As much as you look forward to your trip to a distant (maybe exotic) destination, jet lag often makes your first days very difficult. If you can’t fall asleep at night or wake up at 4 am in the morning, this is not a sign of nervous bed escape, but the jet lag that upsets your inner clock. While this is easier to cope with on a two-week vacation trip, people who caught jet lag on short business trips have to get back on track faster.
Jet lag usually has physical causes but it is also often a matter of the mind. So do not go crazy, because there are some simple ways to reduce or even avoid jet lag.
What causes jet lag?
Traveling over multiple time zones is a problem for our inner clock. The usual rhythm of sleeping and waking up gets confused. Falling asleep and staying asleep, fatigue during the day and reduced efficiency are the results. This phenomenon is called “jet lag,” and it lasts about three days, but may take up to two weeks for some people. As a rule of thumb, to get used to new time zones, one day should be calculated per hour of time difference.
Jet lag only occurs during air travel, because the travel speed skips time zones. There is no jet lag on boat trips, even if you drive around the world because you adapt continuously to the local time. Also traveling north and south is not a problem, because time shifts only occur when traveling across the longitudes.
Human beings are creatures of habit, especially as far as the internal clock is concerned. The circadian rhythms, which include the sleep-wake rhythm, are set to a 24-hour window. Depending on the direction in which we move during a flight, the length of the day changes. We are able to endure about two hours of time difference without any restrictions, after which the first signs of jet lag become noticeable.
If we fly east, we usually have difficulties to fall asleep in the evening and to get up in the morning. When going westward, it is the opposite, and we struggle to stay awake in the evening and to wake up early in the morning. Generally, we can cope better by going to the west because it’s like we’re going through the night, which our inner clock tends to accept better.
What are the symptoms of jet lag?
Traveling through different time zones can completely disrupt our internal clock, leading to extreme sleepiness during the day, insomnia at night, poor concentration, confusion, hunger at inappropriate times or lack of appetite, and general malaise and irritability.
Logically, when you arrive at your destination after a time shift, you feel tired at awkward times because your body’s natural “biological clock” has not yet adjusted. Also, disturbed sleep often causes concentration and memory problems. What many do not expect is a sudden loss of appetite or indigestion. However, our feeling of hunger and the urine production follow our inner clock as well. If this rhythm does not fit in with local time, we are hungry at strange times and have to go to the bathroom more often at night.
12 ways to avoid jet lag
The symptoms of jet lag are uncomfortable and are especially crucial on short-term trips; they can even become decisive whether a business trip will be a success or not. That’s why a few tricks can help to reduce or even eliminate jet lag.
- Adjust your daily rhythm already before travel: If you can, you should change your regular sleep and eating rhythm a few days before departure. This will help you to adjust to the local time of your destination quickly. For eastbound flights, where you lose time, you can go to bed an hour earlier and wake up earlier. If you go west, you go to sleep later and stay longer.
- Choose night flights: If you’re traveling far and the trip takes several hours, choose a departure time that suits your sleep schedule. If you get on the plane in the evening, you have your dinner at the usual time; it’s a lot easier for you to sleep than on a day’s flight. Depending on the length of the flight and the number of time zones you fly over, you arrive in the morning which makes the transition as seamless as possible. However, if you’re not able to sleep on a plane and had jet lag problems before, you should make sure you book a flight that arrives at your destination in the afternoon. So you only have to stay awake for a few hours before you can fall into bed tired and get a good night’s sleep.
- Stay awake: If you arrive at your destination in the afternoon or evening, it is better to stay awake the entire flight. Use your brain by reading or listening to an ebook or music, but don’t watch movies. Another way is to maximize light exposure from the windows or overhead lamp. The goal is to make yourself feel as if you’re having a full day of activities rather than relaxing.
- Don’t sleep the night before departure: This might not work for everyone but I have tried it several times, and it helped me a lot. If you’re flying a very long haul flight, e.g., the USA to Singapore, do not sleep the night before you fly. Make yourself stay up till you get on the plane and then when you get on the plane let the lack of sleep let you sleep soundly. You will be so tired you will sleep most of the flight to catch up.
