Jet lag is the worst. There's no doubt about it. And it's only natural to want to find a way to prevent it. Searching for jet lag cures online often means encountering expensive products and sketchy supplements. Luckily, there are ways to train your body out of the worst symptoms without spending any money at all.
When it comes to jet lag, it's important to concede that you will never make it go away entirely. "It’s not so much prevention as it is coping ... jet lag occurs when you cross multiple time zones," health and wellness coach Caleb Backe tells Bustle. "Your body is operating in a rhythm that’s in sync with the time zone you came from. Since it takes time to adapt your rhythm, you end up being awake when you should be asleep. Symptoms include insomnia, waking up early, excessive sleepiness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, mood changes and digestive issues." So while you can mitigate symptoms, your body is definitely going to react when you throw it out of sync.
According to the International Association For Medical Assistance To Travelers (IAMAT), "symptoms intensify the more time zones are crossed. They usually start after a two-hour time difference and persist for one week or more. Typically, it takes one day to recover from one time zone change." Jet lag is a natural reaction your body has to the gift of being able to travel the world, so forgive yourself if you're a little sleepier than usual. But if you don't want to fall asleep at dinner for three days in a row, there are a few ways to coach your body out of some of the worst symptoms.
Here are nine jet lag hacks that actually work, according to experts.
1. If It's A Short Trip, Keep Things The Same
While most of this advice is for long-distance and potentially long-term travel, it's important to note that the rules are different if you're doing a really quick trip. "In the most ideal situation, you adjust your daily rhythm as little as possible," Dr. Els van der Helm, sleep expert and founder of Shleep, tells Bustle. "When you are going on a short trip, try to stick to your normal rhythm. This may result in an odd sleeping and eating schedule when traveling, however you won’t have to adjust once you arrive and once you get back." So if it's a quick business trip, two days of weird sleeping if possible will hopefully help counteract any time that you'd otherwise be jet lagged back home.
2. For Longer Trips, Stay In The Right Time Zone
It sounds obvious, but it's crucial: follow the schedule of the time zone that you're in. "Try to maintain the sleep schedule of your destination. One tip—if traveling to Europe and arriving early in the morning, book an early tour and start your sightseeing," Dr. Tania Elliott, board-certified Allergist, Internist, and Chief Medical Officer at EHE tells Bustle. "If you let your sleepiness get the best if you, it can take days to recover and adjust to the new time zone. On the remaining days of the trip, short daytime naps may help decrease your daytime sleepiness without affecting night sleep." And, as much as you can, try not to think about what time it is back home. That won't do you any good.
3. Adjust Your Sleep Schedule In Advance
It may be tempting to stay out with friends the last few nights before your big trip, but it's probably better not to — especially if you're traveling east. "When going on a longer trip, it is important to start adjusting three days in advance," Dr. van der Helm says. "Go to bed one hour earlier or later every day (depending on whether you are traveling to the east or west)."
If you're struggling to go to bed earlier, luckily there are a bunch of hacks for that. Dr. Elliot has her own favorite trick, too. "Try banana tea," Dr. Elliot says. "Steep the banana, with the peel, in hot water for eight minutes. It is a great source of magnesium which relaxes your muscles and promotes sleep." Plus, it'll taste good. A little pre-travel self-care can't hurt.
4. Also Adjust Your Eating Schedule
Adjusting your schedule isn't all about sleep. You have to make sure you've got a good meal plan too (in case you start getting hungry for breakfast at 3 a.m. abroad). "When adjusting your sleeping rhythm as a preparation for your upcoming travels, also adjust your food intake schedule, this is an important ‘cue’ for your biological clock," Dr. van der Helm says.
Plus, if you're going abroad to somewhere where you'll have to adjust your diet, you can use these transitional days to eat some of your favorite foods before you go — albeit at a slightly different time than usual.
