There are two words that cause even the most seasoned of travellers to groan: jet lag. This dreaded condition makes many of us feel exhausted and miserable. It can ruin a perfect holiday, and makes returning home afterwards even less exciting.
While jet lag is a natural side effect of travel, there are ways to beat its symptoms.
What exactly is jet lag?
Desynchronosis, commonly referred to as “jet lag,” is caused by changes to your body’s normal sleep-wake cycles when travelling across time zones. The more drastic the change, the more trouble the body has resetting its internal clock.1
Jet lag immediately brings to mind daytime sleepiness or insomnia, but it affects more than just sleep. It can also cause loss of concentration, irritability, headaches, and constipation or diarrhoea.2 Any of these are sure to ruin a hard earned holiday!
How to ease jet lag
The bad news: there is no cure for jet lag. The best you can do is to take steps before, during, and after your flight to ease the symptoms.
Before you travel:
- Fly at night, or arrive in the early evening. Overnight flights help replicate your normal schedule, and you may be able to snooze on the plane. If taking the red eye isn’t an option, try to find a flight that arrives in the early evening. Stay up until 10pm local time to help adjust to your new time zone.
- Anticipate the time change. Gradually adjust your schedule a few days prior to your trip. When flying westward, start going to sleep 30-60minutes later each night. For eastward trips, go to bed earlier.3 This will make adapting to the new time zone easier. (Use Jetlag Rooster to create a pre-travel sleep schedule.)
- Plan ahead. Stress makes jet lag worse1 so cross as much off your to-do list as possible well in advance. Even small steps, such as checking-in online before leaving for the airport, can help you keep calm.
During your flight:
- Stay hydrated. Dehydration worsens jet lag. Drink plenty of water, but avoid alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol negatively impacts sleep at the best of times, and its effects worsen the symptoms of altitude sickness, disturbing sleep on aircraft even more. 4Alcohol and caffeine also dehydrate you.
- Get comfortable. Sleeping on a plane is difficult, but not impossible. Pack a neck pillow, ear plugs, and an eye mask to make getting some shuteye easier. Loose, comfortable clothing is also a must, as well as a sweater or jacket should you get cold.
- Keep active. Sitting for long periods increases sleepiness. Take regular breaks--when safe to do so-- by walking the aisles and doing simple stretching exercises. (Try this inflight workout from Qantas.)
After you arrive:
- Get some sun. Daylight is the best way to reset your body clock,1 so get outside as much as possible. Even the natural light on an overcast day helps. For westward trips, seek morning light and wear dark sunglasses in the afternoon; on eastward journeys get outside in the afternoon to move your internal clock forward.4
- Drink caffeine in moderation. You already know that caffeinated drinks wreck your sleep5 but it’s tempting to have an extra coffee or two when there’s so much to see and do on holiday. Just don’t overdo it. Remember that it takes about 15 minutes to feel the effects of caffeine, and four hours for it the wear off.6
- Stay up until bedtime. Try to stay awake until your normal bedtime or as close to as possible. Short naps (no more than 30 minutes) can help you adapt to a new time zone, but set an alarm so you don’t oversleep. You should also stay awake at least four hours before bedtime to help you sleep through the night.
What about sleeping aides?
Many people use sleeping tablets to combat jet lag, but their use is controversial. Using sleeping aides on aircraft is not recommended in case of an emergency. They also tend to immobilise the body, a dangerous result when sleeping deeply in a seated position for an extended period of time. This increases the risk of blood clots forming, which could lead to stroke.7,8
Another product often recommended is melatonin. This hormone is naturally created by the body and helps control our sleep-wake cycles. There is some evidence that melatonin supplements increase the tendency to sleep if taken during the day.9
Remember, you should always speak with your doctor before using any sleeping aide.
The sleepvantage team
Mary Choy, Rebecca L Salbu. “Jet Lag: Current and Potential Therapies.” Pharmacy and Therapeutics. 18 January 2011. 27 August 2015
Jet Lag.” The Mayo Clinic. 1 August 2015. 15 September 2015
Charmane I Eastman, Clifford J Gazda, Helen J Burgess, Stephanie J Crowley, Louis F Fogg. “Advancing Circadian Rhythms Before Eastward Flight: A Strategy to Prevent or Reduce Jet Lag.” Sleep. 1 January 2005. 27 August 2015
“Caffeine and Sleep.” National Sleep Foundation. 27 August 2015.
“Ten Tips to Help Combat Jet Lag.” Sleep Health Foundation. 2011. 11 August 2015.
“Deep vein thrombosis.” The Mayo Clinic. 3 July 2014. 15 Sept 2015
“Stroke.” The Mayo Clinic. 30 July 2015. 15 Sept 2015.