It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. You arrive in a new destination far from home, full of promises of new discoveries. However, it’s also in a new time zone, many hours removed from your regular schedule. Even if you want to get out and explore, your body often has another idea: the bed. However, when you’re ready for bed, boom, you’re wide awake.
Welcome to the world of jet lag.
No matter how well I think I’ve prepared for a long-haul flight by hydrating, trying to sleep in-flight, and trying to get out in the sun when I land, I often find myself completely deflated and exhausted on first day or two of an overseas trip and ready for a nap (FYI, I’m heavily in the pro camp of napping when I travel).
Which made me wonder: why does our body get so upset when we skip time zones?
“The reason people get jet lag is because of our internal clock or circadian rhythm,” says Dr. Jenny Yu of Healthline (a Red Ventures company). “When there is rapid travel across two or more time zones, the circadian system is not able to adapt to the change, resulting in jet lag symptoms.”
These jet lag symptoms include disturbed sleep, reduced alertness, and headaches. “Airline cabin pressure can also contribute to jet lag symptoms,” Dr Yu added.
And, as we’ve also noted in the past, eastbound travel is worse for jet lag than westbound travel because more time is wasted, she adds.
How the circadian rhythm resynchronizes depends on a variety of factors – the number of time zones traveled, the direction of travel, and the adaptability of the person.
Dr. Yu has some suggestions for combating jet lag for frequent fliers:
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- Pre trip — Prepare before traveling by staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol, getting better quality sleep before travel, and slowly easing into the new schedule. This preparation is actually important for experiencing fewer symptoms once in a new destination, says Yu.
- In the plane — Stay hydrated and avoid stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine and/or sugar. Sleep during the flight, especially if it coincides with the destination time. “If you need to be alert when you arrive at your destination, consult your doctor to advise you to take melatonin or Benadryl to help you sleep during a long flight,” says Yu.
- To destination — Exposure to natural light is the best mechanism for influencing the internal clock (circadian rhythm), so get plenty of light if possible. A walk outside helps and sticks to the destination schedule – which means no siesta on the first day, adds Dr Yu.
Related: My new strategy for maximizing sleep on transatlantic flights
TPG’s team of world travelers also have a lot of experience with time zone hopping, so we asked them what tips and tricks they use when traveling to overcome jet lag.
Tips from the TPG staff to overcome jet lag
Clint Henderson, editor — I always try to get on a newer plane. 787 Dreamliners, for example, have better cabin humidity and are better pressurized, which reduces jet lag and provides a more conducive cabin environment for better sleep.
Related: 6 unusual ways to try to treat jet lag
Alexis Bowen, Elsewhere (a Red Ventures company) Founder – It’s no secret that you need to get into the time zone as soon as possible, and nailing that first day is key. My tip for avoiding napping on the first day and staying awake starts before I leave home. I withhold caffeine for two days before traveling (no coffee, tea or soda) and save it for that 14 hour drop after arrival and after lunch on the first day I’m looking to go to bed.
Ben Smithson, Senior Writer, TPG UK — I always choose a daytime flight east to the UK from the US instead of an overnight flight. The very short nature of flights on this route means you’re unlikely to land rested and refreshed after an overnight flight, even if you’re flying with the best airline in the world. I cannot recommend highly enough the handful of daytime flights operating this route. They are my tried and true way of returning to London feeling as fresh and healthy as possible.
Related: The best flights to alleviate jet lag when traveling to or from New York
Ryan Smith, Credit Card Author — Force yourself to wake up early on the first day in the new time zone and act like you’re in the new time as soon as possible. I change my phone time to the new timezone as soon as I get on the plane and start acting like I’m at that time right away (so sleeping or staying awake at the appropriate times, trying to eat at appropriate time, etc.).
Katie Genter, Senior Writer and Global Nomad — If you want to be in your destination time zone, use an app like Timeshifter. It can be a bit boring, and some of the recommendations for when to sleep in transit can be inconvenient—but it works. I also recommend forcing yourself into the time zone you want to be in as soon as you arrive. Maybe it means going for a walk to stay awake and get some fresh air. I also take melatonin to put my body to sleep on a weird schedule.
Related: 6 Apps to Help You Beat Jet Lag
Kristy Tolley, Writer — When I’m at my destination, I try to get out as much as possible (or at least keep moving). I also don’t take naps, which I don’t normally do anyway. I stick to drinking coffee only in the morning. I already drink a lot of water, but I try to save it when I travel.
Christine Gallipeau, to coordinate editor — No matter what time I arrive at my destination, I always make sure to stay awake until a normal time to go to sleep. I found that every time I tried to take a nap, it totally bothered me to sleep through the night the rest of the trip.
Gene Sloan, cruise team leader — I take half an Ambien to knock me out at bedtime for the first two or three nights after arriving overseas. This resets everything. It’s doctor prescribed and works like a charm. (Note: only take prescribed medications if your doctor has prescribed them for you.)