Jet lag occurs when your circadian rhythms are slow to adjust to the new time zone and remain on their original biological schedule for several days, it causes an inability to sleep at the right time and being sleepy at the wrong time. It takes the body roughly one day for each time zone travelled to adjust to a new cycle of day and night. You can probably travel through three hours without needing to take specific counteractive measures (most of us can cope with going to sleep three hours later or earlier than normal once in a while!) but more than that might require a bit of help. As the body clock’s natural cycle is slightly longer than a day, it is easier to adjust when travelling West (back in time), as it lengthens our day, as opposed to travelling East which shortens it.
Before you travel
- Be mindful of your flight time: Select a flight that enables you to arrive in the early evening and stay up until 10 pm local time.
- Choose your seat carefully: First and Business Class seats are the optimum to ensure you get some shuteye on the plane but clearly come at a price tag. Consider upgrading to premium economy if it’s available or even look for exit aisle seats which will give you a little more leg room and make it easier to relax. If you aren’t going to be up a lot during the flight then try to get a window seat which will allow you to put a pillow by the window and also ensure you don’t get disturbed by other passengers getting up. Check your seat reclines, many in the last row of a cabin do not, and avoid seats in high traffic areas such as by the galley or lavatory which can get very noisy. SeatGuru offers handy tips on the best seat options so check it out before booking.
- Change your sleep pattern: Try to get into the right time zone before you fly; if you’re flying East, gradually move your bedtime earlier, and if you’re flying West then gradually delay your bedtime.
- Pack your PJs: Ok, so maybe not your actual PJs(!) but it’s a good idea to either wear or pack comfortable clothing that you’ll be able to relax in. Jeans are not the best for long haul flights so consider joggers or leggings teamed with a cozy sweatshirt instead. Planes often get cold so make sure you have some layers to keep you warm enough to sleep. Also think about taking an eye mask, ear plugs and a pillow.
During your flight
- Change the time: Changing your watch and devices to your destination’s time zone will help you get in the right mindset to either sleep or stay awake.
- Stay off the bubbly: Because the oxygen level in your blood is lower at altitude, you may feel more drunk in the air than you would on the ground after consuming the same amount of alcohol. The air in an aircraft is also very dry and, along with the diuretic effect of drinking alcohol, you may become dehydrated much faster. All of this could lead you to feel a little worse for wear and impact your ability to overcome jet lag so, if you do decide to drink, make sure you have a glass of water with every alcoholic beverage.
- Avoid caffeine: Caffeine also dehydrates your body and can lead to headaches, nausea and digestive issues. It also takes several hours for the effects to wear off, making your attempts to get into the right time zone very difficult!
- Keep hydrated: As the air in a plane is very dry, dehydration can be an issue and make you feel worse for wear so minimise your intake of salty food and ensure you drink plenty of water. This can also have an impact on your eyes and skin so consider taking eye drops and moisturizer with you to relieve any symptoms and ensure a comfortable flight.
- Rest or relax: If it’s daytime at your destination then try to rest and relax. Minimize your use of electronic devices, which emit blue light, or opt for a book instead. Ensure you get up, walk around and stretch at regular intervals.
- Get some z’s: If it’s nighttime at your destination then try to get some sleep during your flight. Ensuring that you’re as comfortable as possible will help you get some rest. Brush your teeth and change into some comfy clothing, it will help you feel like you’re meant to be going to bed. Pop on an eye mask and use some ear plugs.
When you arrive
- Get out! Once you’re at your destination, try and get outside as the natural light will help your body adjust to the correct time zone. It can be very helpful to actually be outside at sunrise or sunset. Even if it’s already dark in the evening, being out and around people will help you to stay awake until it’s time for bed.
- East-West: If you’re traveling East, try to get some morning light to fast-forward your body clock or if you’re heading West then try to get the evening light to rewind your body clock.
- The 3 t’s: Tea, toast and two hours. This technique can sometimes help if you really can’t stay awake. Have a cup of tea, a slice of toast and two hours nap in the early afternoon. Remember to set an alarm so you don’t oversleep.
- Get off that phone! If you really can’t sleep during the night, then get up, go into a different room and read for a bit until you’re feeling sleepy but don’t use your phone – the blue light from it will interfere with your attempts to get to sleep.
- Plan for jet lag: Be mindful that if you’re travelling long haul, you may be jet lagged for the first few days. Manage your itinerary so it’s not too full on to start with.
- Eat to sleep: When you arrive at your destination, use your diet to help you control your sleep patterns; high protein meals will increase your alertness or high carbohydrate meals will make you feel sleepier.
- Melatonin: Melatonin is a hormone found naturally in the body; it regulates sleep-wake cycles. Darkness causes the body to produce more, which signals the body to prepare for sleep. Light decreases melatonin production and signals the body to prepare for being awake. Melatonin can be purchased in tablet form; it is only available via prescription in the UK but can be purchased in pharmacies in some other countries. If heading East then it may be taken in the evening to encourage sleep or if heading West it can be taken in the morning to rewind your body clock. You should consult your doctor before taking melatonin and should not drive or operate machinery after taking it.
If your trip is short (2 to 3 days) it may be better to stay on "home time" and, if possible, eat and sleep at the times you would at home.