Whether you're traveling for work or pleasure, jet lag can be a huge annoyance and even a trip ruiner. Fortunately, it's not something you have to just grin and bear. There are several steps you can take to ease your transition into a new time zone and lessen the side effects of jet lag.
What is jet lag?
Your circadian rhythm, which is basically an internal clock that regulates your sleep and wake cycle, requires regulation to function properly. That means you should be going to sleep and waking up on a regular schedule each day, and if you're not, your circadian rhythm is thrown off.
When you enter a new time zone, your body is still tuned into its regular schedule. It wants to go to sleep at your regular time, which may be 11:00 pm at home, but in your new locale, it could translate to 6:00 am, assuming you're seven hours ahead.
This disruption of your internal body clock is jet lag. Your body is confused, and rightfully so. After all, it's pretty confusing to suddenly hop into a new local time that's several hours ahead of or behind your regular time zone.
What are jet lag symptoms?
Feeling tired and sluggish are the most common symptoms of jet lag. You might also experience a night or two of insomnia, as your body attempts to adjust to a new schedule. In addition to these symptoms, travelers may experience other side effects, including indigestion, dizziness, confusion, memory problems, anxiety, dehydration, nausea, gastrointestinal problems, and other health issues.
Most likely, these symptoms will dissipate after a day or two, depending on how far you've traveled and how many time zones you've crossed. The general rule of thumb is one day to adjust for each time zone,
Are some time zones and locations better or worse for jet lag?
Of course, the farther you travel, the more likely you are to experience some symptoms of jet lag. You also may have more difficulty traveling east than west. Western time zones are earlier than your local time, meaning that you're more likely to want to conk out at, say, 8:00 pm if you're traveling to San Francisco from New York, which is really 11:00 pm EST. If you travel in the reverse direction, you'll be trying to go to sleep while your body is gearing you up to wake up soon. You'll also end up sleeping later, and since your local time is ahead of your circadian clock you'll feel like you've missed out on a day of adventuring.
How do you overcome jet lag?
There are several natural remedies to help you combat jet lag.
1. Regulate your exposure to bright lights.
Exposure to bright light plays an enormous role in regulating your circadian rhythm, so you can minimize the effects of jet lag by controlling when you see them. When you're going east, seek out morning light and avoid evening light, and vice versa if you're traveling west.
Seek out natural light at the right times, and stay indoors, away from the sun, at the wrong ones. If you need light at times the sun is down, try a lightbox or another light-producing tool. Conversely, if you can't get away from light, try wearing dark sunglasses or using blackout curtains to decrease your exposure.
2. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.
Alcohol and caffeine are known to interfere with your sleep anyway. While alcohol will initially make you feel drowsy, it will interrupt your sleep later. When you have jet lag, your body is out of whack anyway, so it's best to avoid it until you've adjusted to your new schedule.
Alcohol and caffeine can both dehydrate you, which exacerbates jet lag symptoms and interferes with your ability to recover. So, while a cup of coffee (or three) may sound tempting when you're feeling drowsy and run down, try to avoid drinking up until you've had a couple days to adjust to your new locale.
3. Drink plenty of water.
On the topic of dehydration, make sure you're constantly drinking water. Staying hydrated is important for combating jet lag, and some circumstances, such as the dry air in your plane's cabin, aren't helping. Drink lots of water at all times: before your flight, during it, and after landing. (You should, of course, be drinking plenty of water at all times for other health reasons, anyway!)
4. Move around.
One of the risks of not moving for long periods of time—like when you're sitting on a plane—is that you could develop deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot that forms in the deep veins of your legs or, less commonly, other body parts. You're more likely to develop DVT if you have risk factors such as taking birth control pills, being pregnant, smoking, having a family history of the condition, and having some other conditions.
DVT can result in a pulmonary embolism, so it's important to contact your doctor if you believe you might have it. Symptoms include swelling of one leg (rarely, but occasionally, both legs), pain in the leg, redness or other discoloration, and excessive warmth.
Moving around can decrease your chances of developing DVT because you're keeping your blood pumping and your circulation functioning properly. This is helpful for fighting other jet lag symptoms, too. Get up and walk around the cabin occasionally, and do some foot or leg exercises while you're sitting in your seat. Even moving your foot in circles can help.
5. Consider taking a melatonin—but avoid non-natural sleep aids.
Your brain naturally produces melatonin, which is a hormone involved in regulating your circadian rhythm by signaling darkness. It also comes as a supplement in pill form. Some people take it regularly as a sleep aid, though scientific studies haven't proven its efficacy as such.
Regulating your internal body clock, however, is really the intended use of melatonin as a supplement. You can take a small dose (0.5 mg is generally the lowest available) to see some benefits. Taking it about two hours before you want to go to sleep. Avoid drinking alcohol or caffeine and taking other sleep aids while using it.
Be very careful about taking more potent sleep aids, even those of the over-the-counter variety. Perscription drugs, too, carry a number of dangerous side effects, including amnesia, sleepwalking, and even performing other activities, such as driving, while asleep. They are more appropriate to treat insomnia than jet lag and can be habit-forming if taken for more than a few days. If you do decide to use them to overcome or avoid jet lag, make sure you discuss it extensively with your doctor first.
6. Adjust your schedule before you leave.
Try to change your schedule to one that matches the one you'll be following when you arrive. If you're traveling west, push yourself to stay up a bit later each night, and start eating meals a little later, too. If you're flying east, do the reverse. Do this gradually; you're not going to be able to stay up five hours later than you normally do the night you decide to try this experiment.
You might change your watch and other devices to the local time at your destination before you leave, but be careful about this: you don't want to miss your flight because you were confused about what time it was. It might be a better idea to just change everything as soon as you get to your destination.
Once you do arrive, try to get on your new schedule immediately. Stay up until it's time to go to bed, or try to fall asleep at bedtime in your new location. Eat meals on the correct schedule of the local time, and plan your activities accordingly.
Beat jet lag, and get the most out of your trip
Most people recover from jet lag within a couple days of reaching their destination, through traveling across many time zones can certainly necessitate more time to adjust. Not only can taking these steps help you feel better and more well rested, but they can also enable you to enjoy your trip. And that's the whole point of traveling—having a great time in a new locale!