Best Ways to Avoid Jet Lag When Flying International

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When trying to uncover techniques that alleviate the effects of jet lag, it's easy to fall afoul of paralysis by analysis. The internet is home to an endless array of potions, elixirs, old wives tales, aunties techniques, and pills ‘backed by research,’ and unless your Google-Foo is strong, separating the wheat from the chaff can be a tricky task.

The reality of jet lag is that it cannot be avoided entirely, despite all the pills and potions on the internet. The best we can hope for when crossing multiple time zones in our sleek metal time capsules is to mitigate the worst effects of jet lag using a combination of preventative measures, and by manipulating our environment.

Changing time zones has a huge impact on our body's sleeping patterns
Changing time zones has a huge impact on our body's sleeping patterns

Before we dig too deep into the solutions, however, it would be best if we get a handle on the science of jet lag and its causes.

What Exactly is Jet Lag?

An unavoidable side effect of international travel, jet lag is the fatigue experienced when the cells that regulate our body clock, are unable to adjust to a rapid change in our sleep/wake cycles.

Our bodies use circadian rhythms, one of the two systems regulating the body’s sleep cycles and dictated by the rise and fall of the sun, to adapt our sleep cycle to the local environment via external cues such as light and temperature.

When we cross multiple time zones in a short space of time, our bodies need time to adjust to the change in environment. We feel the effects of jet lag while our body is trying to synchronize its body clock to the local environment.

Depending on how many time zones we cross, it can take days for our bodies to adjust to a new timezone and the effects of jet lag to fade, which is frustrating if we only have a short time to explore a new destination and enjoy our stay.

So, what can we do to lessen the impact of jet lag?

The Direction and Time of Day You Fly Matters

Flying east requires more preparation and recovery time than flying west. When we travel east, every timezone we cross is an hour earlier we need to wake, and an hour earlier we need to sleep. Due to the way our brain cells measure each 24-hour cycle, it’s easier to extend the length of a day than to shorten it.

So, while the consensus is that our bodies need one day to recover for every time zone crossed, when we travel east our bodies can take longer to recover due to the way our brains regulate sleep cycles. One of the best ways to combat flying east is to prepare before departure by controlling the body’s access to light.

By turning out the lights and restricting screens progressively earlier each night for 3/4 days before we fly, we control access to light and begin to influence our circadian rhythms.

The opposite goes for the morning. Be sure to rise earlier each day by degree and get straight out into natural light, or, if it’s winter, switch on the lights and jump in front of a computer for 20 minutes for a dose of blue light, effectively jump-starting the brain cells that regulate sleep.

While this may sound a little old school and a lot of work, it’s work that our bodies will need to do in any case, and we can either do it prior to departure or when we arrive at our destination. There is no magic pill to ‘fix’ jet lag.

If we're flying west, we reverse the strategy to expose ourselves to light later in the evening and ensure our environment remains dark further into the morning each day in the lead up to departure. The technique effectively advances or retards or body clock in preparation for travel, making it easier to adjust when we arrive with a shorter recovery time for long haul flights.

Controlling Exposure to Light Is the Key to Avoiding Jet Lag

Despite numerous products on the market that claim to address jet lag, when its stripped back to basics, it comes down to controlling our environment and exposure to light. This also includes while we are transiting the airport and on the plane. And that means employing any method we can, to control exposure to light in line with earlier preparation.

UV protective sunglasses, eye masks, earplugs (nothing to do with light, but they help with getting to sleep), and keeping an eye on the time to stay synced as close as possible to the destination time zone, will do more to alleviate the symptoms of jet lag, and make for a speedier recovery, than all the magic pills and potions combined.

Getting into direct sunlight after arriving at a destination, particularly if there is time for a short workout or brisk walk, can help the body to reset. Sunlight is nature's method for setting our body clocks, and its effect should not be underestimated.

Are There Any Products That Help with Jet Lag?

Of all the products that claim to help with jet lag, only a handful have a positive effect.

Taking small doses of Melatonin close to the destination sunset time in the lead up to departure can help reset our circadian rhythms. Production of Melatonin in the brain is tied closely to our external environment and is one of the triggers that alerts the body it’s time to sleep. Small doses of melatonin can help to manipulate our sleeping patterns.

