wrong schedule. If you’ve traveled through multiple time zones, jet lag can often take days to go away. It can make returning to work a real hassle.
Today, we’re going to look at the causes and symptoms. We’ll discuss the best ways to prevent jet lag, and how to get rid of jet lag after a vacation. We’ll also share our tips for returning to work.
What Are the Causes of Jet Lag?
Your body naturally runs on an internal “clock.” It’s a 24-hour cycle of sleepiness and wakefulness, called the circadian rhythm. This is what tells you when to feel tired, awake, and hungry. If you start to feel sleepy at the same time every evening, thank your circadian rhythm.
When you travel to a different time zone, you can put your circadian rhythm out of alignment. You may land in your new destination at 8 am, but your internal clock is telling you it’s midnight. This can cause you to become disoriented and confused. You may feel tired, alert or hungry at the wrong times. This is called jet lag, also known as desynchronosis and flight fatigue.
There are many factors which can make jet lag worse. These include:
- Traveling through multiple time zones. The further you travel, the worse your jet lag will be. This is because your circadian rhythm has to adjust to a larger time difference.
- Traveling eastwards. You may have heard the phrase “west is best; east is a beast.” This is because when you travel east, you “lose” time. It’s harder for your body to catch up with lost time than to integrate gained time.
- Age. As a general rule, older people struggle more with jet lag than younger people.
What Are the Symptoms of Jet Lag?
The symptoms usually kick in within the first 12 hours of arriving at your destination.
You may have one or more of the following symptoms, at varying levels of severity:
- Disturbed sleep: insomnia, waking in the night, or feeling excessively tired during the day.
- Disturbed eating: feeling hungry at inappropriate times, such as in the middle of the night, and not feeling hungry at mealtimes.
- Changes in mood: anxiety, melancholy, and irritability
- Feeling disoriented and confused
- Cognitive problems: difficulty with concentration, thinking, and short-term memory
- Stomach problems: constipation, diarrhea, nausea, and indigestion
- Malaise: a general feeling of being unwell
You may be wondering: how long do jet lag symptoms last? Sadly, there is no singular answer to this rule. Some cases last for only a day or two; others take a week or more to resolve. It will usually last longer if you’ve traveled eastwards, or through many time zones.
Fortunately, there are ways that you can prepare yourself for travel, and resolve your jet lag naturally.
How to Prevent Jet Lag before It Happens
As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you can prevent jet lag from occurring in the first place, you’ll feel assimilated straight away in your new time zone.
It isn’t always possible to stop jet lag from happening completely, of course. It all depends on factors such as how far you’re going and the direction of travel. However, it is possible to reduce the impact significantly.
Follow our advice before you even step on the plane, and you’ll be amazed at how much it helps.
1) Prepare Your Body
It’s much easier for a healthy, hydrated and well-rested brain to avoid jet lag than an unhealthy one. Before your trip, stick to the following rules to make the travel easier on your body.
Start implementing this advice at least two weeks beforehand:
- Get enough sleep each night. The National Sleep Foundation recommends at least 7 – 9 hours per night for adults. Any less than this and you’ll not only combat jet lag but also your existing “sleep debt.” Make sure to go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day. If you’re already used to a schedule, it will be easier to adjust to a new one.
- Keep your body well hydrated. Aim to drink at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day. Drinking enough water is particularly important for the health of your kidneys and your skin. If you’re dehydrated, it will be more difficult to adjust to a new sleeping and eating schedule. Make sure also to avoid diuretics such as alcohol and caffeine. These can not only dehydrate you but also interfere with your sleep because you’ll constantly need to go to the toilet during the night.
- Exercise regularly. The government recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Exercising has numerous health benefits, including helping your circadian rhythm to function normally.
Making sure your body is healthy and well-prepared before embarking on your journey will help offset jet lag.
2) Alter Your Schedule Beforehand
If you’re going to be traveling to a time zone at least 3 hours away from yours, jet lag is much more likely. To minimize its impact, start slowly adjusting your schedule before you even get on the flight. If you’re already prepared for the new time zone before you arrive, your jet lag will be milder.
Start off by adjusting your bedtime according to your new time zone. If possible, begin this at least a few days to a week before you travel. If you’re flying west, start going to bed and getting up two hours later than usual. If you’re traveling east, do the opposite – go to bed and get up earlier.
This will help slowly transition your body to the new time zone. So, if you’re traveling to a country which is 5 hours apart, it will only feel like a two-hour difference. Once you arrive, there won’t be as big an adjustment to face.
