You’ve been counting down the days until your trip to the Mediterranean since you booked it months ago. You could barely sit still on the flight and seeing a new continent come into view spiked your adrenaline sky high.
You rush excitedly off the plane, but as you start exploring the local sites, you begin to feel off. The local cuisine looks amazing, but your appetite isn’t there. It’s hard to concentrate and your coordination is off. You’re exhausted, cranky and just don’t feel well. When you try to sleep at night, you can’t. And during the day you are fighting to stay awake.
You have jet lag. And while it’s temporary, jet lag is a legitimate sleep disorder. Jet lag can happen to any of us and puts a damper on any kind of travel. Read on to learn nine ways to minimize the effects of jet lag.
What’s going on in your body when you have jet lag?
Within each 24-hour cycle, your body temperature, blood pressure, glucose and hormone levels go up and down. These things are run by your internal clock, which is linked to the light you take in through your eyes. Your internal clock can run faster or slower depending on how long you are exposed to light and darkness, and when you are exposed to each.
Typically, the amount and timing of sunlight you take in from day to day is close to the same. Even though it varies seasonally, the change is gradual enough for your body to adjust. This is how our internal clocks – a.k.a. our “circadian rhythms” – tend to stay in balance. However, when you travel by airplane and quickly cross time zones, the change is dramatic. When you arrive in a new time zone, your body is still wired to the sun patterns from your home location. You’re getting light when your body is used to it being dark, and vice versa, and that disrupts your internal clock.
How long does it take for jet lag to wear off?
How long jet lag lasts and how affected you are by it depends on where you’re traveling and how sensitive your body is to time changes. Some people who are particularly attuned to their circadian rhythms claim that they can be jet lagged due to a time difference as low as an hour. Generally, however, it takes more than an hour’s difference in time zones for a person to experience jet lag.
If you are traveling east: It will probably be difficult to fall asleep at night. It will also take your body a little longer to adjust when you are traveling this way. The general rule is: the number of days you will be jet lagged will equal the number of time zones you cross. So, you will be jet lagged about three days if you change three time zones to the east.
If you are traveling west: You may wake up earlier than you actually want to. But it doesn’t take your body quite as long to adjust traveling this way. The number of days you will be jet lagged will be two-thirds the number of time zones you cross. So, you will be jet lagged about two days if you change three time zones to the west.
Is there anything you can do to avoid jet lag?
You can’t entirely prevent jet lag, but you can reduce feeling its effects. Try out these tips – most of which have the benefit of being completely natural:
1. Start adjusting light exposure before your trip to decrease the length of time you will feel jet lagged.
You can manipulate your body clock and ease into a new time zone as quickly as possible by controlling your exposure to light and darkness before travel. You can calculate the schedule adjustment that will work best for you and your trip. And you can download a free app on your smart phone called Entrain that makes your schedule adjustment easy to follow.
2. Consider taking melatonin supplements if you’re traveling east.
Melatonin is a hormone produced naturally in your brain. It is only released in darkness and signals typical nighttime behaviors. For humans, that includes sleep. Melatonin works better in low doses, so “less is more” when you’re taking supplements to help with jet lag. It also needs to be taken at the proper time to be effective. Take 0.5 mg of melatonin 13 hours before the time you want to wake up. Higher doses will not help you fall asleep any faster or easier, and may cause other problems. Melatonin supplements should be taken before your trip during the same time period that you’re adjusting your exposure to light and darkness. Then, stop using melatonin the day your flight leaves.
3. Time your flight.
Try to schedule a flight so that the local time of your destination is close to the time you usually wake up. Many flights that cross multiple time zones are intentionally scheduled so that they land in the morning. This may mean you have to leave home at an odd time of day. Remember though, if you want to reduce the effects of jet lag, your time of arrival is important.
4. Try to sleep during your flight.
Ideally, you want to wake up when your plane arrives in the morning at your destination. If you need it, you can use a sleep aid. But don’t rely on one after you’ve arrived. If you can’t sleep on the plane, stay active. Walk around and stretch your arms and legs regularly. This has the added benefit of preventing cramps and back pain from compact travel conditions.
5. Avoid long layovers in extra time zones if you can.
This can further throw off your internal clock since you don’t have enough time to fully adjust. A nonstop flight or layovers with just enough time to change planes are best.
6. Say no to in-flight coffee, caffeinated soda and alcohol.
Also steer clear of them at the airport bar and when you first reach your destination. Instead, drink plenty of water or other drinks that aren’t going to dehydrate you. Dehydration can worsen the effects of jet lag.
8. Limit naps in the days following your arrival.
If you need it, taking a short nap can help you stay awake during the day. But napping for more than 30 minutes can keep you from falling asleep at night. Try to stay awake until your normal bedtime and get up on time the next day.
9. Bring earplugs and a sleep mask.
These can help you fall asleep even if your body does not feel ready.
Do children get jetlagged?
Traveling with children brings its own joys and hardships. Unfortunately, children can also suffer from jet lag. Although they tend to adjust more easily than adults, encourage them to follow your lead on jet lag minimization, especially when it comes to staying hydrated.
What other parts of travel can affect my sleep?
Travel is exciting, but that’s not always a good thing when it comes to your sleep quality. In addition to being jetlagged, you might experience sleep disruption in other ways. Do your best to mitigate these factors for better sleep.
If you’re staying in a big city but are used to a quiet country or suburban life, noise might keep you awake. So, packing earplugs might be a good idea. Similarly, if you’re from the city but are headed out of town, the absence of noise might make it hard for you to sleep. Using a white noise app on your phone or running a fan can help.
It’s common for people to get stressed because of the change in routine that comes with travel. If you’re staying in a hotel, request two wake-up calls. That way, you don’t lose sleep worrying you’ll miss one, and it will help you get up in the morning at the correct time.
Most people have a hard time sleeping if it’s hotter than 75 degrees Fahrenheit, or colder than 65 degrees Fahrenheit. If you’re headed somewhere cold, consider packing winter pajamas. If your destination is hot, wear light, breathable clothing. And if there’s no air conditioning available, try these tips.
It takes a few weeks for your body to get used to altitudes of 13,200 feet or more. And anything more than 6,000 feet can be tough if you have breathing problems. Less oxygen in the air makes it harder to breathe, and that can affect your activity as well as your sleep. Try to sleep at a lower altitude than where you spend your days. Stay hydrated, sleep on your side and use a humidifier at night if possible.
Jet lag doesn’t have to ruin your vacation plans
Not feeling well can turn your dream vacation into a nightmare. Do all you can to stay healthy when traveling, including keeping stress at bay, in addition to being proactive against jet lag.