Travel can be tough. Sure, there are definitely the exciting aspects to it, especially when it means we're going on vacation, but if it involves traveling to different time zones, then we have to deal with jet lag, which is... not fun at all.
From general fatigue and grogginess to the more serious side effects, such as insomnia, headaches, dizziness, and loss of coordination, jet lag can take a toll on us both during our trip and while trying to acclimate back into our daily routines when we return home.
We wanted to learn how to avoid feeling so terrible when traveling somewhere far, so, below, we chatted with doctors, sleep experts, and jet setters alike to get their go-to tips for making jet lag less painful. Read on to make your next faraway trip a little less dreadful.
What actually is jet lag?
The first way to beat jet lag is to understand what it actually is and what's happening to our bodies when experiencing it. Performance sleep coach Kelly Benson explains it in detail:
Jet lag is a physiological condition that takes place when we travel faster than our biological clock can reset. When we experience jet lag, we're experiencing a disruption in the rhythms of daily life that are out of sync with the local light-dark cycle. Our bodies operate on a 24-hour cycle known as the circadian clock, which is the internal timing system that dictates when crucial bodily functions take place. This cycle aligns with our exposure to sunlight so that we eat, sleep, and move at appropriate times. This, in turn, influences hormone release, temperature regulation, immune response, cognitive alertness, saliva production, glucose regulation, and more.
In a nutshell, changing time zones suddenly (like, by taking a flight) can really mess your system up, and leave you feeling like shit. "The circadian clock is regulated by three core circadian rhythms: sleep, the timing of food, and activity," explains Benson. "Since they are interrelated, if any one of these is thrown off, then our organs cannot function properly. When we cross two or more time zones within a 24-hour period, all three of these rhythms are thrown off by no longer being in sync with the local light-dark cycle." When this happens, our body will believe it's nighttime when it's daytime, which explains why we start falling asleep at our desks the first day back to work.
And jet lag is not the same for every person, or for every trip. While it takes at least one to two days per time zone to adjust, how badly it affects you depends on a number of different factors, as Benson explains: "Susceptibility to the symptoms of jet lag is determined partly by the sleep debt a person has already accumulated at the time of travel and the unique traits of a person's circadian cycle; for example, a morning person and a night person have different circadian traits. It also matters whether you're traveling east or west."
According to Benson, it's easier for us to travel west and extend our day than it is to travel east and shorten it, due to our internal body clock running on a slightly longer 24-hour rhythm. This means that symptoms may persist twice as long when traveling east, which she recommends taking into consideration when you're planning a trip.
While it's not possible to prevent jet lag entirely, we can definitely reduce the effects through proper advanced planning. "Since jet lag results from our internal clock being a mismatch with the external [local] clock and the daily functions of sleep, eating, and movement, we can consciously influence those areas to lessen the misalignment," says Benson. So what kind of changes can we make? Well...
Gradually shift your daily activities
Three to five days before you travel, Benson recommends beginning a gradual shift in major daily activities. "If you're traveling east [shifting forward], begin waking up, going to bed, eating, and exercising earlier, so that you are eventually one to two hours closer to your destination time zone. If you're traveling west [shifting backward], gradually perform the same activities later. This will help shift your thinking and body into the rhythm of your new location."
For extra assistance, Benson suggests using the Timeshifter App, which allows you to compare your home time zone to your destination time zone, creating a custom plan for sleeping, eating, light exposure, and caffeine consumption.
While in the air, act like you're already there
Another trick is to act like you're already at your destination while you're in the midst of travel. "If it is nighttime while you're on the plane, then get some sleep," says Benson. "Conversely, if it's the morning or afternoon, then stay awake."
It's can be tough to trick your body into falling asleep while it's acclimating to new time zones, so Dr. Peter Swanz, naturopathic physician and advisory board member of CBD brand Onyx & Rose, suggests turning to sleep supporters for help, such as noise-canceling headphones, an eye mask, a neck pillow, and 20 to 50 mg of CBD oil.
Consider your light exposure
Light exposure, both while traveling and once you reach your destination, can affect your jet lag. "It's also important to consider your exposure to light, including artificial lights, sunlight, and light from your devices," says Benson. "While on the plane, do not use bright screens with blue light if you should be winding down and going to sleep. Conversely, turning on your light and using your devices will be helpful in releasing the stimulating hormone cortisol if you're trying to adjust to daytime hours." A time that it's actually good for us to be glued to our phones, weird!
Once you reach your destination, exposing yourself to light strategically can speed up the process of getting yourself assimilated. "When traveling west, get outside in the mornings, but avoid it during late afternoons and evenings," says Benson. "When traveling east, avoid early morning light and expose yourself to late afternoon or evening light. When you're in the sun, wear as little clothing as possible so that the photoreceptors on your skin and eyes can use the light cues as a means for regulating hormones and resetting your rhythm.
