I love to travel. I hate jet lag. To date, I’ve been to 37 states and five countries, and I’m just getting started. Jet lag absolutely kills me though, and oftentimes my trips are marred by brain fog and no energy. I knew that if I wanted to continue traveling, I had to find ways to beat jet lag so I could fully enjoy my adventures.
Before my next big vacation overseas, I did some research on things that could help reduce or eliminate jet lag. My list of tips and tricks was compiled from online articles, interviewing flight attendants and asking my friend Brad, who travels so much for work that we regularly play, “Where in the World is Brad.”
I thought it would be fun to test out jet lag tips and tricks while on my big vacation and report back to you what worked, what didn’t and what just wasn’t worth trying (for me anyway).
- Take melatonin the night before your trip.
- Don’t drink alcohol at the airport or on the plane.
- Drink a lot of water.
- Wear comfortable clothes on the plane. Bring a change of clothes with you if necessary.
- Resist the urge to nap on the plane. When you arrive, stay awake until your new time zone’s bedtime.
- On the other hand, do sleep on the plane if it’s nighttime at your destination, so you don’t end up being awake for more than 24 hours.
- Don’t skip meals, but don’t eat too heavy.
Flight Attendants’ Wisdom
The number one tip I got from flight attendants was to drink lots of water, the second was to avoid caffeine. Flight attendant, Robin, has 30+ years flying internationally recommends exercising as soon as you get home or to your hotel. She says the endorphin boost will give you energy and the sweat will help detoxify your body.
I completely forgot to buy melatonin for my trip. While I didn’t need it going to England, I could have used it on my return home. It took at least a week to recover from my trip east to west and even longer to get my sleep schedule back in sync.
Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone that begins to rise in your body when it’s dark outside. In basic terms, it tells your body that it’s nighttime and prepares your body to sleep. Travelling, crossing time zones, and perpetually dark airplane cabins can affect melatonin production. Taking melatonin before bedtime can help your body readjust its natural production and help you fall asleep.
Don’t Drink Alcohol
Having a drink in the airport lounge before my flight is how I traditionally relax from the stress and excitement of getting ready for a trip. It’s that time right before a flight where there is nothing left to do but relax and go with the flow.
Needless to say, I wasn’t looking forward to this tip, but it worked. I swapped my wine for some breathing techniques and a glass of water. My husband, Eddie, ignored this tip completely and enjoyed a beer while waiting for our flight. Maybe it was because he only had one, but it didn’t seem to be a problem for him.
Drink a Lot of Water / Avoid Caffeine
Cabin pressure and low humidity are the bane of my flying existence. I don’t know what it is, but my feet and hands swell like balloons when I fly, so drinking lots of water and avoiding soda is my number one priority when flying. I practically forced Eddie to drink a lot of water on the flight and in hindsight, he said it made him feel much better than he normally does during and after a flight.
Pro Tip: Bring a few bottles of water on board the flight. This way, you can drink as much as you want without having to bother the flight attendants every hour.
Wear comfortable clothes on the plane. Bring a change of clothes with you if necessary.
If you are traveling for business or just don’t like walking around airports in sweatpants, I highly recommend bringing comfortable clothes with you. You can either change in the airport bathroom or once you’re in the air. While I’m not sure how this helps with jet lag, it will help you relax and sleep if you’re on a red eye.
I recommend dressing in layers and bringing socks to keep your feet warm. Eddie and I both wore our Ejis dress socks on the plane. They kept our feet warm, and since they pull up almost to my knees, they simulated compression socks, even though they aren’t as tight. This might sound like a shameless plug, but they really are the most comfortable socks I’ve ever worn.
Pro Tip: Find the bathroom with a changing table for babies. Almost all airplanes built for long haul flights have one, and they are at least double the size of a normal airplane bathroom. You’ll think you’re in first class when you have enough room to change your clothes without touching the toilet or bumping into the walls.
To Sleep or Not to Sleep
I think sleeping or not sleeping on a flight is the key to reducing jet lag.
Brad says to resist the urge to nap on the plane. I agree unless it’s nighttime at your destination. On our trip west to east, we left at 6 p.m. and arrived in England at 11 a.m. It goes without saying that I absolutely had to sleep on the plane. I didn’t sleep for long, but I managed a couple of hours. Eddie says he didn’t sleep, but the sounds of snoring coming from his seat say otherwise. We exited the plane rested enough to stay awake until our new bedtime.
Our trip east to west was a different story. Our flight departed at 2 p.m. in England and arrived on the West Coast at 8 p.m. Since we flew into the sun, we kept the window shade open to allow the sunlight to keep our circadian rhythm in time. This technique did not endear us to our fellow passengers, though, as they all acted like vampires who were afraid of the sun.
Sleeping pills are a big no-no. Sleeping pills should be taken when you have at least 7 hours to sleep and can often leave you feeling groggy and in a fugue state upon waking. That’s not something you want to risk doing while traveling.
When you arrive, stay awake until your new time zone’s bedtime. This is the most important advice I can offer on avoiding jet lag. Your body only needs so much sleep. If you sleep before bedtime at your destination, it will be that much harder to adjust to the new time zone. Taking melatonin before going to bed can help you fall asleep and reset your circadian rhythm as well.
Pro Tip: Set your alarm to wake you in 8 hours (or whatever amount of sleep is normal for you). You’ll never get your body adjusted to the new time zone if you oversleep. This can lead to a foggy brain and a fugue state just as thoroughly as jet lag.
Don’t skip meals, but don’t eat too heavy.
If you only eat when you’re hungry, this can be a difficult trick to follow, but it really does work. Eating at the mealtime of your destination country will help your body adjust to the time zone. If you aren’t hungry, force yourself to have a small snack. The healthier the snack, the better you will feel. I love to eat, so this tip was a delight for me. Eddie will not eat if he isn’t hungry, and we could tell the difference in energy levels between us when he didn’t eat when I did.
What I Didn't Try
Anti-Jet Lag Diet
Probably the most reliable, well-tested method for avoiding jet lag is the Argonne anti-jet lag diet, which is reportedly used by the CIA, politicians, celebrities and well-seasoned business travelers.
The premise of this diet is to acclimate to the new time zone a few days before your trip by adjusting your eating schedule, fasting while traveling, drinking lots of water, and eating a high protein meal at breakfast time of your destination. Breaking the fast will ruin the entire endeavor. The amount of math needed to figure out the exact times I needed to fast and eat, coupled with the idea of traveling hangry, was enough to put me off this diet completely.
My flight schedule didn’t allow for time to exercise, but I walked around the airport a lot during my layovers, and it’s a 30-minute walk from the plane to customs at Heathrow airport, so I wasn’t exactly sedentary either.
On my flight west to east, these tips and tricks worked fabulously. I followed them to the letter and was amazed at how much energy I had while on vacation. I didn’t have foggy brain or feel like a zombie; my energy levels were great, and I didn’t experience a crash as I have on previous trips.
I was much more lax about these recommendations on my flight home (east to west), and while I don’t know if it was the wine, large meal or caffeine that threw of my internal clock, I can say that it took me a week to get my energy back and at least two weeks to get my sleeping back on schedule.
For a deeper dive into jet lag and its effects on your body, check out the article Why We Get Jet Lag…and 5 Tips for Making It Less Painful.