06 Mar What is Jet Lag: Symptoms and How to Beat It
Staring at the ceiling of a hotel room at 2 a.m. in the morning is my least favourite way to start a holiday. And to think there was a time that I didn’t believe jet lag was a real thing… How naive! But if it’s ever hit you, you’ve probably been left in the dark wondering, what is jet lag and when will this nightmare end?!?
But after more than 100 flights to 30-odd countries, a ton of research and a fair bit of trial and error, I finally worked out how to beat jet lag symptoms. And with these jet lag tips & remedies that actually work, you’ll no longer have to feel like a bleary-eyed travel zombie again either.
By the end of this post, you should know:
> What is jet lag and why it’s more about time zones than tiredness.
> Jet lag symptoms that make you feel like a member of the wandering undead.
> How long does jet lag last and when will the nightmare be over.
> How to beat jet lag so it doesn’t ruin the start of your holiday.
> Lots of jet lag tips to travel like a pro.
What is Jet Lag
Answering the question “ what is jet lag? “ is the first step to beating it. And no, it’s not just about tiredness and dehydration. Although I wish this was true. Jet lag is a circadian rhythm disorder.
Your body clock works on a 24-hour cycle, known as your circadian rhythm. Sunlight impacts the brain’s release of steroidal hormones like melatonin and cortisol that control various bodily processes, including your eating and sleeping patterns. Traveling across time zones disrupts this circadian, or sunlight rhythm. Which is why it can also be called ‘time zone change syndrome’.
Think of it this way: while you can easily turn your watch back 8 hours when crossing the Atlantic, your body clock isn’t so easily reset. Practically, this means your body wants to eat and explore when it’s time to sleep, and sleep when it’s time to eat and explore your new city.
The example below is what happens when you travel from London to California, an 8-hour time difference. If you arrive in the afternoon in California, your body thinks it’s bed time and your sleep hormone melatonin starts to rise. This makes you feel tired and ready for a nap. But then when it’s actually time to go to bed in California, your body thinks it’s time to wake up, melatonin drops and cortisol rises. This is why you might find yourself staring at the ceiling of your hotel room for hours on end.
What is jet lag? It’s actually a circadian rhythm disorder that’s more about time zones than tiredness.
Jet Lag Symptoms
Sometimes it can be difficult to tell whether you’ve joined the wandering undead or fallen victim to jet lag. Here’s the jet lag symptoms most people experience:
> Digestive disturbances
And while ‘humble bragging’ your jet lag symptoms on social media might ease some of the pain, you’ll probably wish you’d found out what jet lag is, how long it lasts and how to beat it before hitting the runway.
How Long Does Jet Lag Last?
If you don’t use any of these tips, jet lag will last anywhere from a few days to over a week, depending on how well your body adapts and how many time zones you’ve crossed. A basic rule of thumb is one day of jet lag for each hour of time zone change more than three. For most people, crossing less than three time zones won’t cause you any issues, but more than three is when the science says you’re at risk.
But who has 8 days to get over a flight from London to LA? Not me! And while you can’t avoid symptoms of jet lag altogether, you can definitely minimise their duration and severity so it doesn’t impact your travel plans or enjoyment of a new city.
How to Beat Jet Lag: Tips and Remedies
And onto the good stuff, exactly what you can do to beat jet lag. I’m going to share my hot tips and remedies because I have found that a combo of both is absolutely key to minimising the bags under my eyes from sleep deprivation.
The most important thing to know about beating jet lag is that you need to regulate your exposure to light (natural and artificial) and darkness. Light is the most important environmental cue for the body, telling it when to sleep and when to wake. So controlling jet lag is about controlling your exposure to light and darkness.
1. Change time zones before you leave
If you’re the kind of person who packs last minute and spends their days before an overseas holiday frantically finishing work commitments and looking for someone to mind the dog, then this might not be for you. But, for anyone who has the time and is looking to maximise their productive days on holiday, this is a must.
Basically, you’re trying to reduce the number of time zone changes by adjusting your body clock in the days before you leave.
Example 1, New York to Paris (going forward in time by 6 hours): If you’re flying from New York to Paris, 6 time zone changes, you’ll want to prepare by going to sleep earlier and earlier each night for a few days before you fly. Why? Because bedtime in Paris is 6 hours before your bedtime in New York. So, making your bed time an hour earlier for three or so nights leading up to your flight, means you are only crossing 3 time zones and are less likely to suffer from jet lag.
Example 2, Sydney to London (back in time by 10 hours) It’s the opposite if you’re flying west, say from Sydney to London. You’ll want to go to bed as late as possible in the days before your flight. Why? Because bedtime in London is the equivalent to about 7 a.m. in Sydney. No, you probably won’t be able to make the full adjustment (unless you work night shift), but going to bed as late as possible (while still getting 7-8 hours sleep) will help reduce the time difference and your chances of suffering from jet lag.
While setting your clock to the new time zone might be helpful for a time zone change less than 6 hours, it will only work if you start adjusting your life to fit with what you would be doing in your destination time zone. Just be aware that if it’s a massive time zone change, like bedtime in London when you wake up in Sydney, then you’re probably not going to be able to make the full time zone conversion before your flight and still engage in life in Sydney.
2. Leave home well rested
Jet lag is more than just a lack of sleep. But leaving home already tired isn’t going to help the situation. Traveling itself can be tiresome and stressful, so give your body the best chance to adjust by starting off on the right foot.
3. Only sleep on the plane if it is night time in your destination
Acting as if you’re already in your destination time zone, means not sleeping while the locals are eating lunch. If you do need to sleep, give yourself the best chance by using:
> an eye mask to cut out the light and let your brain know it’s dark.
