If you’ve ever spent the first few days of vacation or a business trip feeling groggy in the day, wide awake at night, and battling through everything from loss of concentration to digestive issues, you’ll know what jet lag feels like. These symptoms last longer the further you’ve flown, and they can even get worse the older we get.
While there’s no cure for jet lag, there are science-backed ways you can help your body adjust faster. Below, we dive into the strategies you can do before, during, and after your flight to get back to feeling your best as soon as possible.
Jet lag happens when you fly across time zones and your body’s internal clocks take time to adjust to the new local time. For example, if you fly from New York to London, your body will be operating in the old time zone five hours behind. The opposite happens when you fly back home.
Common symptoms include:
Jet lag messes with your sleep so much it’s even classed as a sleep disorder. Symptoms depend on things like the number of time zones you’ve crossed, your age, and your chronotype. Find out more about jet lag symptoms here.
While sleep deprivation from flying can contribute to jet lag, the main cause is misaligned circadian rhythms. You have one master clock in your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). This is attuned to the light-dark cycle and dictates things like your energy levels, body temperature fluctuations, and hormone production.
The SCN also sends signals to your peripheral clocks. These are the clocks that things like the liver, the gut, and the adrenal glands run on.
While our circadian rhythms can adapt, it happens slowly, not in one long-haul flight. So when you suddenly jump forward five hours, it takes a while for your body clocks to catch up. And while they’re adjusting, you’ll feel the effects of jet lag.
You can learn more about what jet lag is here.
That good news is yes. While jet lag is short term and will go away on its own, you can speed up how long this recovery process takes. This is important for vacationers who want to get to enjoying their time off (or straight back into daily life after flying home), but it’s also vital information for business travelers, politicians, and competitive athletes. You can find out more about how long jet lag lasts here.
Your circadian rhythms respond to zeitgebers, “time-givers” in German, which are external cues that help them synchronize with the outside world. Light, exercise, and meals are all zeitgebers.
Zeitgebers at certain times can cause phase shifts, or a change in timing, to your circadian rhythms, bringing them forward or pushing them backwards.
However, the timing of these zeitgebers is crucial. If you do them at the wrong time you can move your circadian rhythms in the opposite direction. So, for example, you may push back your sleep-wake times, when you really want to bring them forward.
That’s all down to something called the phase-response curve (PRC). The PRC shows the relationship between a zeitgeber and the response it causes. For example, the PRC of light shows the direction and magnitude your circadian rhythm will shift if you get light at certain times.
There’s a point in the day where a zeitgeber switches from bringing your circadian rhythm forward to pushing it back. For example, early morning light brings your circadian rhythm forward, whereas light late at night pushes it back. Most human light PRCs switch from bringing the circadian rhythm forward to pushing it back around the time we reach our lowest body temperature in the 24-hour cycle, or a little later (for many, this is in the early hours of the morning). Melatonin, on the other hand, is about 12 hours opposite to this.
Now you understand the science of jet lag, it’s time to get into the treatments. Here are 12 tips to help you beat jet lag faster on your next trip.
Timing your light exposure is one of the easiest things you can do to help speed up your adjustment to jet lag as it’s the most powerful zeitgeber.
This is a tricky one to get right, though. When you’re traveling, it’s hard to avoid brightly lit airports and planes. It’s also hard to study the effect of light on jet lag in real-life situations, so the ideal timing and light intensity still needs more research.
Here’s what the scientific literature recommends though:
If flying east:
If flying west:
Award-winning science journalist Linda Geddes recommends something similar in her book Chasing the Sun:
When flying east:
When flying west:
Ideally, you should be seeking out natural light instead of artificial light to make this adjustment. Research suggests bright interior artificial light is only about one-third as effective as bright sunlight.
If natural light isn’t possible, you can try a light box. Light boxes with a large illuminated area are recommended as it’s easier to sit in front of them with your head in a normal position and they’re less intense, and thus, less aversive. However, small portable light boxes are ideal for travel.
Bonus tip: This isn’t just a travel tip, though. You should be strategic with your light exposure back home, too. Get light as soon as possible after waking and avoid it in the evenings to help stay in circadian alignment even when you’re not traveling.
Melatonin is a natural hormone your brain makes to prime your body for sleep, but you can also get it in supplement form. Instead of forcing you to sleep like traditional sleep aids, melatonin tricks your brain into thinking it's coming up to bedtime. Therefore, your body winds down when it usually wouldn‘t, helping you move your sleep-wake cycle. You can learn more about what melatonin does here.
