Holding my head up with both hands, my eyelids felt heavier with every blink as I struggled to listen to a friend talk about life in Norway. I was falling asleep in a bar in Oslo and it wasn’t because I had too much to drink. This was my first experience with jet lag.
What is Jet Lag?
Traveling is fun; it’s also incredibly tiring. But jet lag isn’t the same as feeling sleepy after a long day. Your body has an internal clock or circadian rhythm that is comfortably adjusted to your current time zone. By releasing specific hormones, this clock tells your body when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to go to sleep (assuming you aren’t binging on Netflix).
When you shoot across several time zones, your internal clock has to catch up. Jet lag is the fatigue, forgetfulness, indigestion, and moodiness you feel as your body readjusts. It’s not life-threatening, but jet lag can cause travel issues. You could miss an expensive flight because you overslept. You might forget about a tour. It can disrupt your digestion, causing traveler’s sickness.
I’ve lived in several countries across Asia and the Americas, and I’ve visited many more. All the while, I’ve been perfecting my techniques on how to beat jet lag. Here’s what I do to prevent jet lag and how I recover fast if I do get it.
1. Split Up Your Trip (If You Can)
If I’m taking a long flight—New York to Thailand for example—I believe the best way to prevent jet lag is to divide that trip into two or three separate flights, spending a few days to a week in each city.
If you’re planning on traveling for several weeks, months, or years, why not take a few shorter flights until you reach your destination? By splitting up the trip, you won’t shock your body with a radical change in time or climate. If it’s in your travel budget, you’ll also be able to use shorter flights as an opportunity to see more of the world. It’s a win-win.
2. Trick Your Brain
Not able to split up your trip into several short flights? No worries; you can trick your brain to adjust to the new time zone before you arrive. Once you sit down in the plane, change the time on your watch and phone and act as if you are already in that local time zone. Stay awake if it’s daytime at your destination or get some sleep if it’s the middle of the night. Speaking of sleep…
3. Sleep Smart
There are a few things you can do to get quality sleep on a plane:
Upgrade Your Seat: Making yourself comfortable and resting during the flight will help prevent the worst of jet lag and promote faster recovery. Comfort starts with your seat. Getting a better seat means more leg room, less turbulence, and a smaller chance of motion sickness.
Light: Eliminate as much light as possible. Light, especially from electronics, disrupts melatonin production, which is a key hormone for sleep. Turn off your electronics, the television monitor, and the overhead reading light. Don’t forget your blindfold as your neighbor might be binge watching movies.
Supplements: Medication-grade sleeping pills carry the risk of dependency, and they don’t allow you to fall into the deep sleep cycles. Try going natural with valerian root, chamomile, mint, and rose; all of which have been shown to promote a relaxed state. If they don’t work, try melatonin.
4. Skip Alcohol
I might sound like Buzzkill Betty, but if you’re taking a flight across several time zones, I recommend holding off on drinking. A few drinks can worsen the symptoms of jet lag by causing dehydration and disrupting your circadian rhythms. Once you’ve adjusted to the new time zone, then you can enjoy wines in France, soju in Korea, or Spirytus in Poland.
What if there is a cause for celebration? Maybe this is your first flight abroad or you just got engaged. In those moments when a drink seems necessary, enjoy but don’t go crazy. Have a glass of wine or a mixed drink but follow it up with a bottle of water. Sometimes a little jet lag might be a reasonable trade-off to create great memories.
5. Avoid (Or Limit) Coffee
I love coffee (probably more than most), but I steer clear of it before, during, and after a long flight for a few reasons:
- Coffee contains caffeine, a stimulant that prevents sleep.
- Coffee can dehydrate you.
- Coffee can cause indigestion, making it difficult to adjust to new foods, bacteria, and climate.
After a hellacious flight to Germany, I relied on coffee to adjust to the time zone. Big mistake. The decision to overload on coffee ruined the rest of the trip. It took me longer to recover because I couldn’t sleep well, and I wasn’t able to enjoy the foods of Germany because my stomach was a mess.
Similar to alcohol, I recommend adopting a coffee-free schedule until you adjust. However, if you’re someone who needs a cup of coffee just to get the day started, try cutting back or doing your normal thing. Do not drink more coffee than usual thinking it will help you recover from jet lag…it won’t.
6. Focus on Travel Nutrition
When you’re traveling, it’s convenient and tempting to rely on fast food choices that are packed with sugar. Studies show that sugar-packed snacks can compromise the immune system, increase body fat, and promote fatigue.
I recommend planning ahead for proper travel nutrition using this general guideline for most meals:
- Large portion of vegetables, especially dark, leafy greens (e.g., broccoli and spinach)
- Moderate portion of a lean meat or fish with healthy fats (e.g., chicken breast or salmon)
- Small portion of complex carbohydrates (e.g., sweet potato or brown rice)
- Use low-sugar fruits as your dessert (e.g., blackberries)
7. Travel Fitness and Sunshine
You’ve arrived at your destination. While you’ve avoided the worst symptoms of jet lag, you’re still feeling a bit off.
Get Up, Get Moving: During the day, do some form of travel activity such as sightseeing while jogging. You can also perform some light exercise such as a park workout in the sunshine.
Spend Time in the Sun: Sunshine is the best way to help reset your circadian rhythms and adjust to the new time zone. I always take a morning and evening walk at my travel destination to help reset my internal clock.
Questions on How to Beat Jet Lag?
Have you ever experienced jet lag? Did it ruin your trip? How did you deal with it? Tell me about it in the comments.