How do I manage jet lag?
Written by Chris Garay

Jet lag is an experience common to travelers who cross more than one time zone, usually a requirement when travelling internationally. Unfortunately, it can put a serious damper on your ability to enjoy your travels. The good news is that there are steps you can take to manage jet lag.

 

What is jet lag?

 

Jet lag is the laymen’s term for a medical condition called desynchronosis. It is a temporary sleep condition caused by the disruption in your sleep cycle (also known as your circadian rhythm), which can cause you to feel sluggish and fatigued. Other symptoms include difficulty in getting a full night’s restful sleep, stomach problems such as constipation or diarrhea, and dehydration.

 

The problem for travelers dealing with jet lag is that the more time zones you cross, the longer it takes to recover from jet lag and feel like your regular well rested self. Typically crossing more than two time zones rapidly will yield symptoms of jet lag and the time required to recover is about one day for every two time zones you’ve crossed.

 

Travel to the east tends to create more dramatic jet lag symptoms than travel to the west because eastern travel causes you to lose hours as you change time zones. Furthermore, jet lag tends to affect older travelers more dramatically than younger travelers.

 

This can be a real detractor from a planned vacation if you feel out of sorts for half the time you’re on your vacation as your body adjusts. Fortunately, there are several ways to help mitigate the effects of jet lag.

 

Tips for managing jet lag

 

While there is no absolute guarantee to completely eliminate jet lag, just as there is no surefire cure for fatigue besides rest and time, the suggestions that follow can help your body recover from the effects of long distance travel across multiple time zones.

 

  • Begin adjusting your sleep cycle in advance of your trip. If you are traveling east then go to sleep one hour earlier each day leading up to your trip until your sleep cycle conforms to what it would be at your destination. For example, if you live in the Pacific Standard Time Zone and you’re planning a trip to Germany, you will cross 9 time zones, approximately. Begin going to sleep one hour earlier 9 days before your trip, and go to sleep an hour earlier the next night and the following night. By the time your vacation arrives, your sleep cycle will be adjusted to time zone of your new destination. Conversely, if you travel west, you want to adjust your sleep cycle by going to sleep one hour later each night.
  • Adjust your meal schedule gradually to reflect the time zone at your destination. Sleep cycles are not merely affected by when you go to sleep, but also by the schedule of other daily activities. Furthermore, it’s not always practical to change your sleep cycle so radically in anticipation of a trip. Changing the time at which you normally eat helps to influence your sleep patterns as well.
  • Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! Scientific studies have shown that pressurized cabins at 8,000 feet or higher tend to lower the oxygen levels in your blood, making you feel dehydrated, a condition which exacerbates jet lag. Drinking lots of water helps to eliminate this symptom.
  • Avoid drinking alcoholic or caffeinated beverages in the evening. Both alcohol and caffeine have the ability to disrupt sleeping patterns. While the effects of caffeine on sleep are hardly surprising, the effects of alcohol on sleep might seem to be the opposite because of its initial effect of sleepiness, but intoxication actually makes it harder to sleep for longer periods of time, making your sleep restless or intermittent. If it’s your habit to consume alcohol in the evenings, limit yourself to two drinks and make sure that these occur several hours before your normal sleep time.
  • Set your watch ahead of time to the time zone of your destination. This can have the psychological effect of preparing you for life in your new time zone. It also helps in scheduling meal times and sleep around your new time.
  • During your flight, eat and sleep according to the time at your destination. Typically, airlines schedule their meals according to the place they have just left rather than according to their destination. Consequently it’s a good idea to bring snacks and limit yourself from eating outside of those times you will normally eat in your destination’s time zone.
  • Eat lightly when traveling and avoid heavy meals before sleep. Eating lightly on your travel days is helpful for many situations, not the least among them is limiting the effects of jet lag. Your digestive behavior is linked to your sleep cycle and heavier meals near your regular sleep time can create problems with getting restful sleep. Some frequent travelers adopt diets that feature heavy meals on the days before travelling and lighter meals or fasting during travel.
  • Move around when the “fasten seat belt” light goes off. This can also help eliminate the effects of fatigue that can increase when you are in a cramped space for hours at a time.
  • Once you’re at your destination, exercise. Exercise in the mornings or in the early evening, but make sure you do not exercise in the hours leading up to your bedtime. Exercise can help you feel more energetic and alert and limit the effects of jet lag.
  • Take a hot bath or shower before bedtime. Submersion in hot water can be an incredibly relaxing experience and the sudden change in body temperature after climbing out of a hot bath can help bring on a drowsy feeling, making it easier to go to sleep.
  • Consider taking melatonin. While melatonin doesn’t work for everybody, it can help you in getting to sleep. Take it about half an hour before you plan to sleep. You can also look into taking other sleep aids if you are on a long trip, but be careful. These can disrupt your sleep patterns even further or make you sleep for longer periods than you might want to.
  • Get the appropriate type of sunlight exposure. Once you are at your destination, try to get out in the sun at the appropriate time to help your body adjust to the new time. If you have traveled east to west, afternoon sunlight is beneficial but too much morning sunlight can be detrimental. If you have traveled west to east, it’s the opposite. In this case, get out in the sun during the morning and try to avoid afternoon sunlight until your sleep cycle has adjusted.
  • If you can afford it, try to purchase flights that include layovers at halfway points. This allows you to adjust your sleep patterns in increments rather than all at once.

 

Jet lag does not have to be the main feature of your international vacation. Following these tips can limit its effects and leave you feeling refreshed and ready to experience the world you’ve travelled over such a long distance to see.