3) Break Up Your Flights
If you’re traveling a long distance, consider splitting up your flight into two journeys. For example, if you’re traveling from New York to Hong Kong, which is 12 hours ahead.
Instead of flying directly to your destination, arrange a stopover somewhere roughly halfway. Stay for a night or two in France, for example. It will be easier to get used to two 6-hour time changes than one 12-hour change.
By stopping halfway, you give your circadian rhythm more time to catch up before moving on again. When you arrive at your destination, you won’t take as long to recover. And as a nice bonus, you get to experience the delights of an entirely different country.
4) Arrive During the Day
If you’re able to choose your flight times, you’ll have an advantage. If possible, choose a flight which arrives during the day, rather than at night. It’s far easier to get accustomed to a new time zone if you arrive in daylight.
The best time for your flight to land is in the early evening. That way, you’ll have time to get to your accommodation (or home) and get ready for bed. You’ll likely feel tired from all the traveling, which should make it easier to fall asleep. When you wake up in the morning, you’ll already be accustomed to the new time zone.
If you arrive in the morning or early afternoon, it may be slightly harder to stay up. However, if you can force yourself to remain awake until bedtime, you won’t suffer much jet lag.
How to Prepare for Your Flight
As soon as you step onto your flight, you should set your watch to match your destination. On the flight, try to stick to the new time zone as best you can. That way, when you land, it won’t be as difficult to adjust.
For example, if it’s night time in your destination country, try to sleep on the flight. That way, when you land, you’ll be ready for the new day ahead.
Wear comfortable, non-restrictive clothes on your flight, and consider bringing the following:
- Eye mask to block bright light
- A comfortable travel pillow
- A blanket. You’ll likely be provided with one, but bringing your own blanket may help you to sleep better.
- An MP3 player stocked with soothing instrumental music
- Lavender-scented body lotion or moisturizer
If you want to sleep for the whole flight, you should ask the airplane staff not to wake you for meals.
If, on the other hand, it’s daytime in your new destination while you’re flying, try to stay awake. Bring stimulating activities such as puzzles and exciting books to keep your mind active. Bring energy-boosting snacks such as granola bars. Talk to other people on the flight, and regularly get up and walk around.
How to Get Rid of Jet Lag Naturally
If you’ve followed our above advice, you may find that you’re able to stave off jet lag completely. However, it won’t always be possible. If you’ve traveled eastwards, or you’ve crossed multiple time zones, you may still suffer from some degree of jet lag.
In case of this, we’ve compiled our five top tips for getting rid of jet lag naturally. Follow our advice, and you’ll soon settle into your new time zone. That applies whether it’s your home state or a new and exciting destination!
1) Set Up a New Sleep Schedule
Once your flight has landed, the most important thing to do is to set up a new sleep schedule. Only go to bed at the correct time for your new time zone.
This might be difficult to achieve to start with. For example, you may get off the plane at 10 am local time, when it’s 2 am back home. You’ll probably feel exhausted and ready for bed, especially if you didn’t manage to sleep on the airplane.
However, it’s important not to give in to the desire for sleep. If you go to bed at the improper time, you’ll only end up prolonging your jet lag. Instead, push through the day as best you can. Take a cold shower to refresh yourself. Keep your mind and body active by being social, going out and interacting with others.
Try not to nap if you can avoid it. If you must nap, stick to short power naps for 20 or 30 minutes. This will prevent you from entering deep sleep, which will be difficult to wake up from.
2) Eat Smart
According to research by the University of Surrey, regulating your mealtimes could help significantly with jet lag. In their study, they tested long-haul cabin crew members. They found that eating regular meals which corresponded to the local time helped to alleviate jet lag.
So, what does this mean for you? When you get off the plane, consider what time of day it is. If it’s 7 pm, eat a normal dinner-time meal. This may feel peculiar to you if it’s closer to breakfast time where you came from. However, it could be the key to ridding yourself of jet lag.
If you get off the plane in the middle of the night, you may feel hungry. However, don’t be tempted to grab a midnight snack. Instead, wait until a normal breakfast time before indulging. This will help reset your circadian rhythm and match it to your new time zone.
For breakfast, choose a meal high in protein, such as eggs and bacon. This will help keep you awake throughout the day. Meals heavy in carbohydrates can cause tiredness, so reserve these for later on.
3) Make Use of Light
Research in the Primary Care medical journal details how light can influence the circadian rhythm. During the daytime, when the sun is out, your brain uses light cues to recognize that it’s daytime. It inhibits the release of melatonin and ‘wakes up’ the cells in your body. Likewise, when the sun goes down, melatonin is released, and you start to feel sleepy.