Note: Although there are studies that show melatonin is effective in helping to reset sleeping patterns, it is not regulated or approved by the FDA.

If you enjoy a more hammer and anvil approach, taking sleeping pills to control sleeping times is another method used on a regular basis. The caveat to both approaches is that it's essential to talk to a medical professional before taking either substance, to ensure there are no adverse effects.

One of the keys to combatting jet lag, commonly ignored by passengers the world over, is avoiding stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine. Sleeping patterns are fragile creature’s when traveling, and upsetting them with substances which affect our body’s ability to fall asleep, and get adequate rest, effectively ruins any other efforts we may be taking to mitigate the effects of travel on our body.

And finally, water. When it comes to the clean and clear stuff, excess is best. Yes, being the window seat passenger that clambers across other passengers en route to the lavatory every 2 hours won't place us in the good graces of our fellow travelers, but drinking copious amounts of water has a huge impact on our body's ability to bounce back from travel.

Final Thoughts

If controlling our exposure to light, and using techniques to advance or retard our body clock don’t have the desired effect, then it may be time to pull out the big guns and jump into one of the more radical solutions.

Cryotherapy involves entering a chamber chilled to a balmy -220 odd degrees, and standing there in naught but your birthday suit for three minutes while your body floods itself with oxygen saturated blood cells due to exposure to such a radical/life threatening environment. Proponents claim that it resets the body’s natural rhythm’s, speeding up our ability to sync with our new surroundings and adjust sleeping patterns.

Personally, I’ll be sticking to the tried and true methods above backed by solid research and sound science.

Have any secret weapons in the fight against jet lag? We’d love to hear them in the comments below!

Best Ways to Avoid Jet Lag When Flying International
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Comments

  • I think limiting exposure to light might help, but there’s not much you can do if you land in the early morning or at noon! I think if you take a long flight, just time your naps/sleep. If you know you’re going to land in the morning, sleep as much as possible on the plane. If you’re landing at night, stay up as much as possible. I have this during dozens of trips between Asia and the US. Furthermore, it’s actually quite nice to wake up extra early because you haven’t fully gotten over jet lag because it’s most peaceful in the morning and tourist attractions are the emptiest.

  • I fly often to Hawaii and its good to be able to wake up super early every day. Lol. On the way back im not sure if its jet lag or just disappointment that im leaving the islands.

  • I absolutely love this article. It makes so much sense and I am the fool that falls into the “fight jet lag products”. Now I know better and what I can do better to fight it. Definitely pinning this for later too!

  • These are great ideas! Now its time for me to test them and see if they actually work!

  • I love the suggestion to start simulating the new time zone 3-4 days before the trip. Seems silly that this has never occurred to me before. One thing I try to do is to make myself adapt to the new time zone sleeping schedule as soon as I arrive. No naps! Go to bed the first night at a reasonable time and make myself get up in the morning. I am usually fine by the second day.

  • Sleeping pills and a lie flat bed are essential. I also just power through the arrival day. Visited my son in HK and got in and went right to the bars and nightlife with him. Fell asleep and woke up ready to go the next day!

  • Best to stay up the night before and then sleep all the way to the destination. Always works for me

  • I love the idea to start adjusting to the new time zone 3-4 days before the trip. Can’t think why I’ve never thought of that before (although sometimes those pre-trip days get crazy busy, so not always practical). I usually try to make myself adhere to the new time zone as soon as I land. No naps, going to bed at a reasonable local bedtime, then making myself get up in the morning. I am usually okay by my second day of the trip.

  • Limiting jet lag is never easy and luckily for me I rarely get it. I have done some of the things suggested here like sleeping pills but they never did much for me. I still don’t have a solution.

  • I just try to stay awake for as long as possible throughout the flight, entertaining myself with movies/tv shows so I can go to bed at whatever “normal” time is in my destination.

  • Isn’t adjusting to jet lag part of the fun of traveling? It’s always a popular conversation piece/ice breaker. Endure the first few days and be grateful you get to travel this big world.

  • Prashant Gangwal says:

    Make sure to adjust your clock to the destination as soon as you get on the plane and manage sleeping/eating accordingly for avoiding jet lag!

  • Kaylene Lindley says:

    Some great ideas and I have never heard of cryotherapy – interesting but not sure I would do that. Lol.

