Once, when I was a kid, I flew from one time zone to the next to visit my grandparents.
Upon landing, I innocently informed my grandpa that I was jetlagged, and he just chuckled to himself—the way adults do when a kid says something that’s so darned cute!
My young mind wasn’t yet hip to the fact that you can’t get jet lag crossing just 1 time zone.
Jet lag is a temporary sleep disorder that occurs when a person travels rapidly (via plane) across numerous time zones, disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm or ‘internal clock.’
Your brain relies on the rise and fall of the sun to regulate your sleep-wake cycle. When that cycle is disrupted, it can cause you to feel sleepy and sluggish for a few days until your body fully adjusts to the new time zone and its sun cycle.
There’s no shortage of articles with all kinds of zany tips and tricks on how you can minimize the effects and duration of jet lag.
I’ve done lots of long-haul flights and, over time, I’ve found that the best solutions to minimizing jet lag are the simplest and healthiest ones.
It’s important to understand that jet lag is your body’s way of adjusting to a lot of changes. Not just the difference in time zone and hours of daylight. But also the stress of flying 500+ mph (800+ kph) at 35,000+ feet (10,668+ m) for half a day or more, in a dehydrating airplane with germs, cramped seats and so on.
So the key to conquering jet lag is not by guzzling coffee or popping addictive sleeping pills; but rather, by giving your body exactly what it needs, in natural, holistic ways.
Booking Your Flight
According to the American Sleep Association, jet lag is worse when you fly west to east across numerous time zones (e.g., New York City to Tokyo), than when you go east to west. That’s because, in traveling west to east, you’re losing time and yanking your sleep cycle forward…. into the future, essentially.
I can attest that the worst case of jet lag I’ve ever had was after flying from Shanghai to Los Angeles (west to east). That’s because I made the mistake of flying in on a Sunday evening, then going into a full work week the very next day. I didn’t give my body time to sleep, recuperate, and adjust before diving into the demands of commuting and working in a different time zone.
So, before you book an international flight, be sure to factor in at least 1 laidback and low-key day at the start and end of your trip, during which you can take it easy and slumber when you feel sleepy—especially after a long, west to east flight.
If your flight will arrive in the morning, reach out to your hotel ahead of time to request an early check-in.
Also, if possible, choose an overnight flight. Planes are darker, colder and quieter at night. Flying in the dark of night will help you sleep better on the plane, because darkness signals to the brain that it’s time to slow down, unwind and head on down the road to Sleepy Town.
Before Your Flight
Boost your energy and immunity by exercising, and getting good nights’ rests, on the days leading up to your trip.
This can be a bit tough if you’re scurrying to pack luggage and secure your home at the last minute. Which is why you should start packing and prepping weeks in advance, so you’ll be way more zen en route to the airport.
Also, cut out dehydrating libations like coffee, caffeine, wine and liquor in the days leading up to your flight. Drink lots of water instead.
Plus, I recommend drinking a glass of Vitamin C powder mix the day before and the day of your flight to boost your immune system.
During Your Flight
Your #1 goal during a long-haul flight should be to sleep as much as possible.
Your #2 goal should be to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
If you haven’t already, read my guide, How to Survive a Long Overseas Flight, for tips on how you can make your long flight as relaxing as possible.
Most notably, you should eat a fulfilling meal within the first hour or two after takeoff. The meal should be low in salt (which is dehydrating) and rich in carbohydrates. Most likely, this will help put you to sleep. Why? Because carbs help produce serotonin, which plays a role in putting your brain in the mood for Zzzzz.
Also, refrain from drinking coffee, caffeine, wine or liquor on board. Stick to water and juices instead. Airplane cabin air is super dehydrating. And your body depends on water to produce the energy it needs to fire on all cylinders.
If you need additional help falling asleep…
- Drink a relaxing cup of chamomile tea after your meal
- If in economy class, bring a super comfy travel pillow
- Wear high-quality ear plugs or noise-cancelling headphones to block out noise
- Wear a sleep mask that totally blocks out light. When your brain senses it is in total darkness, it automatically produces melatonin, a natural hormone that puts you in the mood for Zzzzz.
How you spend your first full day (Day 1) in your new destination plays a major role in minimizing the effects of jet lag.
If your flight arrives at night…
Go straight to your hotel or lodging. Once there, turn off your light-emitting electronic devices–smartphone, laptop, etc. If possible, take a warm shower to relax your muscles. Then plunge the room into darkness.
Darkness triggers your brain to produce melatonin, a natural hormone that puts you in the mood for Zzzzz.
If your flight arrives in the morning…
Go straight to your hotel or lodging. If possible, check in early, shower and get settled in. Eat a healthy, hearty meal; then follow the Day 1 tips below…
First, don’t make any definite plans for Day 1. And refrain from doing anything strenuous. Instead, you should:
- Take it easy…to give your body time to recalibrate and power up; and
- Spend some quality time walking outdoors
Going for a leisurely stroll outdoors has a number of benefits. The exercise and fresh air will boost your energy level and help you sleep more soundly. Spending time in the sun will help your body adjust its sleep-wake clock more quickly.
Second, eat meals and snacks that are high in protein (a natural energy booster) and nutrient-rich fruits and vegetables.
Third, stick to water and juice for the first full day or two. Once the jet lag subsides, you can enjoy local beer, coffee, wine and the like, to your heart’s content—just be sure to drink plenty of water as well.
Fourth, when you feel sleepy, don’t fight it. Go to sleep. Ideally, in a room that’s dark and quiet.
I’ve followed all of these tips on recent, long-flight trips to amazing results.
By Day 2, I’m well-rested, jet lag free, and full of energy to do all of the amazing sightseeing and adventure activities on my Wander List, for the rest of my trip!