When it comes to air travel, long-haul flights often come with the risk of jet lag, albeit an unwelcome travel companion. It is possible to travel far without changing time zones - did you know it's the same time in Montreal as it is in Lima? That said, if you're flying east or west, you should expect jet lag to attempt an appearance after your journey in the sky.
It is said that seasoned travelers are less likely to be affected by jet lag, but this is only because they are equally likely to have trusted remedies up their sleeves. Well, today, we'd like to share ours!
Whether you’re flying from Boston to Bhutan, Columbia to Copenhagen, or Sydney to South Africa, read on to discover what jet lag is, why it happens, and how to cope when it comes your way.
What is jet lag?
Jet lag is a condition that occurs when a traveler has a difficult time adjusting to the time zone of their destination. The world map is broken into twenty-four time zones, each experiencing a different hour of the day. Jet lag is most common when crossing three or more time zones.
Jet lag most heavily affects sleeping habits, bringing bouts of exhaustion or insomnia that are poorly timed with the hour of your destination. This can impact your mood, energy level and attention span. Other symptoms of jet lag include fatigue, poor focus, low energy, irritability and even indigestion.
It’s not too serious an affliction. Eventually, the symptoms of jet lag will resolve themselves as your body adjusts to the new time. The problem is that this can take several days, eating into precious travel time. It’s a real bummer to arrive somewhere, eager to explore, only to spend your first few days in a period of groggy adjustment.
Why does it happen?
Everyone has an internal clock set to the patterns of their daily life. Your habits play a role in setting this clock, but your brain also interprets external signals like daylight to determine when to sleep, wake, eat, etc. Changing your watch when you travel is easy, but resetting your internal clock is another story.
In a different time zone, your internal clock gets thrown off by the new signals your brain receives. The resulting jet lag is your body’s confusion on the biological level. Don’t get us wrong, we love air travel, but it’s a simple fact that our bodies aren’t biologically set up to move across several time zones in a matter of hours.
How do you fight jet lag?
Time for the good news! You can absolutely take steps to minimize the effects of jet lag, or even eliminate them. We’ve compiled our top strategies for battling jet lag. Here are several ways to help you cope with jet lag before, during and after travel.
Darkness and Light
Daylight is one of your body's greatest queues for setting its circadian rhythms. You can use both light and darkness to your advantage when making your travel preparations:
Light: If possible, select a flight that has you arriving at your destination during daylight hours. Allow your brain to witness the transition from day to night on the first evening. This is your best bet for internally recognizing the new daylight pattern.
Darkness: When the receptors in your eye interpret darkness, they signal your brain to release melatonin, the sleep hormone. Use an eye mask to block out light when sleeping, especially on planes where the lighting isn’t under your control.
Get a Head Start
A few days before you fly, start adjusting your bedtime to mitigate potential jet lag. Adjust your schedule by one hour daily for up to three days before traveling. When flying east, aim for an early bedtime (remember east = early!). When heading west, stay up later to set yourself up for success.
Example: You’re flying east from Denver to London, and your normal bedtime is 10:00 pm.
Three days before you fly: bed at 9:00 pm
Two days before you fly: bed at 8:00 pm
The day before you fly: bed at 7:00 pm
Don’t forget this goes for both ways! When heading westward back to Denver…
Three days before you fly: bed at 11:00 pm
Two days before you fly: bed at 12:00 am
The day before you fly: bed at 1:00 am
Breakfast of Champions
You’ve heard before that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Well, this holds true for fighting jet lag! Daylight isn’t the only factor your internal clock responds to; diet is another way to help reset your circadian rhythms.
For the first couple of days in a new place, aim for a large, nutritious breakfast to kickstart your system and fuel your daily activity. A savory breakfast is recommended over a sweet one to avoid an afternoon sugar crash. Lighter dinners are also suggested until the effects of jet lag wear off. (But after that, by all means indulge in your vacation dinners!)
Don’t Give Up
Peak jet lag disturbance looks like...
1. Not being able to fall asleep at night.
2. Not being able to help but fall asleep during the day.
Here are some do's and don’ts for when you’re in the thick of the jet lag struggle.
To help with daytime exhaustion:
Take short naps (15-20 minutes) as needed
Move your body in the mornings, even a short walk around the block
Embrace resources like caffeine in moderation
Drink plenty of water
Limit alcohol consumption
Stick to your itinerary when it doesn’t feel managable
Nap for longer than one hour
Push yourself too hard
To help with nighttime insomnia:
Calming activities before bed: reading, gentle stretching, a hot bath, etc.
Embrace resources like over-the-counter melatonin supplements
Block out light as much as possible
Be patient with yourself as you adjust
Watch TV within two hours of bedtime
Use your phone within two hours of bedtime
Beat yourself up for not sleeping
Give up on sleep altogether
Jet Lag is a Two-Way Street!
We mentioned this earlier in our Denver to London example, but it’s worth stating again that jet lag is a two-way street. In fact, jet lag is reportedly worse after your return flight.
There’s a simple explanation for this. Being the exciting experience it is, travel is usually approached with enthusiasm. This positive attitude helps to carry a traveler through whatever comes her way. However, this cheeriness can be harder to come by when it's time to return home. Faced with a long flight that plops you back into your “normal” life of routine and obligation, it just isn’t as easy to get excited about. The thing to note here is that your attitude matters.
Do what you can to make that return journey a little more enjoyable. Buy yourself a gift at the airport, or make a playlist of happy songs that you save for the return flight! Treat your homeward journey with as much regard as your initial one. It is just as pivotal a part of your travel experience.
We also suggest taking at least twenty-four hours at home before returning to your regular schedule. Having this extra day as a buffer during your post-trip adjustment period is seriously helpful. And remember to be kind to yourself as you adjust!
By applying the strategies above, you can minimize the effects of jet lag and wholly embrace your travel experience. We hope that you now feel more prepared to handle this unavoidable travel obstacle.
What's your take on jet lag? Do you have another trusted remedy to add to our list? We'd love to hear from you in the comment section!
Discover More from the Sherpani Travel Blog:
Are you ready for your trip? Find out in Your Pre Travel Checklist, the Complete Guide of Things to Remember Before You Go Abroad
For more on long-haul flights, read Will You Survive or Thrive on Your Next Long Flight?
By women for women, the Sherpani Travel Blog talks about all things travel. With a new post every week on Travel Tuesday, our blog is the go-to place for unique travel guides, general travel tips, personal travel stories from women in our community, and more!