The holiday season is here and for many of us that also means holiday travel.
But while seeing your nearest and dearest can be awesome, the jet lag definitely isn't.
Thankfully there are several effective strategies to overcome jet lag and manage sleep while traveling -- even when crossing time zones.
What is Jet Lag?
Jet lag happens when your schedule and circadian rhythm (aka. your body clock) are out of sync.
Your circadian rhythm is programmed to send you wake signals and sleep signals at certain times of day. When all is working properly, you get those wake signals around your wake up time and those sleep signals around your bedtime. This is great... until you travel.
When you cross time zones, you're suddenly trying to sleep and be awake based on the time in your destination, but your circadian rhythm is still programmed to the time back home. That means you get those sleep and wake signals at all the wrong times, which makes it hard to sleep, hard to wake up, and can leave you exhausted and just generally feeling terrible.
BUT, over time, we do eventually adjust to jetlag because our circadian rhythm takes cues from:
- when we eat
- when we sleep
- when we’re active
- when we see light and dark
By using these same cues strategically you can minimize your jetlag symptoms or even avoid them altogether.
8 evidence-based tips to combat jet lag:
1. Adjust Your Schedule For The Time Zone Before You Travel
One of the best ways to combat jet lag is by gradually adjusting your sleep schedule for the time zone before you leave.
If you're traveling east, shift your bedtime and wake up time earlier and earlier leading up to your departure until you're synched up with your target wakeup time and bedtime in your destination.
If you're heading west, do the opposite -- gradually push bedtime and wakeup time later and later.
The closer you can get to your destination's time zone before you leave, the easier it will be for you to adjust once you arrive. You can even use a therapy light to help with this if needed, assuming your doctor says it's safe for you.
2. Partial Time Zone Adoption
There is no law that says because you sleep from 11pm to 8am at home, you need to do the same while traveling.
So to combat jetlag consider only partially adjusting to your new time zone, or not adjusting at all.
If you're traveling east, that might mean avoiding morning plans to sleep in later, eating your meals later and tapping your night owl friends for nighttime plans.
If you're traveling west, embrace being an early bird. Enjoy early morning activities, shift meals earlier, and have no shame in going to bed at the same time as your friend's toddler.
By staying closer to your home schedule, you not only reduce the need to shift your circadian rhythm while traveling, you also reduce the need to shift it back once you return home. So you reduce jet lag on the front and the back end.
3. Stay Hydrated
Dehydration can make jet lag symptoms worse, so hydration is a key part of jet lag prevention. Make sure to drink plenty of water before, during, and after your flight.
And I know this is a buzz kill, but if you're worried about sleep, avoid alcohol on the flight. It not only dehydrates you, it also disrupts your sleep patterns and wrecks your sleep quality.
4. Timed Light Exposure
Light (especially sunlight) is the most powerful tool to sync your circadian rhythm.
Humans are basically solar powered, we're programmed to be awake during the day and asleep at night, so light has a direct impact on things like our cortisol levels and melatonin levels.
The general rule of thumb here is pretty easy: expose yourself to bright light when you want to be awake and to darkness when you want to be asleep and in the 4-5 hours leading up to bedtime.
But this can get tricky if you're traveling east.
If you fly from New York to London, for example, and you land at 6am local time. That's morning in your destination, but far as your circadian rhythm is concerned it’s 1am ET -- still night time. Light at that time would shift your clock in the wrong direction, prolonging your jetlag.
So if traveling east, you'll want to avoid bright light until at least three hours before your natural wake time.
Continuing our New York to London example, if you normally wake up at 7am eastern time, that means you should throw on some sunglasses until it's at least 4am ET, 9am local time.
Partially shifting ahead of time also helps here, because if you've already shifted by three hours before the flight as explained in tip number 1, then you'll actually be fine to get sun at 6am local time when you land.
Traveling west is generally easier to adjust to and there's less chance of exposure to natural light at the wrong time. The main thing to look out for there is avoiding turning on any bright lights if you wake up too early in the morning.
And then try to get extra light in the evening to help shift your sleep window later. And just like at home, you can use a therapy light to help with this if needed, assuming your doctor says it's safe for you.
5. Physical Activity and Jet Lag
Physical activity can also help communicate to your brain that it's time to be awake and reduce symptoms of jet lag. Use the tips above on light timing as a guideline. Anytime you're meant to be exposed to bright light, you can add any kind of exercise to that to help strengthen those effects, even if it's just a short walk.
6. Melatonin Supplements for Jet Lag
Melatonin supplements are widely misunderstood and misused, but jet lag is one of the few scenarios where sleep experts actually endorse using them. That's because melatonin's main function is to tell the body it's nighttime. If you take it for traditional insomnia or some other sleep disorder, melatonin's not really addressing the issue. BUT when it comes to jet lag, the issue IS that your body doesn't know it's nighttime, so melatonin can really help.
That said you still want to ensure you have the timing and the dosage right or you can shift your clock in the wrong direction and end up feeling worse. So click here for our free Melatonin Guide, and as always check with your doctor first to ensure it's safe for you.
7. Fasting Strategy for Jet Lag
Fasting is a less studied tool to combat jet lag, but one that's believed to work the fastest.
The idea is that when we are hungry enough for long enough our circadian rhythm automatically adjusts to send us wake signals when food is available.
So the strategy involves fasting for twelve to sixteen hours, consuming only water during that time. Then you start eating again at breakfast time in your new time zone and, in theory at least, your circadian rhythm adjusts accordingly.
I have never tried it my self because, frankly, I really really hate being hungry. But I like giving you options, so you can choose the tools that suit you best.
Again, you'll want to check with your doctor to ensure this is safe for you before trying it.
8. Travel Sleep Aids
In addition to the practices above, having a few good sleep travel products along on your trip can also be a big help to getting the sleep you need while traveling.
As someone who has a hard time sleeping in new places, I've found a handful of products that have been complete game changers for both me and my kids. You can click here for
more info my favorite sleep travel products.
And note: none of these products are sponsored, I'm just sharing what's been useful to me in hopes it can help you too.
Finally, a bonus tip: Give yourself some grace! Everyone's body reacts differently to changes in time zones.
These tips should help you manage your jet lag but either way don't forget to cut yourself some slack if sleep doesn't go exactly as planned.
You've got this!