It’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times. You arrive at a new destination far from your home, full of the promise of new discoveries. However, it’s also in a new time zone, many hours removed from your usual schedule. Even though you want to get out and explore, your body often has another idea: bed. However, when you’re ready to go to 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 attempting to get out in the sunlight when I land, I often find myself completely deflated and exhausted the first day or two of an overseas trip and ready for a nap (for the record, I’m strongly in the pro nap camp when traveling).
Which made me wonder: Why do our bodies get so topsy-turvy when we hop times zones?
“The reason people experience 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 at least two or more time zones, the circadian system is not able to adjust to the change, resulting in jet lag symptoms.”
These jet lag symptoms include disturbed sleep, reduced alertness and headache. “Air cabin pressure can also contribute to jet lag symptoms,” added Dr. Yu.
And, as we’ve also noted in the past, eastward travel is worse for jet lag than westward travel because more time is lost, she adds.
How one’s circadian rhythm resynchronizes depends on various factors – how many time zones traveled, the direction of travel, and the person’s ability to adjust.
Dr. Yu has a few suggestions for combating jet lag for frequent travelers:
- Pre-trip — Prep before you travel by staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol, getting better quality sleep ahead of the trip and slowly adopting the new schedule. This prepping is actually important in feeling fewer symptoms once in a new destination, explains Yu.
- On the plane — Stay hydrated and avoid stimulants such as alcohol, caffeine, and/or sugar. Sleep on the flight, especially if that aligns with the destination’s time. “If you need to be alert when you arrive at your destination, work with your doctor to advise on taking melatonin or Benadryl to assist in sleep during a long flight,” says Yu.
- At the destination — Natural light exposure is the best mechanism to influence the internal clock (circadian rhythm), so get plenty of light if possible. A walk outside helps, and stay on the destination schedule – which means no nap that first day, adds Dr. Yu.
TPG’s staff of world travelers also have plenty of experience dealing with time zone hopping, so we asked them for the tips and tricks they use when they travel to get over the jet lag hump.
TPG Staff’s Tips for Beating Jet Lag
Clint Henderson, managing editor — I always try to get on a newer plane. The 787 Dreamliners, for example, have better cabin humidity and are better pressurized, which cuts down on jet lag and is a more conducive cabin environment to achieve better sleep.
Alexis Bowen, Elsewhere (a Red Ventures company) founder — It’s no secret that you need to get on the time zone as soon as possible, and nailing that first day is key. My trick to avoid napping that first day and staying awake starts before I leave home. I hold off on caffeine for two days before I travel (no coffee, tea or soda) and save it for that 2 p.m. slump after arrival and post lunch that first day when I’m looking to crawl into bed.
Ben Smithson, senior writer, TPG UK — I always choose a daytime flight heading east to the U.K. from the U.S. instead of overnight. The very short nature of flights on this route means it’s unlikely you will land rested and refreshed from an overnight flight, even if you are flying the world’s best airline. I can’t recommend strongly enough the handful of daytime flights operating on this route. They are my tried and tested way to return to London feeling as fresh and healthy as possible.
Ryan Smith, credit cards writer — Force yourself to wake up early your first day in the new time zone and act like you’re on that new time as soon as possible. I change the time on my phone to the new time zone as soon as I board the plane and start acting like I’m on that time right away (so sleep or stay awake at the appropriate times, try to eat at the appropriate time, etc.).
Katie Genter, senior writer and global nomad — If you want to be on the time zone of your destination, use an app like Timeshifter. It can be a bit annoying, and some of the recommendations of when to sleep while in transit can be inconvenient — but it does work. I also recommend just forcing yourself to get on the time zone you want to be on as soon as you arrive. Maybe this means going for a walk to stay up and getting some fresh air. I also take melatonin to get my body to sleep on a strange schedule.
Related: 6 apps to help you beat jet lag
Kristy Tolley, editor — When I’m at my destination, I try to get outside as much as possible (or at least keep moving). I also don’t nap, 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 keep it up when I travel.
Christine Gallipeau, coordinating editor — No matter what time I get to a destination, I always make sure to stay awake until a normal hour for going to sleep. I’ve found that any time I’ve tried to nap, it totally messes me up for sleeping through the night the rest of the trip.
Gene Sloan, cruise team lead — I take half an Ambien to knock me out at the right bedtime for the first two to three nights after I arrive overseas. That resets everything. It’s doctor prescribed and works like a charm. (Note: Only take prescribed drugs if you’ve been given them by your doctor.)