One review looked at nine studies and found in eight of them, melatonin helped participants overcome jet lag after crossing five or more time zones.
Here’s what the study’s authors, Andrew Herxheimer and Keith J. Petrie, had to say:
“Melatonin is remarkably effective in preventing or reducing jet lag, and occasional short‐term use appears to be safe. It should be recommended to adult travelers flying across five or more time zones, particularly in an easterly direction, and especially if they have experienced jet lag on previous journeys. Travelers crossing 2‐4 time zones can also use it if need be.”
And while there are plenty of studies showing melatonin is an effective jet lag treatment, the specific timings and doses are still unknown.
Here’s what one study recommends:
For eastbound flights up to 9 hours long:
For westbound flights up to 9 hours long:
For flights in either direction that are 10 to 14 hours long:
Heads-up: People with health conditions should seek medical advice before taking melatonin.
Exercise isn’t just good for your health, it can also work to keep your circadian rhythm aligned as it’s another zeitgeber you can use to manipulate the timing of your body clocks. However, more research needs to be done to find out the ideal timing and amount of exercise needed, as some results are conflicting.
In general, research suggests:
Another paper noted that separating the effects of exercise from the effects of light exposure is difficult and there’s limited evidence exercise can shift your circadian rhythm alone. However, it does recommend “gentle exercise in bright light” to boost alertness during the day if you’re feeling sleepy from jet lag.
Bonus tip: Avoid exercise before bed, both while traveling and when back home, as this can make it much harder to fall asleep.
Meal times can also act as a zeitgeber. It’s thought the liver and gut circadian clocks can be synchronized by eating first, and through light exposure via the SCN second.
A 2017 study with rats found eating at times according to your new time zone can speed up the adjustment. So, if you land at night, or if you find yourself awake during the night, try to resist eating until breakfast time in your new location.
This goes for when you’re on the plane, too. Check the time in the destination you’re flying to and avoid eating when you wouldn’t be — during the night, for example.
Further research shows what you eat may also have an impact. Studies on animals suggest high-calorie diets may prevent adaptation to your new time zone.
And it’s been suggested that adjustment can be sped up by eating a high-protein breakfast and a high-carbohydrate evening meal when you arrive. The tyrosine released from the high-protein meal would boost alertness and the tryptophan from the high-carbohydrate would decrease it.
However, other studies say eating a high-carbohydrate meal in the morning could bring your circadian rhythm forward compared to eating that meal in the evening.
Bonus tip: Eating large meals too close to bedtime or eating rich foods can easily disrupt your sleep, at home and away.
Jet lag, especially if you’re flying across several time zones, can throw your whole body out of whack. And sleep deprivation only makes things worse.
You may not be able to avoid sleep deprivation while traveling long distances — anyone who’s ever tried to force themselves to sleep on a plane can attest to that — but you can do something about it before you leave.
By keeping your sleep debt low and syncing up with your circadian rhythm before your trip, you can start from a solid foundation.
What’s sleep debt? Sleep debt is the measure of how much sleep you owe your body over the last 14 nights. This is compared to your sleep need, the genetically determined amount of sleep you need.
The RISE app can work both of these things out for you. If you haven’t been meeting your sleep need recently, you’ll have built up a lot of sleep debt. Luckily, you can catch up on sleep.
We recommend keeping sleep debt below five hours to feel your best.
You can pay back sleep debt by:
Keeping your sleep debt low when you arrive in your new destination will also help you feel better mentally and physically.
As well as keeping sleep debt low, work to align with your circadian rhythm. RISE can predict this each day and show you when your body naturally wants to wake up and go to sleep. You can then align with this as much as possible and keep a consistent sleep schedule.
If you’re attempting to start the adjustment process before your flight (more on this soon), aim to be aligned with your circadian rhythm in the run up to this. This’ll make the shift easier on your body.
Bonus tip: Low sleep debt and circadian alignment aren’t just for when you travel. They’re also the secret to feeling and performing your best back home.
Sleep is key to dealing with jet lag. As this study puts it:
“All of these strategies work best in a well rested individual, rather than a sleep-deprived one, and the most important factor in adjusting to the destination time zone is adequate sleep.”
The best way to get adequate sleep is through sleep hygiene. This can help you back home as well as after air travel.
You can learn more about sleep hygiene here, but here are three tips to get you started:
The RISE app can help you stay on top of your sleep hygiene wherever you are by reminding you when to do 20+ habits at the right time for your circadian rhythm.
You can incorporate many of these tips into your schedule before your trip to start the adjustment process.