5. Consider Melatonin
Melatonin may conjure images of attempting to sleep after being wired on caffeine in college, but it's actually got the potential to be a major jet lag savior, too. "Research has shown that, when crossing timezones flying East (and needing to shift to an earlier time), taking half a milligram of melatonin five hours before your bedtime can reduce or even prevent jet lag from happening," says Dr. van der Helm. "You should ideally start three days before departure. This has been shown effective and safe in healthy adults."
Remember to be careful when taking over-the-counter supplements, though. IAMAT notes that melatonin use is unregulated in a lot of countries (including the United States) and that there are no current studies analyzing the long-term safety of melatonin, or it's safety during pregnancy. Plus, both doctors van der Helm and Elliot note that it's important to check with your doctor about how melatonin interacts with other meds.
But hey, if you're given the go-ahead, it might be a really great help.
6. Use The Flight To Your Advantage
As stressful as flying can be, using your flight as a jet lag buffer is entirely possible. You just have to plan ahead a little bit. "Try not to plan your flight as early in the morning as possible to make sure you don’t start off your holiday being sleep deprived," Dr. van der Helm says. "The jet lag might result in a lack of sleep, so starting off your holiday already being sleep deprived will only make things worse."
Once you're in flight, IAMAT suggests setting your watch to the time at your destination, wear an eye mask and use noise cancelling earplugs to mimic the time at your destination, and doing small exercises to keep your blood flowing (like ankle circles, knee lifts, neck rolls, and walking up and down the aisles). "Get plenty of sleep on the plane. Some people find this impossible, but if you can manage it you’ll be all the better off for it," Backe says. And there are tons of products available to make this part easier. Seriously, who wouldn't want to cozy up with a memory foam pillow and some lavender spray?
7. Stay Hydrated In-Flight
Drinking water is really important always. But it's particularly important when you're traveling. "Stay hydrated. I cannot stress this enough," Dr. Elliott says. "Bring at least 1 liter of water with you on the flight — and pick an aisle seat if you have a small bladder. Lack of hydration is one of the key reasons you get headaches and feel lack-luster and devoid of energy when you get off the plane. Avoid alcohol and caffeine which can disrupt sleep and dehydrate you further." If your water bottle runs out, don't be shy about asking the flight attendant for more.
Bonus points for drinking enough in flight? Needing to pee will help you get up, get your blood flowing, and prevent potentially harmful clots.
8. Take Cues From The Sun
Jet lag is happening because you're putting your body in a rhythm that doesn't feel natural to it. Since that's the major issue, you can turn to nature to try to correct things. The best way to do this is using sunlight to cue when your body should be awake or asleep in a new place. "Maximize your time in the light and dark at your new destination — this will give your brain the day and night queues it needs to realign your circadian rhythm." Dr. Elliot says.
First, try to schedule your travels so that you can sleep when you arrive. "Plan to land at night," Backe says. "The big trouble is that when you land your body reaches a state of confusion because the sun is out and it shouldn’t be. If your flight lands at 10 p.m., you should be sleeping and you won’t be as tired." Then — or if you can't fuss with your flight schedule — make sure you're really soaking up the sun the first few days in your new destination. "The sun is your friend," Backe says. "Getting plenty of sunlight will help signal to your body that it’s day time and you should be awake." Check out TripAdvisor or Atlas Obscura to find fun outdoor activities to do on your first few days.
9. And If You Can, Plan In A Few Buffer Days
Adjusting your schedule for maximum jet lag recovery may not work out if you have business, family, or financial constraints, but it's worth mentioning. "[If possible,] ensure that you arrive home a day or two before your work commitments begin," Lara Delafield, licensed wellness strategist for Giltedge Ocean Islands tells Bustle. "This time allows you to go shopping, reminisce about the trip and get things back in order — ensuring you won’t feel as depressed once you’re back at the office. Spend time outdoors: whether it’s near the ocean, in the garden or walking in a forest. It’s guaranteed to elevate and enhance your mood." Once work starts again, you'll be at your most awake and productive.
Whether it's for work or fun, consider yourself lucky to be traveling far enough that jet lag might be an issue. Trying these tactics should make things easier, but don't stress yourself out too much. Don't beat yourself up if you still feel tired, and by all means, nap if you need to.