- Change clocks in the plane: It’s been a good idea to change the clock on the plane so you know what the right sleep pattern should be at the destination. You can do that a few days before the trip, some watches and any smartphone can permanently show you the time of another place.
- Drink a full glass of water every hour: Although a lot of water does not help with jet lag, it does support the body’s adaptation reactions. As far as alcohol is concerned, it has the opposite effect, so better avoid it! Drinking a lot of water also helps to prevent a sore throat or hoarseness caused by the dry air inside the airplane. The low humidity dries out mouth and throat which allows viruses and bacteria to adhere better to the mucous membranes. The result: you get sick faster which might prevent you not only from good sleep at your destination but ruin your entire trip!
- Eat against the jet lag: On long-haul flights, food is almost as important as entertainment – and that varies significantly from one airline to another. It is debatable whether certain food helps to minimize your jet lag but what you eat has definitely a significant impact on our biorhythm. If you have to stay awake longer to adjust to the time zone of your destination, protein-rich food (meat, fish, cheese) will help. Carbs like potatoes, pasta, and bread make us more tired. So if you are going to a time zone where you lose hours, eating carbohydrates can help to get tired and sleep on the plane, or to go to bed early at the destination. Also, eating a lot of fruits will help you stay hydrated and boost your immune system. But be prepared to bring your own fruits as fresh fruits are rarely available on the airline’s menu.
- Adjust to the time in the destination country: Even if it’s tough but once arrived stay awake through to the evening if possible, without sleeping. This is the best way to get in the rhythm. Jet lag is also a bit a matter of the head so do not always think about how early or late it is at your home. Adapt as much as possible to the local time of your destination and participate in social life.
- Get sunlight, fresh air and some exercises: If you arrive in the morning and need to stay awake in spite of your biorhythms, daylight and exercise help in addition to the right food. Stay in sunlight as much as possible before and after the flight and move around. Whether the sky is cloudy does not matter. Daylight inhibits the production of melatonin, which makes us tired. Monotonous, sedentary activities let you fall fast into a microsleep. If you arrive very tired at the destination and need to drive there, take a break in the fresh air.
- Adjust meal times to the destination: As soon as you are in the new time zone and have already changed your clock, you should try to get used to the new meal times. So if you feel hungry at an unusual time, eat only a small portion. Try to take larger portions only during the typical mealtimes of your destination country.
- Better postpone exhausting activities to the next few days: Once you have arrived at the destination, you might want to get started right away and experience as much as possible. However, if you stay for a few days, you should postpone strenuous activities for a day or two, since these only unnecessarily burden the already weakened body while traveling, thus possibly even prolonging the changeover. So, if possible, let’s take it easy!
- Schedule medication intake: This is a critical one in case you need to take a specific medication on a regular basis. Consult your doctor well before departure to adjust your intake to the current time zone and to avoid possible, unwanted symptoms. As for sleeping pills, I would advise against it because they promote sleep, but have no effect on the conversion of body function and thus have only a short-term positive effect.
How to prevent jet lag on business trips
On a longer vacation, you can get used to the time zone gradually after your arrival. However, when you are on a short business trip and have to go straight from the airport to the meeting, it is much more challenging. If your trip takes only a day or two, you should keep your own sleep routine as much as possible. On such short trips, switching to the other time is usually more difficult than sleeping a little less on that day. Otherwise, you have to change your sleep rhythm twice, now and after you return.
Try to arrange important meetings that fit your original rhythm. When it is 11 am local time and 5 pm back home, you should still be able to concentrate; anything later becomes critical.
However, if the trip takes longer, i.e., a week or more, it is worthwhile to adapt to the new time zone. This takes time so it can help to arrive already at the weekend. Jetlag significantly reduces performance and responsiveness, so take your time to get rid of it before you go to work. The rule of thumb is one day per time zone. If traveling 2 or more time zones, it is always good to arrive at least one day before to be able to adjust your mind and body to local time.