If natural light exposure is tough, try a travel-size light therapy lamp in order to adjust your body that way, and follow Rama's directions for adjusting sleep times: "Light administered before bedtime will make one go to bed later, while light administered in the morning upon awakening will help one go to bed earlier the next night."
Your diet matters
Your diet can heavily influence how jet lag affects you. "Since the timing of meals impacts our circadian rhythm, making adjustments to when you eat will help to reduce the symptoms of jet lag," says Benson. "By gradually shifting when we eat meals in the lead-up to a trip or during travel, we can become more aligned with proper meal timing once we arrive. As part of this process, though, it's important to not rely on snacking throughout the day, but rather three nutritious meals." Travel foodies, take note.
According to Benson, new research suggests that not eating can help reset the body's circadian rhythm because the timing and content of meals has an influence on your internal clock. "By fasting, you're eliminating the cues from food, which can help or hurt your time zone assimilation. If carefully planning your three meals while traveling is too difficult because of airport restaurants being closed or not being fed at the right time on the plane, then fasting is a great alternative." However, Benson suggests only fasting if you have experience with the practice and do not have any underlying medical conditions that can be negatively affected.
While there's no such thing as a "jet lag diet," Benson recommends eating as fresh, organic, and nutritious as possible, as most on-the-go airport food is full of inflammatory oils, processed ingredients, and sugary sauces and dressings, which will leave the body in a lull and unable to transition in a healthy way.
You'll also want to consider what you're eating depending on the sleep cycle you're trying to follow. "A carbohydrate-rich meal will cause fluctuations in your insulin levels, which may leave you feeling drowsy and more inclined toward sleep. If sleep on the plane or after you arrive is your goal, then eating healthy carbs like sweet potatoes or quinoa may help you fall asleep better. Conversely, if you need to stay awake, eat energizing and uplifting foods such as greens, vegetables, and fruit, which are anti-inflammatory sources of energy."
Still, other experts stress that it's best to not adjust your diet at all, as Anil Rama, MD, doctor of sleep medicine, explains:
It has been proposed that alternating the intake of carbohydrates, which stimulates sleep, with protein, which stimulates alertness before, during, and after travel can help hasten the matching of the endogenous sleep-wake cycle to the exogenous environment. But in my opinion, it's best not to complicate one's diet. Your body internal sleep-wake cycle will re-align with the external environment if you just let it. In general, eating crude versus processed, hard food versus soft food, and small portions versus excessive ones is the most effective and natural diet to help with jet lag and sleep disturbances in general. Think of it this way: If the hunters and gatherers did not have access to what you're about to eat and the amount you're about to eat, then it's best not to eat it.
In addition to what you eat, you'll also want to avoid drinking anything that can upset your sleep cycle (or overall, your body). "Avoid drinking alcohol and caffeine before, during, and after the journey," says sleep expert Dr. Lina Velikova, MD. "This may further upset your sleeping pattern, or cause you to wake up early in the morning." And, Amber Wyatt, travel show host and regular jet setter, recommends drinking a lot of water consistently. "This may sound simple, but it's truly the best remedy," she says. "You don't realize how much being on an airplane dehydrates you, and that in itself can make you feel really awful."
Exercising and staying active is Wyatt's key to bringing her back to life post-travel. "I love nothing more than getting out for a light walk where I am, even if I'm tired. The combination of stretching my legs, the fresh air, and the endorphins always pulls me straight in-line. And, if you've just arrived to a new destination, more often than not, you'll want to start exploring. I find if I'm struggling to wake in the morning, a quick walk—and a coffee—helps bring me to life."
Consider how long your trip is
How long your trip is will depend on just how much you want to try and assimilate to a new time zone. Someone going on a quick, two-day business trip won't want to assimilate as much as someone on a week-long vacation, or someone taking a month-long European trip, as Benson explains below:
If they are going on a quick, week-long vacation, it won't be worth it to adjust fully, and they should focus on adjusting halfway so that they can assimilate back into their home time zone faster. If someone is taking an extended trip for more than a few weeks, then it's definitely worth it to make all the proper adjustments and begin living like a local. Also, if a person is going for a very quick trip—possibly a business trip—that's less than 48 hours long, then they may not want to shift at all. Instead, they should schedule their meetings and events to better align with their home time zone and peak levels of alertness.
Make sure you're healthy
Of course, the best way to acclimate to a new time zone gracefully and avoid the worst symptoms of jet lag is to ensure you're already living a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and drinking plenty of water, according to Swanz. "The healthier you are living before you leave, the better you'll be able to adjust to the new time zone."
So, there you have it. While jet lag, to a certain degree, is unavoidable, with a bit of prep work and following a few guidelines, you can ensure you both enjoy your trip and acclimate back to real life, gracefully. Now, just make sure you bookmark this article to refer to before your next big trip.