One of summertime’s greatest joys? Travel to faraway places. But one of its biggest headaches (other than the TSA lines): jet lag. It’s the traveler’s equivalent of a hangover, with the main difference being that you probably had no fun getting it, and the pain will last longer than the alcohol-induced kind.
Why does jet lag still have such power over us? Well, for starters, rapid time-zone hopping is something our species has been doing for only a matter of decades, so few (if any) of us have fully adapted to this body clock–disrupting aspect of the miracle of flight—and it may take a very long time before anybody does.
While jet lag is irritating and enervating, keep in mind it’s simply the body’s way of telling us that we’re far away from home and our rhythms are out of sync with the local time. So, how to help close the gap and tame jet lag’s disruptive effects? Grab your eyeshades and consider the following jet-lag wisdom:
1. Let the sunshine in, strategically.
Our circadian rhythms, aka our internal clock, affect myriad essential bodily functions, such as blood pressure, when we sleep, when we wake, when hormones (like melatonin) are released, when we poop, and so on. So when we cross multiple time zones, our internal clock—which takes its cues from internal and external factors like light, darkness, temperature, etc.—needs time to adapt to the new location.
Research has shown that controlling your light exposure before, during, and after you fly can help speed up the process. But keep in mind, westbound travelers will adjust more quickly than eastbound, and the over-40 set tend to get hit harder due to age-related melatonin-level dips. On the other hand, jet lag seems to have less impact on regular exercisers, so maintain your fitness routine at home and away.
2. Shift your schedule before you leave.
A week or two before you go, you may want to try your own body clock–shifting experiment by adjusting your bedtime and rising time by a few hours to start closing the time-zone gap. For example, if you’re headed east from NYC to Western Europe, try moving bedtime and rising time up by an hour or two over the course of several days prior to departure. If you’re headed west and hopping more than three time zones, you may want to try delaying bedtime and rising time.
For those who prefer a more rigorous approach or are crossing numerous time zones, check out Jet Lag Rooster, which generates free step-by-step, customized jet lag–prevention plans, plus suggests best times for bright-light exposure based on your usual sleep times, flight length, time of year, and home and destination locations.
Another option many travelers swear by is the simple but austere Anti–Jet Lag Fast, which involves not eating at all for 12 to 16 hours before breakfast time in the new time zone.
3. Practice self-care the week before your flight.
Easier said than done, but try to start your trip in as relaxed a physical and mental state as possible. No matter what age you are, air travel is a physical stressor, so be kind to your body in the week or so prior to departure. Get more rest, eat healthy and clean, get a massage, spend time in the sauna at the gym, and ramp up your meditation practice to prep the body for the challenges ahead.
Maintain your usual exercise routine, but downshift just a bit so as to prevent overtaxing the energy reserves you’ll need to tap into as your journey begins.
4. Boost your nutrients en route.
One more reason to eat a plant-centric diet: It can help fend off jet lag–related digestive troubles, whereas low-fiber, carb-heavy meals tend to stress the digestive system, even more so when you’re crossing multiple time zones. In the air, traditional comfort foods slow your body’s ability to adjust by using up valuable energy (which could be used elsewhere) to tend to the business of breaking down your food.
In other words, keep food as simple and healthy as you do on the ground, with lots of veggies, good fats, and protein. Trouble locating healthy food while in transit? Try keeping a few plant-based protein packets in your carry-on so you can shake up an instant protein snack that’ll stave off hunger, replenish nutrients, and keep your digestion on track.
5. Circulate, don’t vegetate in your seat.
On long-haul flights, blood tends to pool, particularly in the legs and feet, increasing the likelihood of painful swelling and, for some people, more serious health problems like deep vein thrombosis (DVT).
The best drug-free way to keep problems at bay is to keep circulation moving, as in getting up and walking around the cabin frequently—once an hour is a good rule of thumb. You can also aid circulation by wearing clothes that aren’t constricting or binding; the goal is to encourage circulation, not cut it off at the pass.
Got turbulence and have to remain seated? Practicing a few airplane yoga poses periodically throughout the flight can also encourage healthy blood flow.
6. Deprive your senses.
OK, so you want to get some rest on the plane. Fair enough, but please skip the sleeping pills, which can worsen jet lag problems, leaving you groggy and disoriented for hours after landing (particularly if you don’t time it right) and increase DVT risk. Instead, try a few of these jet lag–disrupting, health-supporting travel tips:
- Take advantage of the low cabin pressure. The cabin pressure is lower than what you’re used to, similar to what you’d find at the summit of Mount Washington. The upside is that you’ll likely fall asleep faster than you would at sea level, so make yourself comfortable.
- Ditch the backlit electronics. Create an electronic sundown in the air by avoiding blue-light-emitting/backlit electronics like your laptop, tablet, or in-flight movie screen. The brightness tricks your brain into releasing wakefulness hormones and making it tougher to sleep. Instead, read light-free old-school newspapers, books, and magazines while in transit.
- Tune out. Wear an eye mask and earplugs or noise-canceling headphones to block light and noise so you can doze or meditate more easily. Add a neck pillow to keep your head comfortable, and wrap yourself in a light blanket to stay cozy as your body temperature falls and rises.
- Wear sunglasses. Sure, you’ll look a little eccentric (or possibly famous), but dark shades can help your body reset its response to light. If you’re headed overseas on a night flight, wear sunglasses on the plane to minimize light exposure. On day flights, try to get as much light exposure as you can to help advance your body clock.
7. Supplement your body clock.
Melatonin can be quite helpful for resetting the body clock. I take it myself to prevent jet lag, as do many of my patients who travel frequently. If you’re not familiar with it, melatonin is the hormone that controls your sleep and wake cycle. It’s released at night, when it’s dark, inducing sleep. In supplement form, it can help travelers reset their body clocks a bit more quickly.
Though everyone’s needs vary, usually a 1 to 3 mg dose (taken for no more than two weeks at a time) is adequate, but do talk with your doctor first as melatonin can interact with certain drugs, such as blood thinners and antiseizure meds.
8. Don't overexert yourself.
When you return home, be patient with your body and expect at least one day of recovery for each time zone crossed. In other words, don’t waste energy trying to fight it. Do expose yourself to as much morning light as you can, and get back to your normal exercise routine to help reset and return your body clock to normal. One final note: Some jet lag is totally normal, and the good news is that it does go away. With every passing day you’ll feel more and more like yourself, so take things slowly and enjoy the journey.