Take advantage of this when traveling. If it’s daytime when you get off the plane, spend as much time outside in the sun as possible. This will help your circadian rhythm adjust to the new time zone. If it’s night time, avoid any sources of bright light, such as cell phones and TV. Instead, sit in a dimly lit room and engage in relaxing behaviors such as reading a book.
If you don’t have a reliable source of light (for example, if it’s overcast outside), try using artificial light to produce the same effect. You can buy light boxes online which simulate the natural color of daylight. They’re used to combat Seasonal Affective Disorder, but can also be helpful in resetting your circadian rhythm.
4) Natural Stimulants
If you’ve traveled a long distance – particularly west-to-east – you may “lose” valuable sleep hours during your flight. In this case, you might find it hard to stay up during the day once you’ve landed at your new destination.
Fortunately, there are many natural stimulants available to try. These will help give your body a bit of a boost and help you to stay awake. They can’t replace real energy gained by sleeping, but they’ll help you stick it out until bedtime.
- The leaves of the Ginkgo Biloba tree have been consumed for centuries to help with energy levels. Drinking tea made from ginkgo increases blood flow in the brain, leading to more oxygen (and therefore energy).
- Peppermint comes in many forms such as essential oils, teas, and even body wash. The scent and taste of peppermint can lift the mood and provide a mental boost. As a bonus, it doesn’t interfere with sleep as caffeine does.
- Cayenne is a type of hot pepper which has stimulating qualities. Adding powdered cayenne to your morning drink will kick-start your digestive system, making you feel alert. It’s also rich in vitamins and minerals to help you feel refreshed.
- Ginseng comes from the root of a plant. It’s a completely natural source of energy which can come in the form of pills and teas. It also helps to clear your mind and make it easier to concentrate.
5) Natural Sleep Aids
If you land in your new destination at night, it might be hard to fall asleep straight away. Your internal body clock may still be stuck on your old time zone. It could be hours behind or hours in front. If you’ve traveled east-to-west, it could feel like the morning even though it’s still nigh time.
If this is the case for you, try these natural sleep aids. These will help you drift off into a peaceful sleep without relying on harsh sleeping pills.
- Valerian has been used as a sleeping supplement since ancient times. It’s made from the root of an Asian herb. It acts on the brain similarly to a sedative, helping you to feel naturally tired.
- Melatonin is the body’s “sleepy hormone.” Your brain releases it naturally when it’s time to sleep, by your circadian rhythm. It is also available in supplement form. Research in the Sleep Medicine Clinics Journal found melatonin to be an effective way of combating jet lag.
- Chamomile is a flower which is widely available as teas or extracts. It has a natural relaxing and soothing effect. Chamomile tea before bedtime, it can help place you in the right frame of mind for sleep.
- Lavender is strongly associated with sleep. It’s found in all sorts of products aimed to relax the body, such as bath oils and incense. For an immediate calming effect, apply lavender essential oil directly on your temples, wrists, and feet.
Following our advice, you’ll find that your jet lag is soon over and done with. Of course, it may take a few days to feel normal again. But as long as you stick to the schedule of your new time zone, you’ll soon feel right as rain.
Returning to Work with Jet Lag Tips
When you get home from a vacation, it can be difficult to get back into the swing of things. Going back to work and being productive can be difficult, even if you’ve traveled within your time zone. Dealing with jet lag on top of post-vacation blues can be even harder.
Here are our top tips for returning to work when you’re suffering from jet lag.
6) Get Organized Before You Leave
The first step is to get organized before you even leave for your vacation. Make sure to finish as many projects as you can before you take your time off. Tie up any loose ends so that you don’t have to worry about unfinished business when you return.
Before taking on any new projects in the weeks before you leave, check their deadlines. Don’t burden yourself with anything that you’ll need to rush to finish after you get back. Keep your coworkers and superiors informed so that they can continue with your work if they need to.
This is also a great time to tidy up your space. Returning to an organized office will feel a lot better than having mess waiting for you.
7) Avoid Taking an Extra Day Off
Try to get back to work as soon as you can after returning from a vacation. If you’re suffering from jet lag, it may sound appealing to take an extra day off. However, this may be a mistake.
If you take an extra day off after your vacation, you’ll be tempted to spend it sleeping. Though you’ll feel great when you wake up, you’re at risk of messing up your circadian rhythm. This will lead to your jet lag lasting even longer.
The best way to push through jet lag is to be strict with your new schedule. Sleep only during the night, and force yourself to get up in the morning. Even if you feel tired, get back on track with work as soon as you can.
