For the past couple of years, travel to far-away places has been pretty tough to manage. Between COVID-19 concerns and border closings, staying close to home was our pandemic norm. This summer, however, it’s quite a different ballgame. Anyone who can go is going somewhere, and millions are heading overseas. 

For some, it’s about being able to hug their far-flung loved ones again while, for others, it’s a simply to enjoy a much-needed change of scenery. Whatever the reason, travel beyond our borders often brings with it a few headaches, and one of the biggies is jet lag. It can make a hash of your first few days away from home and knock you down for a bunch more after your return. 

So how to cut jet lag down to size? Here are few things you need to know about jumping time zones, plus a few tips to help soften the jet-lag blow as you step back into the big, wide world: 

Time travel is relatively new to our bodies. 

Perhaps the first question is, why, despite all our scientific advances, does jet lag still have such power over us? Why can’t we just fly to wherever, touch down feeling perky and alert, and go on our merry way? Well, part of the problem is time. As a species, we’ve only been (intentionally) hurtling through the air for a matter of decades, a mere millisecond blip on the human evolutionary timeline. We haven’t evolved (yet) to instantly adjust to swift time-zone jumps, so, when you cross a bunch of time zones and/or datelines in just a few hours (gaining and losing time along the way) your body’s natural circadian rhythm gets knocked off its schedule and you wind up sleeping when you should be awake and vice versa. In other words, your body clock thinks it’s in Peoria, though even though your body’s in Paris.

Crossing time zones disrupts your body clock.

The trouble lies in the disconnect between actual local time and your body clock’s. Our body clocks, or more formally, our ‘circadian rhythms’ – the physical, mental and behavioral changes in our bodies that follow a regular and predictable 24-hour cycle day in and day out – are heavily influenced by the natural rhythms of daylight and darkness. Those rhythms influence a myriad of essential bodily functions, such as our sleep/wake cycle and the timing of our sleep/wake hormones; the ebb and flow of blood pressure; body temperature; hunger and satiety; digestion and elimination, just to name a few. When these essential, predicable rhythms are disrupted, by jumping a lot of time zones in very little time, a lot of other day-to-day bodily functions get knocked off-kilter too, leaving you feeling out-of-sorts (not to mention tired) wherever you ultimately land. 

The jet lag struggle is real.

When hopping across time zones, your internal clock needs time to synchronize with the new location. And, no matter how badly we may want to override our clocks, that reset doesn’t happen overnight – to fully adjust, it usually about takes a day for each time zone crossed. Among a few of the other factors that will also impact how well (or poorly) your clock adapts:

  • Fitness: Jet lag seems to have less impact on regular exercisers, so if you’re not in decent physical shape, be prepared to have a tougher time of it.
  • Age: Unfair as it seems, younger people adjust more quickly, whereas the over-40 crowd tends to get hit harder due to age-related dips in melatonin levels. 
  • Time zones crossed: The more of them you cross, the more disrupted your rhythms will be. Fly through three time zones or more and jet-lag hits harder with each additional zone.
  • Landing time: Overnight flights make for less-than-optimal sleeping conditions, with lost sleep making recovery and resetting slower.
  • Direction: In general, westbound travelers tend to adjust more quickly than eastbound.
  • Pre-departure stress: Elevated levels of stress, anxiety and sleep deprivation prior to departure tends to make jet lag (and life in general) harder to handle.

Play with light.

While there are way too many ways to make jet lag worse, the good news is you can minimize its impact with light. To nudge the adjustment process along, try using a strategic approach to light exposure, controlling your daylight dose before, during and after you fly. Doing so will make synchronizing your circadian rhythm a lot easier on both ends of your trip.  

In the weeks prior to departure, start adjusting your bedtime and rising times to begin preparing your body for the new time-zone. For example, if you’re headed from the East Coast to Western Europe, adjust your bedtime and wake up times by an hour or two (or more!) over the course of several days before you leave. If you’re going to Asia from the West Coast, try delaying your bedtime and rising times by a few hours (an easy adjustment for night owls, but challenging for larks!). After a few days you’ll have laid the groundwork for an easier time of it when you get to your destination. 

