What Should I Do About Jet Lag on My Christmas Trip?

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Written by Anne-Marie Hays | Last Updated December 30th, 2019
Anne-Marie Hays is a Content Management Intern with Best Company. She enjoys comedy, hates crowds, and loves that you are reading this bio.

man sits at airport waiting for flight

Man sitting at the airport, what should I do about jet lag on my holiday trip

Fortune has shined upon you. You get the great opportunity to visit your sister and her family for the holidays this year — in Merry Olde England: home of all the royal babies, Love Actually, and a favorite saying of muggles like me, "Happy Christmas, Harry!"

Thank the lord for the tech company that let your brother-in-law transfer there. But here's the catch: the last and only time you came for a visit to the countryside surrounding the River Cam, you were plagued with jet lag and felt like you missed out on so much fun while you were there, like wasting two whole days feeling groggy and sad while everything was shiny and happy around you. If you are only there for a week before you have to get back to work, jet lag can mess up 29 percent of your vaycay. 

This time you want to go in with a strategy. 

Your FOMO is being put to good use. 

From West Coast time to London time is only eight hours difference, but when you get to your final destination, it still feels weird inside. Our goals today: 

  1. Learn about jet lag and what causes it
  2. Understand common coping strategies and helpful products
  3. Find out what you should do once you reach your destination
  4. Read advice from frequent travelers

1. What is jet lag?

"If you’re taking a long trip that requires switching time zones, jet lag can often set in," explains Dr. Teofilo L. Lee-Chiong, MD, Chief Medical Liaison at Philips Sleep and Respiratory Care. "Jet lag results when we try to sleep off of the schedule of our body clock. Our bodies are used to sleeping at a certain biological time and then we transfer across time zones our bodies get confused." According to the Mayo Clinic, jet lag symptoms include: 

  • A general feeling of not being well
  • Daytime fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating or functioning at your usual level
  • Disturbed sleep — such as insomnia, early waking, or excessive sleepiness
  • Mood changes
  • Stomach problems

Mayo also states that these symptoms will occur within a day or two of travel, if you have traversed at least two time zones. Symptoms are worse when you are traveling east, as opposed to west. When traveling east, you are "losing" time and when traveling west, you are "gaining."

What is a circadian rhythm?

According to the National Sleep Foundation, "Your circadian rhythm is basically a 24-hour internal clock that is running in the background of your brain and cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals. It's also known as your sleep/wake cycle."

As with most of your body's other functions, it's not simple. “Hormone secretion, sleepiness, alertness, and hunger sensation, among other functions, depend on our internal clock,” explains Paulo M. Alves, MD, global medical director of aviation health for MedAire on The Healthy.

Most methods for combating jet lag either aim at influencing your sleep/wake cycle, the hormone that's in charge, or mitigate the things that are thrown off by your cycle. 

Sunlight and melatonin and sunlight and melatonin

Sunlight is important to regulating your circadian rhythm. The Mayo Clinic

"A key influence on your internal clock is sunlight. That's because light influences the regulation of melatonin, a hormone that helps synchronize cells throughout the body.

Certain cells in the tissue at the back of your eye (retina) transmit the light signals to an area of your brain called the hypothalamus.

At night, when the light signal is low, the hypothalamus tells the pineal gland, a small organ situated in the brain, to release melatonin. During daylight hours, the opposite occurs, and the pineal gland produces very little melatonin.

You may be able to ease your adjustment to your new time zone by exposing yourself to daylight in the new time zone so long as the timing of light is done properly." 

How long does it take to adjust?

"It usually takes about a day to recover for each time zone crossed," according to Mayo

Think about that. 

If you are traveling one time zone over, its an easy fix, but if you are traveling from Pacific Time to Greenwich Mean Time (in England), that is eight hours different. 

So, you would need eight full days for your body to naturally adjust. 

Here's the sad news: if you are traveling for just a week to visit family in England, there isn't enough time for you to just let your body re-synchronize. 

Dr. Alves suggests in The Healthy.com, “On a quick turnaround business trip, it is frequently better not to try to truly adjust to a new time zone, since a full adaption would be impossible from the physiological standpoint." For the most part, if you are on a short business trip less than a week, you can try to schedule meetings, etc, around your regular at-home schedule, and just sleep at the regular nighttime from your home time zone. 

What about a relatively short trip, where you want to be awake and present, having fun with the family, actually see your nieces and nephews open Christmas presents in the morning, participate in holiday activities, and go sight-seeing during the daylight hours? This is when we need to find some way to cope with the jet lag symptoms. It only makes sense. Alves says, “[I]f we want to maximize our stay on a touristic trip, it is better to try to adjust as quickly as possible, accomplished by exposing ourselves to sunlight and outdoor physical activity." 

