How to Overcome Jet Lag: Tips for Travelers

We all want to make the most of our precious vacation time, but the sleep-disrupting impact of traveling different time zones can cut into that. Fortunately, there are ways to help yourself get over jet lag. Sarah Thomas shares her tips.


A woman sits in her hotel room in the middle of the night, looking out at the city. Photo © Getty Images / recep-bg

Having ping-ponged between my UK homeland and adopted nation of Australia more times than I can recall, plus multiple big-distance trips to the US and elsewhere, I’m well-versed in what a painful drain jet lag can be.

For me, jet lag means I’m waking up bright as a button at 5am and then snoozing on the couch by 4pm, as well as experiencing brain fuzziness and a grumpy, irritable stomach. My worst jet-lag experience was when I once flew from Sydney to New York – one of the largest time-zone jumps at between 14-16 hours, plus an easterly direction which is the least desirable (to be explained later). I was totally wrecked for the first week of that four-week East Coast trip. My immune system was ruined and I was sick with a bad cold, my sleep was all over the place, I had no energy and, quite frankly, didn’t know what planet I was on.

So, the last thing you want is jet lag cutting into a trip, whether it’s work or pleasure. There are a few steps you can take to minimize the impact, and it helps to understand what causes jet lag in the first place.

What is jet lag?

Put simply, it’s the impact of disrupting your body clock. Although the name suggests it might be fatigue or dehydration from the flight, it’s all down to the way different time zones play havoc with your regular routine.

There are lots of tricks that can help to ease the impact of a flight, such as avoiding alcohol and caffeine, drinking plenty of water, using a sleep mask and earplugs, and making sure you get up and stretch and move around regularly. But the main cause of jet lag is our own natural or circadian rhythms. Our body operates on a 24-hour cycle. This includes responses to daylight and darkness, when we eat, and so on – like a series of collective cogs all in sync with each other.

“Everything in your body is timed,” says sleep and body clock expert Dr. Katharina Lederle. “There is a master clock in the brain and lots of peripheral clocks, such as organs, all over the body. Every clock is responsible for the proper timing of a process in your body, and all these processes are nicely timed with each other.

“When you travel across time zones, your body can’t change its inner time so fast, so there is a mismatch or a desynchronization which results in different temporary physical and mental symptoms.”

That discomfort includes difficulty sleeping, irritability, gastrointestinal problems and lack of appetite, reduced alertness and mood swings – absolutely not a great holiday vibe.

How long does it take to get over jet lag?

Another sleep expert, Professor Leon Lack from the Adelaide Institute for Sleep Health in Australia says re-adjustment is influenced by a number of factors, but as a general rule it’s about a day for every time zone traveled. So, for example, with a Los Angeles to London flight, a current time difference of eight hours, it’ll take eight days to get over jet lag and back to where you’re feeling good during the day and sleeping well at night.

Re-adjustment is also impacted by seasons: for example, during winter there’s less outdoor light and more time spent indoors, so recovery time will be longer than summer.

Why light is the best way to beat jet lag

“Exposure to light at the appropriate time is the strongest re-timer of our body clock,” says Professor Lack. “This can help overcome jet lag more quickly.”

So, with a trip where you are traveling to a destination behind your home time zone, for example, it would be ideal to get light exposure in the afternoon and evenings, which has the effect of delaying our home body clock which would ordinarily be in darkness. Professor Lack suggests you could also train yourself in advance, by having light exposure two hours before bedtime for two or three days before travel and delaying bedtime and wake-up times where possible to gradually shift your rhythm.

Re-adjustment is also impacted by seasons: for example, during winter there’s less outdoor light and more time spent indoors, so recovery time will be longer than summer.

Artificial light can help to reset circadian rhythms, with portable devices like the Re-timer headset which emits blue-green light and is worn at certain times of the day as an extra tool to help you sync.

A male traveler gazes at the river in Bangkok at sunset.
Seek out late-afternoon sun if traveling to a destination behind your home time zone. Image credit: Getty Images / rudi_suardi

The sleep hormone melatonin can help

Professor Lack says research has also shown that a low dose of melatonin, about 1mg, can help to re-time the body clock and produce mild sleepiness when trying to sleep at a non-circadian time. Melatonin is a hormone that the body produces two or three hours before bedtime and is our biochemical sign of darkness and sleep. It can be bought as a dietary supplement in the US, but in many other countries, such as the UK and Australia, it is a prescription medication. In any case, you should check with your doctor before using it, and it’s best to try it before you fly in case of any side effects.

Traveling west is best

Traveling east makes us lose time, whereas we gain it going westwards. Flying eastwards requires us to shift the timing of our body clock earlier to match the destination, which our body finds harder to deal with than shifting to later wake-up and bed times, which is what happens when traveling west.

In the days before you fly, if you are heading east, give yourself a kick-start to advance your clock by going to bed earlier and getting up earlier.

Other ways to avoid jet lag

Dr. Lederle says you should also be mindful of caffeine and alcohol which can further impact patterns. “When you arrive in your new place, in their morning when someone offers you a coffee, consider what time it is at home and whether you’d drink one there now. Equally, if it is evening in the new place but morning back at home, I’d resist the urge to drink coffee because it will make it harder for your body to adapt to the new time.”

And she adds some final advice for getting over jet lag – try to go with the flow: “While your body clock is adjusting to the new time zone, don’t put pressure on yourself to sleep – the clock takes time to shift.”

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