In semi-controlled laboratory conditions, a shift of nine hours for core temperature, melatonin secretion, and sleep was achieved before a trip by exposing participants to light delaying by three hours per day. It’s also been achieved in astronauts before a trip with light and melatonin.
However, it’s not recommended to try to make huge shifts like this yourself. Plus, that’s quite unrealistic when we have work and family commitments to deal with.
Instead, you can try adjusting your sleep time, wake time, and meal times by 30 to 60 minutes each day towards the time in your new destination, starting a few days before you leave. Keep an eye on your sleep debt while doing this to make sure you’re still getting enough sleep.
On the other hand, if you’re traveling for an important event, consider heading out a few days early to give your body time to adjust before you need to be at your best.
If you can’t adjust to your new schedule before your trip, at least try adjusting on the plane. Competitive athletes are advised to set their watches to the time in their new time zone when boarding the plane, and they’re told to try to sleep and eat according to this. Ear plugs and a sleep mask can make sleeping on a plane easier.
Firstly, stress and anxiety can easily keep you up and disrupt your sleep patterns. So, if you’re suffering with jet lag, you don’t want another factor impacting your sleep.
Furthermore, a 2021 study found the expectation of jet lag made participants feel the symptoms of it. So, if you’re trying to avoid jet lag, don’t worry about it. However, the study hasn’t been peer reviewed, so it’s just something to bear in mind for now.
Lowering your stress, however, is never a bad thing. You can do this by making sure your sleep debt is low before your trip and engaging in relaxing activities like reading, listening to calming music, and journaling.
If you find you’re worrying about a troubled night’s sleep as you get into bed in your new destination, RISE can guide you through relaxation techniques like diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation to help you wind down.
Dehydration at any time can make you feel tired, it impacts your cognitive performance and mood and it causes headaches. It’s even been associated with short sleep.
While traveling, dehydration can make the symptoms of jet lag feel worse, and long flights themselves are especially dehydrating.
Drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol on your flight to minimize dehydration. Once you arrive, make sure to hydrate there, too. This should also reduce dehydration-related fatigue and help you stay up during the day as you adjust.
Research suggests if you’re staying in a time zone for a short period of time (one to two days), you might be better not adjusting at all, and continuing to sleep, eat, and get light exposure as you would back home.
That’s because you won’t be able to fully adjust in one to two days, so any attempts at moving your circadian rhythm won’t fully improve your symptoms, but it could make you feel jet lagged when you go back to your normal sleep times, as you’re partially adjusted.
Instead, well-time caffeine and naps can help you stay awake during the day. Just be sure to not do these too close to bedtime or you’ll keep yourself up. RISE can tell you the best time to take a nap and stop drinking caffeine according to your circadian rhythm.
Research suggests the more exercise and social interaction you get when you arrive, the quicker you’ll adjust.
One study looked at participants who had flown across six time zones. One group stayed inside their hotel room with minimal activity and social interaction. The other group left their hotel room after the second day and were allowed to “indulge in outdoor activities and normal social interaction with the environment.” The group that stayed inside took 50% more time to adjust to the local time zone.
So, instead of staying in your hotel room on your first day, head out for some movement and social interaction. The study says even just walking around the area is recommended.
If you’re feeling tired during the day, it’s tempting to take a long nap or drink large amounts of caffeine to boost your energy levels. And on the other hand, if you’re struggling to fall asleep at night, you might reach for an over-the-counter sleep aid. But these things don’t cure jet lag, they only mask its effects.
Here’s what to do:
You can blame most of your jet lag symptoms on your body’s circadian rhythms as they slowly adapt to the new time zone. While jet lag goes away on its own, living with daytime drowsiness, poor sleep, and not feeling your best for the first few days of vacation (or business trip) is not fun.
Luckily, you don’t have to live with it. Interventions like well-timed light exposure, melatonin supplements, and exercise can help bring your circadian rhythm forward or push it back, getting you closer to the local time.
Use RISE to lower your sleep debt before your trip and keep it low while away. Plus, when you get home, do this to optimize your daytime energy levels, so you feel your best jet lag or no jet lag.
To get rid of jet lag fast, get the timing of your light exposure, exercise, and meals right depending on which direction you’ve flown in. Starting with low sleep debt can also help.
In general, it takes one day for every time zone you’ve crossed to get over jet lag. However, things like which direction you’ve flown in, your age, and your chronotype make a difference.
It depends. If you’re trying to push your circadian rhythm back, a nap during the day could help you stay awake until your later bedtime. You should avoid napping if you’re trying to bring your circadian rhythm forwards, however, as you want to feel sleepy at an earlier bedtime.
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