Strategies for Fighting Jet Lag

(c)Mark D. Kahler

Jet lag is one of those conditions that can extract value from your travel investment. If you’re not managing it properly, you can lose multiple days from your itinerary.

It is not possible to completely eliminate jet lag symptoms, especially on longer flights that cross five or more time zones. These symptoms include malaise, headache, drowsiness and perhaps bowel irregularity. To be sure, jet lag hits travelers in a variety of ways. None of those ways is welcomed.

Take a look at eight simple strategies for fighting jet lag.

Schedule Arrival as Closely to Local Bedtime as Possible

The longest air trip I’ve ever taken was a 14-hour flight from Detroit to Beijing. Daunting though it may sound, this schedule had one built-in advantage: the time of arrival.

We touched down in Beijing at about 9:30 p.m. local time. By the time we got to the hotel, it was probably 10:30. Exhausted and groggy from the long trip, we simply went to sleep. Millions of others were doing the same thing all across the city.

The next day, we woke at about 7 a.m. to bright sunshine. It wasn’t quite the same feeling as a typical wake-up at home, but I don’t remember jet lag posing any difficulty as we explored the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

If you can find a flight that arrives late in the destination day, you’ll be one step ahead.

Mentally Adjust to New Time Zone before Departure

In the days prior to departure, some budget travelers try to adjust their bedtimes gradually in the direction of destination time. It’s a great idea. Yet for many of us, it’s simply not practical.

But there’s one pre-flight adjustment anyone can make.

Whether crossing one time zone or 12, it’s good practice to reset your watch to destination time as the plane is leaving the gate.

Don’t do it on the way to the airport. Don’t make the switch after your arrival. Take advantage of a moment in time when your trip is just about to start, and make the mental adjustment.

Don’t let someone tell you it’s 3 a.m. back home as you’re within an hour of your destination. Show them your watch and say “as far as I’m concerned, this is the time.”

Use your new time reference to decide if you really need to eat that heavy meal the airline is serving at 4:20 a.m. destination time. What you really should be doing at that hour is sleeping.

Sleep on the Plane

This is the simplest of advice, and yet sleep is so elusive on an airplane. There are scores of noises and distractions. Even in business class or first class, it’s tough for many of us to put together several hours of quality REM sleep.

But even a few minutes of sleep can be helpful as you fight jet lag. It helps reset the body’s circadian rhythms — the quicker your reset, the fewer problems you’ll have with jet lag.

Some airlines will give you slippers and an eye mask, and some travelers find a way to pipe “white noise” into their ears with headphones to minimize outside distractions. Naturally, not all of these techniques work for every traveler.

Another approach is to ask the flight attendant not to disturb you for a period of time. That means no duty-free offers and no food or drink service. Of course, if you’re in the middle seat, you might be awakened by a passenger who needs to get by you to use the restroom. Sleep is best achieved in window seats if you can’t afford to upgrade to first class.

Remain Hydrated

The air is dry in a pressurized cabin that’s 38,000 ft. above sea level. When those conditions are maintained for five or more hours, it’s easy to become dehydrated.

Flight attendants are usually careful to offer water to their guests, and you should take advantage of these opportunities. Hydration is helpful as you fight jet lag symptoms.

Use Drugs and Supplements with Caution

Travelers sometimes fight jet lag with sedatives (to promote sleeping in the airplane seat), or dietary supplements.

The most common supplement for this purpose is melatonin, a hormone that occurs in nature and is used by some doctors to treat sleep disorders.

Travelers frequently disagree on how much melatonin to take before a flight, and some say it’s best avoided altogether.

There are also other packaged herbal supplements promoted for use against jet lag symptoms that can be ordered online or purchased in stores selling travel products. Some people have great success with these supplements. Personally, I have not found them all that helpful.

Another caveat: alcohol consumption can further disrupt natural sleep cycles. Avoid that glass of wine to “calm down” during the flight.

Whatever you decide, please consult your physician for advice before making any final decisions.

Stay Awake and Active on Day One

Do yourself a favor and wage the jet lag fight on day one.

If you arrive in the morning, it is best to stay awake all day and go to bed in the evening (at least 8-9 p.m.) local time. The best way to reset your body’s 24-hour clock is to stay in sunlight, walk, and experience the destination city.

This does not mean you have to run a 5K race shortly after arrival. Nothing strenuous is necessary. But taking a four-hour nap is likely to push the effects of jet lag into the next day, and cause you to wake up at times when the new schedule dictates sleep.

You might still feel a bit groggy or wake up at an odd hour on day two, but for many people these effects are greatly minimized if they’ve confronted jet lag head-on in day one.

Schedule Light Itineraries after Arrival

While it’s important to take naps very sparingly (if at all) during the first day, it’s equally advantageous to start slowly after crossing a number of time zones. This means saving the most anticipated moments of your trip for several days after arrival if at all possible.

Day one might be a good time to take a bus tour of the city. Make windshield observations of the places you’ll want to explore more closely when your senses are sharper. Try to avoid complicated purchases or money exchanges. Take it easy and relax — just don’t go to sleep until evening!