Jet lag, that groggy and disorienting feeling you get when crossing multiple time zones, can put a damper on your travel plans, and it’s impossible to avoid it all together. But using research-backed strategies and being careful about how you treat your body before, during, and after travel can go a long way in reducing the symptoms you experience and helping you fully enjoy your trip. In fact, I recently returned from a weeklong trip to Switzerland, Germany, and Egypt, and used all of these myself with great results. So, whether you’re heading out in a week or two (perfect timing!), or you just want to learn about how jet lag works and how to beat jet lag so you’re prepared for next time, this post will share the strategies I use and recommend to clients.
The Science Behind Jet Lag
Before we dive into the strategies, let’s briefly understand what causes jet lag. Jet lag is more than just feeling tired after a long flight; it’s a complex physiological phenomenon rooted in our body’s internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm. This internal 24-hour clock regulates various functions, including sleep-wake patterns, hormone production, and body temperature. The circadian rhythm is primarily influenced by environmental cues, with the most potent one being natural sunlight. When we travel across multiple time zones, our circadian rhythm becomes desynchronized with the local time at our destination, resulting in the symptoms we collectively refer to as jet lag, including fatigue, insomnia, and digestive issues.
One key player in the science of jet lag is melatonin, a hormone produced by the pineal gland in response to darkness and low light levels. Melatonin plays a crucial role in regulating our sleep-wake cycle and is responsible for making us feel sleepy when it’s time for bed. In fact, that’s one key reason I recommend people maintain a regular bedtime – when we do so, our bodies know what time to secrete melatonin in order to optimize sleep cycles. When you travel to a new time zone, your body’s melatonin production doesn’t immediately align with the local day-night cycle, leading to disruptions in your sleep patterns, and sometimes, the inability to sleep well even if you’re exhausted.
The science of jet lag revolves around the body’s ability to adapt its circadian rhythm to a new time zone. This adaptation typically occurs at a rate of about one hour per day, which is why it can take several days for travelers to fully adjust to their new environment.
But sometimes, we just don’t have that – on my recent trip, I hopped 8 hours forward and was only abroad for 7 days … if I relied on my body alone, I wouldn’t have even fully adjusted before it was time to leave! Instead, these are the strategies I used to fully adjust within 24 hours. I hope that understanding the underlying science of jet lag and implementing these strategies allows you to take control of your circadian rhythm and minimize the disruptive effects of traveling across time zones on your next trip!
Science-backed strategies for how to beat jet lag:
- Stay Hydrated to Soothe Your System: Dehydration can exacerbate jet lag symptoms, plain and simple. Honestly, even if you’re not crossing time zones, dehydration is the #1 reason people get constipated and digestively upset while traveling. Airplane cabins are notorious for their dry air, so make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight. For context, I drank well over 200 oz on each of my big days of travel, and I regularly drink 80 oz during flight time of a single flight within the US. It helps tremendously! By the way, hydrated skin is also less prone to irritation, so consider using moisturizing skincare products during your journey.
- Sync Your Routine with Local Time: I cannot overemphasize the importance of this one for quick adjustment! Do NOT let your brain do what our brains naturally want to do, which is catastrophize the situation by calculating what time it is in our original time zone, such as, “it’s 3am at home; that’s why I’m so tired!” Instead, as soon as you set foot on the plane, tell yourself you are in the new time zone, and adjust your habits accordingly.For example, when traveling back to Dallas from Egypt, I woke up at 3:50am Egypt time and took my first flight to London. I didn’t eat anything at all until arriving in London and getting to the new gate, which was almost 12 hours later, at approximately 6:30am Dallas time. By not eating “in the middle of the night” for my new time zone (Dallas), I helped my body adjust. Similarly, I rested for a bit on the first flight, but once it hit 4am Dallas time (close to my normal wake up time), I ensured that I stayed awake and did not doze at all until arriving home and getting settled, around 9pm Dallas time (which was about 26 hours after I had woken up, but I didn’t let myself think that!) Here’s the point: as soon as possible, align your daily routine with the local time. This means eating, sleeping, and engaging in activities according to the new time zone’s schedule, even if it feels unusual at first.
- Avoid Alcohol and Be Strategic with Caffeine: Both alcohol and caffeine can disrupt your sleep patterns, making it more challenging to overcome jet lag. In fact, when asked by Best Life which foods and drinks to avoid on a plane, alcohol was my #1! I did not drink alcohol on either day of travel and also did not drink alcohol for the full day after travel. It can be tempting to have a drink to celebrate your first night on vacation, but for me, getting a great night’s sleep that night and feeling amazing the rest of my trip was even more tempting! As for caffeine, I used it strategically, just like food. I did not have coffee on the first plane despite wanting it, and instead waited until landing in London (around 6:30am Dallas time) to enjoy! If you usually have caffeine at a certain time of day (like I do, in the mornings), drinking it at that time in your new time zone can really help.