Get a custom-made roadmap.

Though ‘normal’ bedtimes and rising times differ from person to person, to really cut jet lag down to size, be you a lark or a night owl, check out the ‘Jet Lag Rooster.’ It’s a free online calculator that generates a custom jet-lag fighting plan based on the number of days before you leave, your normal bed time, flight length, length of daylight where you’re going, number of time zones crossed, etc. In seconds, you receive step-by-step plan featuring specific recommendations on the ideal times for sleep, daylight exposure and optimal times to take a melatonin supplement before, during and after your trip – all to help you adjust as quickly as possible. 

Consider the fasting and feasting approach.

Don’t have the prep time to work on adjusting your circadian rhythm in the days or weeks before wheels up? Then is another method, one that requires a bit less lead time, known as the Argonne Anti-Jet Lag diet. Created by Charles Ehret, a scientist whose pioneering research at Argonne National Laboratory led to its development, it’s a relatively simple, if restrictive, diet which is (according to legend), said to be a go-to for the military, the CIA and others who need to synchronize their circadian rhythm in a jiffy. 

Just say no to sleeping pills. 

Popping a sleeping pill to in hopes of fending off jet lag the moment you buckle in is never a good idea. In fact, for some people, it could be lethal. Trouble is, prescription sleeping meds have little impact on jet-lag and tend to put most people in a groggy state somewhat akin to a blackout, leaving them barely able to function or move during the flight. What’s more, being all but immobilized at 39,000 feet encourages blood to pool in the legs and feet, increasing the likelihood of painful swelling, and increase risk of the far more serious Deep Vein Thrombosis (DVT). If those are the options, jet-lag is infinitely preferable.

Enjoy the ride – and the journey.

Whether you’ll soon be spending 8-hours cramped in coach or stretched out in a first class ‘lie-flat’ seat, you can also take a few more steps to help beat some of jet-lag’s effects:

  • Fly by day. Daytime flights that land in the afternoon or evening seem to create less jet-lag, whereas overnight and red-eye flights seem to make matters worse.
  • Reset your actual clock. As in, get on the plane, take a seat and set your watch to the time at your destination to mentally start easing yourself into the new time zone.
  • Alternate naps with strolls. If you’re going to doze during the flight, in between cat naps, stroll up and down the aisle a few times to encourage circulation. Set a timer on your watch to remind yourself to go for a stroll every hour. 
  • Slip into compression socks. Swollen legs can take a while to subside, and interfere with sleep when you arrive. Save yourself the trouble. Compression socks help.
  • Create an electronic sundown in the sky. Like you would on the ground, create an electronic sundown by setting a time during the flight when you shut down blue-light emitting/ backlit electronics like your laptop, tablet or in-flight movie screen whose brightness trick your brain into releasing wakefulness hormones and making it tougher to sleep. Instead, read actual paper books and magazines while in transit.
  • Have some melatonin at the ready. Melatonin is the hormone that controls your sleep and wake cycle. It’s released at night, when it’s dark, inducing sleep. In supplement form, you can use it to help you body clock a bit more quickly. Usually a 1 – 3 mg dose on the flight and for a day or two after you land will do the trick. But do check with your doctor first as melatonin can interact with blood-thinners and anti-seizure meds. 
  • Hit the table or the pool. As soon as you arrive at the hotel, revitalize your body with a massage or a dip in the pool as new research shows that exercise can alter circadian rhythms and help treat jet lag.

On either side of your trip, remember to be patient with jet lag, and that with each day, you’ll adjust a bit more. Don’t try to fight it, just go with the flow, and combat post-travel sluggishness with bright morning light, exercise and healthy foods to help you get you over the jet-lag hump.

Happy travels!

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