“Passengers, fasten your seatbelts. Prepare for jet lag.”
While flight attendants don’t announce this, it probably wouldn’t hurt if they did.
Traveling from one country to another, losing good sleep, and waking up on a new side of the world causes many of us to experience jet lag, a common sleep disorder caused by flying across one or multiple time zones. In addition to sleepiness, jet lag can also cause indigestion and bowel issues, changes in mood, and trouble concentrating.
The good news: Jet lag is completely normal. In fact, more than 90 percent of all travelers experience it at some point in their lives. Apparently, travelers typically feel jet lagged when flying over five or more time zones, yet others say all it takes is two time zones, such as when traveling from Chicago to L.A.
What Exactly Is Jet Lag?
Let’s start with the brain. Jet lag originates in the region of the brain called the hypothalamus, which evolved long before humans were flying. The hypothalamus responds to levels of light and time, and it controls our circadian rhythm processes including sleep, temperature, and appetite.
Jet lag is essentially a misalignment between our internal and external clock. According to the National Sleep Foundation, jet lag is a way to describe how the body feels when our internal clock and the 24-hour circadian rhythm we are wired to is disrupted. These rhythms are affected by body temperature, hormone levels, and exposure to sunlight, not to mention journeying across large spans of earth inside an aircraft. Said another way, our body tells us when to go to sleep and when to stay awake, and jet lag messes up those sleep signals since it’s synced to a different time zone.
When we arrive at a new place, our circadian rhythms need time to adjust; it can take several days to feel normal again. For example, if you leave New York City on a 4 p.m. flight on Saturday, you’ll arrive in Paris at 7 a.m. on Sunday. Your body will still think it’s 1 a.m., so you’ll most likely want to hit the hay just as the sun starts to rise over the city streets.
How to Reduce Jet Lag
While jet lag cannot be prevented completely, there are some helpful tricks that can reduce symptoms and make jet lag less of a jet drag.
Plan your trip wisely
If it’s possible, plan your trip so you arrive at your destination in the evening. That way you can have dinner, check into your hotel, and get a good night’s sleep. Even if you sleep on the plane, you’ll most likely still be tired upon landing.
Hydrate, hydrate, and hydrate some more
Believe it or not, dehydration is often the cause of fatigue. The air in planes can be especially dry, so make sure to drink water throughout the flight. If your urine is light colored, it’s a good indicator that you’re hydrated. For especially long flights, bring an empty water bottle to fill at the airport after the security check and fill back up on the flight (with help from a flight attendant). (The small plastic cups offered on most flights don’t hold a lot of water.) Also make sure to limit alcohol and caffeine, which disturb sleep and dehydrate the body. Keep the rest of your body hydrated too; consider using eye drops and nasal spray to prevent dry eyes and nose.
Going for business? Give yourself some time
If you’re traveling for work, it’s smart to often strategically plan to schedule a day or two for yourself to see the sights and relax before heading into an important meeting. Scheduling some down time will allow your body to adjust to the new time zone.
Reset your body clock
A good trick of the trade is to try to adjust your inner-circadian clock. To do so, move your bedtime up by one or two hours if you’ll be traveling east, and go to sleep a few hours later if going west. This could help you adjust to the new time zone once you land and make falling asleep in the new location a lot easier.
Reset your real clock
Sometimes a little mind over matter goes a long way. Change the time on your watch and phone before taking off so you can anticipate the accurate time on arrival.
Get some sun
Another way for your body to adjust to the new time zone? Bright light first thing in the morning. Sunlight affects our circadian rhythm, so a bit of sun exposure can help us cope with jet lag. Light actually goes a long way on the plane, too; for long flights, flight attendants open and close the windows and adjust the lights at specific times to help passengers sleep and adjust to the time zone they’re headed toward.
Exercise can affect our circadian rhythm. Research shows training at the same time you’d normally work out at home can help sync our internal clock with our external one. So, if you typically exercise at 6 p.m. at home, work out at 6 p.m. in the new location. Bonus points for heading outdoors for a workout to take advantage of natural sunlight, which can also help regulate our internal clock.
Choose your seat carefully
If you have the financial means or flight points, it’s a no-brainer that first and business class seats equal a better flight experience. While the fancy meals and customer service are a notable plus, the real perks lie in the bigger seats and deep recline. A more comfortable seat can lead to much better sleep.
Thankfully, there are still ways to get some good shut-eye in economy seats. First, ask if a premium economy seat, a more affordable upgrade that includes extra legroom, is available. Or volunteer to sit in an exit row so you can stretch your legs out.
If these options aren’t in the cards, consider a window seat; neighbors may be less likely to disturb you when they exit the row. You can also use the window to prop up a pillow. Try to avoid the back of the plane, which tends to be bumpier and could disturb your slumber during bouts of turbulence. Also, always check to make sure your seat reclines and try to stay away from high-traffic seats near bathrooms and galleys where the flight attendants work.
Lastly, use an eye mask or earplugs to reduce unexpected sound or light.
While it may be impossible to completely avoid feeling jet lagged, these tips are a good start to make the most of your airtime and get back in sync with your internal clock upon landing.