Photo by mao_lini.

If there’s one thing that’ll put a damper on the excitement of traveling to the other side of the world, it’s the jet lag that comes as part of the deal. Unfortunately, when you’re only on a short vacation or returning home and heading back to work, you just can’t afford to lose time to the lethargy. However, you don’t have to go through the motions feeling like a zombie – read on to find out what jet lag is and how you can combat it.

Why do we get jet lag?

Despite what you might have heard, jet lag isn’t caused by the length of the flight you take, but by the direction of flight. If you’re flying north to south, you shouldn’t have any jet lag-related problems, even if your flight is 10 hours long. This is because jet lag only occurs when you cross time zones (by flying east to west or vice versa), a process that disrupts the circadian rhythm (your body clock).

It typically takes one day for every time zone you crossed to get over jet lag, so if you crossed 12 time zones (the maximum possible) it’s going to take at about 12 days to truly combat the fatigue, grogginess and desperate urge to sleep in the middle of the day.

But there are still plenty of things you can do to minimize the effects of jet lag, and the preparation starts before you even step onto the plane.

Before your flight

Fly in the best direction. Traveling from west to east is much harder on your body than traveling from east to west. This is because when you travel eastbound, you lose time, which means you typically have to stay up for longer before it’s bedtime at your destination. If you can’t avoid traveling in this direction, then do your best to get some rest on your flight. Another option is to break your journey up into shorter legs. By including a stopover, you give your body more chance to adjust. The longer the stopover, the better, but even a few hours at an airport where you can take a shower or walk around can be helpful.

Start resetting your routine. You can lessen the time it’ll take to get past the jet lag by adjusting your daily schedule in advance of your trip. So, if you have three weeks before you leave home, you could wake up an hour earlier (or later, depending on the direction of flight) than usual during the first week, two hours earlier than usual the second week and so on. This won’t completely prevent jet lag, especially if you’re traveling across a large number of time zones, but every little bit of pre-adjusting you do helps.

Ensure you’re well rested. Try and get enough sleep before you even step on the plane. If you’re already tired going into your trip, it’s only going to make the jet lag worse.

On the plane

Drink the right beverages. Avoid caffeine and alcohol, especially on your flight. Both of these drinks disrupt your sleep patterns (alcohol might help you fall asleep, but you won’t sleep as restfully). Many people end up breaking this rule, but it’s worth being aware of it. Also make sure you drink lots of water during the flight, since it’s easy to get dehydrated on long haul journeys, and, if you do manage to fall asleep, there’s a good chance you’ll wake up from thirst at some point. I find it helpful to keep a small bottle of water in my seat pocket, so I can sip from that if I wake up – having to press the call button or getting up to go to the galley to get a glass of water wakes me up completely and makes it harder to get back to sleep.

Sleep at the right time. Once you’re on the plane, calculate the time of day at your destination and set your watch to your new time. If it’s nighttime where you’re headed, get some sleep. Even if you don’t sleep for very long – or manage to fall asleep at all – remember that rest and deep relaxation is better than nothing at all.

Decide if you need a sleep aid. A sleeping pill, or even half a sleeping pill might be what it takes to knock you out. Some people don’t recommend taking a sleeping pill on a flight, since in the event of an emergency, you’ll be either out cold or too drowsy to react, so bear that in mind. There are also natural supplements designed to induce sleep, such as melatonin or other herbal mixes marketed as jet lag cures which might also be worth considering.

Bring things to help you sleep on the plane. These include an eye mask to block out the light, ear plugs to drown out the chatter, a neck pillow to stop your head from jerking back whenever it drops forward, and layered clothing so you can be prepared for either hot or cold temperatures on the plane. If you’re using a blanket, remember to belt your seatbelt over the top of it, so the flight attendant doesn’t wake you up to belt it in the event of turbulence.

After you arrive

Push through the jet lag and adapt to the local time. As exhausted as you might be, you’ll get through the jet lag a lot more easily if you force yourself into the daily routine based on the time at your destination. That means you should not sleep if it’s the middle of the day (I know some people advocate naps, but in my personal experience, this only makes things worse since I’m usually so knackered I fall into a deep sleep and way exceed an appropriate nap duration) and you should eat the appropriate meal for the time of day (i.e. eat dinner at 7 pm, even if it feels like breakfast-time to you). The first day might be rather hellish, but I find pushing through really works for me.

Get some light exercise. A little bit of physical activity can help refresh and rejuvenate your body. If you arrive at your destination during the day, I suggest going for a brisk walk – it’ll help stretch your legs after a long flight, get you exposed to some sunlight (see the next tip) and allow you to get oriented in a new city. Just avoid doing any strenuous exercise right before bedtime as this can keep you awake.

Use light therapy to reset your body clock. Our body’s natural sleep cycle (circadian rhythm) is programmed so we sleep when it’s dark and wake when it’s light outside. You can help reset your body clock to your new time zone by making sure you get plenty of sunlight once you arrive – this sends a signal to your body telling it to reduce the production of sleep hormones, thus helping you stay awake. Likewise, darkness is needed to cue your body on when to sleep. If a lot of light pours into your bedroom and can’t be blocked out by the curtains, I suggest wearing an eye mask when you sleep, as it stops your body from waking up at the crack of dawn.

Eat sleep-inducing foods. If you have trouble sleeping, consider eating foods that cause drowsiness. For dinner, try eating a meal high in carbohydrates, since carbs help the release of serotonin, a chemical in the body which aids sleep. Similarly, foods like eggs, cheese and poultry contain an amino acid called tryptophan which will also help you get some shut eye.

What do you think? Do you have any other tips for getting over jet lag?

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