I absolutely love travelling – but jet lag? Not so much. Actually, ‘jet lag’ is colloquial term used to describe a medical condition known as ‘desynchronosis’ which occurs when we cross time zones rapidly. It confuses our body clocks and along with the physical and emotional stress of the journey itself, it can make the first few days of a trip really stressful. But how to avoid jet lag? It’s easier than you might think.
Before the trip
Keep regular hours in the days before you leave
While some people advocate trying to go to bed earlier or later to mimic the time zone you are heading for, I have found this to be counter-productive. Instead, simply be sure to get enough sleep in the days before your journey so that you start your trip rested and refreshed.
Make healthy choices
Eat regularly and drink lots of water. You don’t have to avoid caffeine completely, but try not to have more than 3 or 4 caffeinated drinks each day.
On the plane
Adjust your watch to your arrival time zone as soon as you get on the plane.
This helps your mind to get used to the time change. It may seem odd, but it really does work.
Drink lots of water and eat regularly
Once you get on the plane, be sure to drink lots of water. The environment on a plane is seriously dehydrating and the best way to counteract this is to hydrate from the inside out. Eat small amounts of nutritious food regularly, whether you are hungry or not. I take a few small packages of nuts or crackers with me in case I get hungry at a time when food is not being served on the aircraft.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine
While one glass of wine or champagne won’t hurt, try not to drink too much alcohol in flight. It’s extremely dehydrating and makes sleeping properly virtually impossible. Avoid caffeine completely on the plane as there is absolutely no need to force yourself to stay awake. In fact, the best thing you can do is nap as much as possible.
Nap whenever you can. I know airlines provide lots of exciting films to watch and it’s easy to be distracted, but if you really want to avoid jet lag, this is crucial. Once the main meal has been served, try your best to get a bit of shut eye. Wear an eye mask and ear plugs if it helps.
Once you arrive at your destination
Stay awake until the next bedtime if you can
Start to work only within the time zone you are actually in. Avoid going to bed on arrival, unless it is a time of the evening when you would normally sleep. in other words, if you normally go to bed at 10pm in your time zone, try not to go to bed before 9 or 10 pm in the time zone you are in. If necessary, you can go to bed a couple hours earlier but try to push yourself to stay up as long as you can. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery if you are tired!
If you find yourself desperate for a nap and really cannot go on, set the alarm (or two alarms if necessary) and nap for no more than an hour or so. Get up when the alarm goes off, have a tea or coffee and try to carry on until your ‘normal’ bedtime in the local time zone, as I mentioned above. Avoid energy drinks. A little caffeine can be helpful but too much will just make your fatigue worse in the long term.
Don’t get frustrated if you can’t sleep when you ‘should’– even lying in bed can be restorative if you allow yourself to relax. And you never know, you might actually nod off! If you wake in the middle of the night try to stay in bed and rest unless it’s reasonably close to when you would normally get up.
Eat nutritious food regularly
Have something light to eat at the next mealtime in local time even if it means you have an extra meal that day. For example, when arriving in New York or San Francisco from London, the flight arrives mid to late afternoon. I’ve eaten breakfast at home, a main meal at ‘lunchtime’ on the plane and a light ‘tea’ with sandwiches and cakes just before we arrive. However I still eat supper at supper time local time.
Use caffeine carefully and creatively
Caffeine can help you adjust your circadian rhythm to the local time zone but too much will wreak havoc with your body clock. A cup of tea or coffee may help you stay awake until the next bedtime or wake you up if you’ve had to take a short nap. However be careful not to over-use caffeine as it will then make it difficult to sleep when you should.
Take a walk
Weather permitting, try to get outside, particularly if it’s sunny. The sun can really help convince your body it’s daytime even if your body thinks it’s not.
Keep your mind in the time zone you are in
Obviously if you need to call someone at home you need to be mindful of what time it is for them. However don’t constantly think about what time it is there. Saying things like, “It’s midnight at home now” is not a good idea. Your mind listens to what you say and subconsciously your body does too! If it’s 3pm local time, it’s 3pm local time. Your need to convince your body of that as quickly as possible.
How to avoid jet lag with kids (and this is harder!)
Travelling with children can be challenging at the best of times and if they won’t sleep, neither can you. In this case, avoiding jet lag can be tricky, but it’s still do-able. If all else fails and your little one’s body clock gets seriously confused, encourage them to rest. While adults can push themselves to wait to sleep until the next local bedtime, for kids this can be virtually impossible and frankly it’s not good for them.
Before you leave, talk to kids who are old enough to understand about how time zones work and how important it is to adjust to the local time as quickly as you can. Explain how important it is to rest on the plane – I always suggested to my son that he was going to miss out on the excitement of the destination if he was tired when we arrived. Kids hate missing out!
Encourage children to eat regularly – avoiding sugary treats – and drink healthy drinks, especially water. Avoid pop and anything that might contain caffeine.
Travel across time zones with children as early as you can and if possible, build up to longer time changes gradually. The more familiar children are with travelling, the easier it will be for you to keep them on schedule. Trust me, it’s worth it. A jet lagged toddler or teenager is never fun.
It’s definitely worth the effort to try to avoid jet lag. If you are on holiday you will begin to enjoy your break sooner and if you are travelling on business or for personal reasons it will help you to be more effective more quickly. I hope my tips will help you learn how to avoid jet lag – and that you will enjoy travelling all the more for it!
I’m a very frequent traveller – in addition to several short-haul flights of up to five hours, on average I make six long-haul flights each year. These are the tips my family, colleagues and I use to avoid jet lag. Not everything will work for everyone and you should always consult your doctor if you have any questions about the effects of travel on your body and/or any medications you might take. Never drive or operate heavy machinery if you feel ‘jet lagged’ and remember that fatigue always impairs judgement.