8) Drink Coffee in Moderation
When you return from vacation, you’ll likely be operating in a different time zone. This may lead to trouble sleeping at night, and tiredness during the day.
If this is the case, you may choose to enlist the help of caffeine to get you through the day. Drinking coffee, tea or energy drinks in the morning can help give you a boost of vitality. In small amounts, at the right times of day, this is perfectly fine.
However, be sensible with your caffeine intake. The FDA recommends a limit of 400mg of caffeine per day. This is about the equivalent of four regular sized cups of coffee. Also, bear in mind that the effects of caffeine can last for up to 6 hours.
So, if you go to bed at 10 pm, make sure to finish your last cup of coffee before 4 pm.
9) Exercise Before Work
A great way of feeling spry and productive in the mornings is to get some exercise in before work. Aim to get up an hour before you usually would, and go for a run or visit the gym.
A study by the University of Georgia found that exercising in the morning can boost energy levels straight away. Just one 20 to 40-minute session of moderate intensity exercise can have a noticeable effect. Not only that, but exercise improves your mood, too.
If you can exercise outside, this is even better. Being exposed to natural sunlight will also help to shift your circadian rhythm back to normal. Sunlight helps to decrease levels of melatonin (the sleep hormone) in the brain. It also lets your body know that it’s time to be awake and alert.
10) Focus on Small Tasks
If you’re still jet-lagged and tired when you return to work, don’t panic. Your superiors and colleagues should be sympathetic to your situation. After all, they’ll likely have experienced it themselves before.
If you aren’t as productive as you usually are, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to dive back in straight away. Instead, focus on completing small, achievable tasks. If there are any small jobs that you’ve meant to do for a while but have been pushing to the wayside in favor of more important things, now might be the time to tackle them.
Your attention span may not be brilliant, so focus on things which won’t take excessive levels of concentration. Give yourself regular breaks, and try not to push yourself too hard. You’ll soon be back into the swing of things.
11) Establish a Bedtime Routine
You may find that your jet lag stops you from feeling sleepy at night. This can result in feeling tired and unproductive at work the next day. The best way to tackle this is by introducing a solid bedtime routine, to help your body prepare for sleep.
Try to adhere to the following rules, to maximize your chances of getting a good night’s rest.
- Turn off all screens at least an hour before bed. This means no TV, computer, tablet or cell phone. The blue light from screens can trick your brain into thinking it’s daytime.
- In the lead up to bedtime, avoid tasks which require extreme mental or physical exertion. An hour or two before it’s time to sleep, you should focus on relaxing your mind and body. Take a bath, read a relaxing book or listen to soothing music.
- Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, dark and quiet. Adjust the thermostat to 60 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit for the optimal sleeping temperature. If you don’t have blackout blinds, use an eye mask. Ear plugs can also come in handy if you live in a noisy neighborhood.
If you wake up during the night, don’t be tempted to reach for your phone or laptop. Instead, do something unstimulating, such as reading. Keep light levels low.
12) Avoid Sleeping Pills
If you’re struggling to sleep during the night, it may be tempting to take sleeping pills. However, if you have to go to work the next day, you should avoid sleep medication at all costs.
Sleeping pills tend to have a very strong, knock-out effect that can last for more than eight hours. It’s not uncommon to feel groggy, dazed and “out of it” for the entirety of the following day. Although you’ll get to sleep quickly, you’ll feel more tired at work than you would have otherwise.
Instead, opt for natural sleep aids. Try drinking a warm, decaffeinated drink before bed, such as chamomile tea. Apply lavender essential oil to your bed linen. Use a white noise machine or a fan to soothe yourself to sleep.
Still Jet Lagged after a Week?
By now, you’re well equipped to cope with jet lag. You should be familiar with the best ways to prevent it and deal with it once it arrives. If you follow our guide, you’ll be able to minimize your jet lag.
Of course, not every case of jet lag is the same. In some cases, it can take up to one day of recovery for each time zone that you’ve crossed. For example, if you’ve traveled to California from New York, it could take three days to recover. If your journey is a long one – for example, from the USA to Europe – it could take over a week. Not to mention, if you’re older, it’ll take you longer to recover than someone younger.
It’s essential, no matter how bad you feel, to stick to the schedule of your new time zone. Make sure to adhere to the correct sleep times and meal times. If you’re tired during the day, go for a run instead of napping. If you get hungry in the middle of the night, wait until breakfast before eating. This will help you get rid of your jet lag quicker.
If your jet lag has lasted over two weeks, though, we recommend mentioning it to your doctor. It could be that extraneous factors are causing you problems sleeping. Your doctor will be able to examine you and figure out if there’s anything else wrong.