  • I suggest getting lots of rest before a big trip. Sleep if possible on the plane. Arrive at destination and head to bed at local bedtime is the best. We had our 2 year old on the local sleep schedule within 48hrs. In addition the flight time worked perfect with time change. That always helps.

    • That’s impressive. When our kids were little we couldn’t cross to the neighboring time zone without sending the kids into a sleep-cycle tailspin!

  • When we can, we start 2-3 days before the trip and begin adjusting our schedule to the upcoming time zone.

    Drinking lots of water and cutting back on caffeine also seems to help us.

  • Headed to London on a 7PM overnight flight tonight, then on to Ireland. Last night, I stayed up late, and got up really early so that I’ll be tired on the plane. Hoping to be able hit the ground running when we land tomorrow morning, London time.

  • I’ve had to simply power through the day when traveling. Recently we did a trip to Sydney from the US and our first night there we had coffee as soon as we could then went on to have a normal (ish) day. Simply going to bed early and taking sleeping pills helped us a lot.

  • ADAM PARSONS says:

    A lie flat seat is a must, even a 3 – 4 hours proper sleep on a flat bed has always helped us whereas I can never fall asleep sitting upright even reclined.

  • Preparing the body clock prior to the actual departure date sounds good in theory, but I yet have to be able to actually pull it off.
    It’s just not easy to behave as if you’re in a different time zone when you’re not. 🙂

  • I’ve always been a fan of flying red-eyes when I travel east transcon. I’m good at sleeping on a plane so I basically sleep the 4-5 hours of the flight, and land on the east coast to a sunrise and go about my day like I normally would. I’m certainly sleepy since I really only got 4-5 hours of imperfect sleep, but when the day is over, I go to sleep at a normal east coast time and wake up the following day at a normal east coast time. Instantaneous time-zone adjustment that works for me.

    Of course, if you can’t sleep on a plane, my method is null and void.

  • I’ve always struggled with trying to adjust in the 3/4 days before I fly. My job tends to get in the way. However, when I’m flying east, I try to leave in the evening (UK time) in order to also arrive 13-15 hours later, also in the evening. I’ll sleep for a few hours on the flight then force myself to stay away. Then I get a few hours to travel to my hotel, check-in, get some dinner, then go to sleep, at the same time (locally) that I would go to bed at home. I might be up early that day, but from the day after, I’m right as rain. It’s worked a treat every time.

  • Patricia Baglivi says:

    Fly 1st class in flat beds and problem solved. Of course, since I can’t afford it, I will have to give your suggestions a try, especially the tips to start 3-4 days before.

  • the_real_jetsetr says:

    It’s a tricky thing getting used to the jet lag adjustment when kids are in the equation. Whether or not we are in a flatbed is secondary to the fact that kids will be kids and usually love to be playing and watching videos on the IFE. Flying eastbound US -> Europe I generally find easier, because the flight times correspond somewhat with bedtimes, but going Europe -> US, it can be tough to get the kids used to the idea of sleeping during a daytime flight (and then struggling to keep them awake until normal bedtime back in the US).

  • Blane Nagareda says:

    Light therapy makes sense, will have to try, but sleeping earlier when heading east right before trip is difficult cramming in last minute things before a trip. Often sleeping later and being more tired on red eye flights, but hard to sleep on plane. Avoiding caffeine and alcohol doesn’t make it easier to sleep on a flight.

  • some great ideas to try especially the 2 – 3 days before leaving home. Cryotherapy I learned something new today .

  • Kam On Albert Ling says:

    One thing that I find is that one can book ticket with overnight stays along the way.
    For example, EWR – HNL (overnight) – NRT (overnight) – Singapore as international ticket allows up to 24 hours to connect. I would then stay in a hotel/hostel to adjust to jetlag.

  • Great tips! We always adjust our watches to our destination’s time zone as soon as we get on the plane. We’ll have to try your suggestion of starting to prepare 2-3 days before and see if it helps. Pinning this article for reference later!

  • Ambien puts me out like a light. Some people have weird effects from it though.

  • Clare Lickley says:

    I think this article is great and I agree with what it says. Jet lag is one of the downsides of travel and can happen to a lot of people. I love to travel and have done but lucky enough to not experience that much jet lag. But some good tips in there I will certainly use if I do suffer next time

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