- Limit Heavy Meals and Snack Strategically: Heavy or rich foods can disrupt your digestion and make it difficult to fall asleep. Avoid them close to bedtime, and instead, opt for light, nutritious meals that are easy on your stomach. The night before leaving Egypt, Kevin and I chose to make the lounge happy hour in our hotel our dinner and enjoyed light snacks instead of a heavy dinner. During travel, I tried to eat meals during layovers and light snacks in the air to protect digestion and stay feeling great. It’s easy to mindlessly snack the entire flight (just like long car trips) but given that I had 16 hours on a plane in a day, that would be a whole lot of snacks that I didn’t need, leaving me feeling uncomfortable!
- Embrace Natural Sunlight: Exposure to natural daylight is one of the most effective ways to reset your internal clock. After arriving at your destination, spend time outdoors to help your body adjust to the new time zone. This is particularly easy to do when exploring new cities – once we landed in Switzerland, for example, we resisted the urge to nap and walked 7 miles outside to reenergize ourselves, adjust to the new time zone, and explore a gorgeous new city.
- Stay Active, but Not Too Intensely: Engaging in light physical activity, like walking or gentle stretching, can stimulate blood circulation and combat fatigue. However, avoid strenuous exercise close to bedtime, as it may energize you when you need to wind down and remember that long days are already taxing on your body, so additional stress may not be the best option. On the way to Europe, I exercised as usual on Friday morning before leaving, and then as mentioned, we walked around Zurich on Saturday when arriving, and even mustered up enough energy to go to the gym for a light workout after that! However, when returning home (remember the 3:50am wakeup call, culminating in a 9pm bedtime 26 hours later), my only exercise for the day was walking around the airports as much as possible – I’m great at pacing for steps!
- Say No to Napping: I mostly already covered this in point #2, but it deserves more attention here. Although a nap may seem tempting when fatigue hits, try to resist it if you safely can. (If, for example, you have to drive yourself an hour after landing, or something like that, prioritize your safety over adjustment!) Staying awake until the local bedtime at your destination helps your body adjust more quickly to the new time zone.
- Use Relaxation Techniques for De-Stressing: Stress can worsen the symptoms of jet lag. Your cortisol (a stress hormone) is likely already dysregulated because of adjustments in melatonin, the regular stresses of travel, and the long days, so anything you can do to combat this will help your adjustment period. Consider incorporating mindfulness meditation or deep breathing exercises into your routine to calm your mind and reduce stress. I don’t travel with my Muse headband (which I use every day otherwise), but I still use the Muse guided meditations – my favorite! (Use code THELYONSSHARE for a discount!)
- Consider Melatonin Supplements: You may know that I do not recommend melatonin supplements on a regular basis, because using exogenous melatonin can override your body’s instincts and, when used consistently over time, you can come to rely on supplements and not produce melatonin as effectively on your own. However, the override factor is precisely the reason I do use it when adjusting to new time zones – I used it before falling asleep in my new destination for one night each direction of travel. This is not nearly enough to cause dependency and can ensure good quality sleep even when your body is not churning out melatonin in its normal rhythm because of the time change. I used 3 capsules of this on the first night in Switzerland and the first night back at home, which even though it is 1.5 servings, is still less than 1mg of melatonin, a marginal dose.
- Time Regular Supplements to New Time Zone and Add in As Needed. I am like clockwork with my morning and evening supplements at home, so on travel days, I made that “clockwork” in the new time zone, taking my supplements in the morning and evening hours in my destination city. I know you’ll ask what supplements I took, and to be honest, I took well over 100 capsules in the 8 days I was gone, but most of that is my normal routine, and is too lengthy to cover here. A few I might recommend adding while traveling:
- Magnesium for restful sleep and relaxation (see this post for which magnesium I recommend and why I love it)
- Beekeeper’s Naturals Propolis Spray and Gut Health Complete: my favorite immune-boosting throat spray, which I use on every single trip, and a probiotic/prebiotic combo that can help with gut health while traveling and on a daily basis (code THEYLYONSSHARE will get you a discount!)
- If travel is especially stressful for you, you may consider ashwagandha, an adaptogen that helps balance stress and energy levels. For more on adaptogens, see this post.
- For more supplements overall, check out my Fullscript dispensary, where I offer some overarching recommendations.
- Create a Restful Sleeping Environment: Ensuring you get quality sleep is crucial in overcoming jet lag (and, in fact, crucial to sleep every night! See this post for my strategies to help you improve sleep naturally! Darken your sleeping environment with blackout curtains or an eye mask, and use earplugs or a white noise machine to block out any disruptive sounds, ensuring a restful night’s sleep.
Overall, jet lag doesn’t have to put a damper on your travel experiences. By applying these science-backed strategies, you can minimize its impact and enjoy your trip to the fullest. Remember that everyone’s body reacts differently, so it might take some trial and error to find the strategies that work best for you. Safe travels and may you conquer jet lag and stay energized throughout your journeys!
Now it’s your turn! Which of these strategies will you implement next time you cross time zones? What did you learn?