> ear plugs to minimise the chance a crying baby or flushing toilet will interrupt your shut-eye.
> a blanket to stay warm so you can avoid the bad sleep that comes with being too cold.
Avoiding the movies at least an hour before you plan to sleep is really helpful. The screens emit a blue light that makes your body think it’s sunlight and time to be awake.
4. Hit the ground running
Exercising helps your body’s circadian rhythm adjust faster to a new time zone. It’s basically just another way for your body’s cells to know what time it is. The effect has been studied as far back as 1987 and recent studies have confirmed that a little bit of exercise does a ton of good for your circadian rhythm.
It doesn’t matter so much what type of exercise you do or when you do it, the key is to get your body moving. And with what we know about sunlight, it’s a great excuse to get outdoors. I’d recommend avoiding really strenuous exercise and focus on activities that make you feel energised rather than exhausted. It’s also best to avoid late night exercise when your body is preparing to go to sleep. My personal routine is a brisk early morning walk followed by a basic yoga flow.
Exercise outdoors early to beat jet lag – and do a little bit of exploring.
5. Eat like you’re already there
Meals act as a sort of ‘time cue’ for the body. And because the typical in-flight service isn’t timed to your destination, it’s just one more reason to skip the airplane food and bring your own healthy snacks. Know what time it is in your destination and eat when the locals would be eating.
It is also important to be strategic about protein and carbohydrate intake. Aim to eat protein, such as fish, poultry, eggs, meat (bacon and eggs for breakfast anyone?) or protein powder in abundance at breakfast, and complex carbohydrates such as rice, potato, beans or lentils with dinner. This is because carbohydrates will help shut off cortisol production. Allowing melatonin to rise gets your body ready for sleep.
Here’s a few more tips I like to follow:
> Drink lots of water to fight-off the effects of dehydration that are common in airplane cabins.
> Avoid alcohol – it can make you dehydrated and a hang-over isn’t going to help your jet lag.
> Eat light meals because flying is stressful for the body and impacts our ability to ‘rest and digest’.
6. Wear sunglasses if it’s dark in your destination
This is just another way to reduce light exposure when you wish it was dark but the air hostess has other ideas. Basically if it’s night time in your destination, act like a popstar and rock sunglasses indoors. Your skin also has light receptors, so make sure you wear long sleeved clothing to help convince your body it’s actually night time.
7. Consider taking melatonin (correctly)
If you remember, melatonin is the hormone that increases at bedtime to help you sleep, and falls during the day to keep you active and awake. So, one way to get your circadian rhythm back is to supplement melatonin before bedtime in your destination. The science is pretty clear – it works if taken at the right time. For best effects, take 3 mg around 30 minutes before bedtime for 3 – 4 days once you arrive in your new time zone. As always, it’s best to talk to your travel health professional to be sure it’s safe for you.
The only challenge is getting your hands on Melatonin. It’s a dietary supplement easily available in the USA & Canada but a prescription is required in places like Australia and Europe. Also be careful taking it into countries with strict drug laws like those in the Middle East where some travelers have encountered difficult customs officials.
8. Get outdoors if arriving during the day
Because sunlight is the main mediator of your circadian rhythm, getting outside and letting your body know what time it is can really help you adjust to your new time zone. It’s also a good excuse to get outside and start exploring a new city. For best effects, let the sunshine hit your skin, especially your face and eyes.
9. Take a siesta, but only if you have to
I personally like to try and last through to early evening in my destination and get into a normal sleep routine asap. However, if you have arrived early in the morning and are really struggling, an early afternoon nap might help. The trick here is to make sure it’s before 2 p.m. and lasts only 30-60 minutes. As many experts promote afternoon siestas as part of a normal healthy routine, this is not likely to throw off your circadian rhythm and might even mean you get to bed at a better time. But don’t do what I did! Our flights from Arizona to Madrid meant we arrived in Spain early morning and had a whole day to fill. Do you think I could keep my eyes open past 4 p.m.? Nope. So the jet lag set in…
So, making sure you aren’t hitting the pillow from 4 p.m. or later and waking up at midnight is key. If this happens your jet lag prevention plan is basically ruined.
10. New city, same routine
Sticking to your normal routine (as much as possible) is a good way to convince your body that it’s time to go to bed. If you normally eat dinner around 7 p.m. before watching some TV and read a book, guess what you should do on your first night? Yep, you guessed it. Save the late night dinner and dancing with locals until at least your second night!
Healthy Travel Tips for Beating Jet Lag Symptoms
1. Change time zones before you leave by going to bed earlier or later to reduce the required adjustment.
2. Leave home well rested so you don’t add tiredness to the jet lag.
3. Only sleep on the plane if it is night time in your destination.
4. Exercise during daylight hours when you arrive to help your body adjust.
5. Eat like you’re already there.
6. Wear sunglasses and cover your skin on the plane if it’s dark in your destination.
7. Consider taking melatonin (correctly) before bedtime in your destination.
8. Get outdoors if arriving during the day to let your body know what time it is.
9. Take a siesta early afternoon, but only if you have to.
10. You might be in a new city, but your body will appreciate the same routine.
And one final tip: if you’re crossing ten or more time-zones, don’t expect your body to adjust in a single day, as if nothing happened. Give your body time to make the full adjustment over a few days and if you’re up at 4 a.m. seize the day! Catch a sunrise or go for an explore before the rest of the world wakes up. That’s my fave way to start a jet lagged day.
Do you have any go-to tips for beating jet lag? Let us know in the comments.