Should you sleep on the plane?

Dr. M. Rizwan Sohail, of the Rochester, Minnesota Mayo Clinic shares this advice in a Mayo article

"Switch to your destination schedule as soon as you leave home. Set your clocks to that new time when you get on the plane, and use it to guide your activities. If it’s nighttime in your destination when you’re in flight, sleep on the plane. If it’s daytime where you’re headed, stay awake during the flight. Once you arrive, stick to the local schedule." 

Some people find it hard to sleep on a plane. If that sounds like you, try bringing a few extra things in your carry-on: 

  • Earplugs
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • A sleep mask 
  • A travel pillow, or the Flight Fillow, a product that helps turn a sweater or hoodie into a travel pillow. That way, you don't have to lug one around the airport. 

2. Common ways to fight jet lag

If you are able, slowly adjust your meal and sleep times the week before leaving. The UK's NHS suggests that, as much as your personal schedule allows, pre-trip, you can gradually adjust your schedule.

Stay hydrated

Dehydration can exacerbate the jet lag effect. It's not just that you are not drinking much during a flight, but airplane air is already dry. Typical commercial airlines can get down to less than 10 percent humidity, when we are more used to 40-50 percent. Staying hydrated can help you to fend off many of the effects of jet lag.  Drink lots of water. It's no fun to use restrooms on a plane, but this is a price you can pay to have an easier adjustment. 

This can be easier said than done for those that aren't easily seated on the aisle. While window seats are better for germs, a study found that 43 percent of people in window seats didn't get up, 62 percent in middle seats did, and 80 percent in aisle seats did. Even more damning, a recent survey found that more than half of respondents would rather go to the dentist rather than tell a fellow passenger, "Excuse me, I need to go to the bathroom."

What if that gatekeeper is sleeping? Results from a survey about in-flight etiquette found that 80 percent of people thought it was okay to wake up a neighbor when you have to pee, but four in ten people said that it was only okay to do that once per flight. So our anxieties about getting up to pee during a flight are completely justified. 

So, what should you do to make sure you are properly hydrated on your flight to old Blighty? 

  1. Stay away from diuretics, drinks involving caffeine or alcohol. They make you dehydrated
  2. Drink water. The Aerospace Medical Association recommends drinking 8 oz every hour you are in flight. 
  3. Be polite when you ask to get up and pee. You need to do it. Adult diapers are another option, but that brings in a different kind of anxiety about leaks and stinks. 

Be conscious of light

As we learned earlier, light and our exposure to it, have a big effect on the circadian rhythm and melatonin production in your pineal gland. For this reason, its no wonder that exposure to natural light can help. The NHS suggests going outside after you reach your destination, so the natural light can help your body's circadian rhythm to adjust. More specifically, The Mayo Clinic says that if you are traveling east, try to get exposure to bright sunlight in the morning to help adapt. Likewise, on the way back, if you are traveling west, get that bright light exposure in the evening. 

Sunlight is not the only type of light that we need to be aware of. Collette Stohler, creative director and author of Passport To Fitness explains, "Exposure to blue light can suppress melatonin for up to three hours. Limiting screen time before bed and utilizing blue light blocking sunglasses will help adjust to a new time zone." 

There are several types of light therapy glasses that you can look into. Here are a few examples: 

  • Re-Timer light therapy glasses have been university developed and tested to help people adjust their internal clock. You can even start wearing them a few days in advance of your departure to help your body adjust. You can even use Re-Timer's Jet Lag calculator to better understand how and when to wear them on your trip, based on your normal sleep/wake cycle, your home location, and destination. 
  • Ayo Light Therapy Glasses are another option. This product started on IndieGoGo and was a winner of the Air France/KLM Innovation Challenge. KLM even sells them on flights. These blue light therapy glasses can help your mind and body adjust up to three times faster. Travelers enter their flight itinerary on the AYO app and get instructions on when to wear them, and for how long. 

These are just two of the products available on the market. If you are interested, check out products from Propeaq, Luminette, and Pegasi

When it comes to blue light exposure, Dr. Craig Tanio, cofounder of Rezilir Health and chairman of Maryland Healthcare Commission shares this suggestion in Reader's Digest:

"Since the blue wavelength emitted from computer screens can trick our brains into thinking its daytime, download a program like F.lux to adjust the light from your computer to match the time zone of your destination." This can help you to adjust if you are using a computer on the plane or on the ground after arrival.

The jet lag diet

Trips to Discover suggests a jet lag diet, which starts the week before you leave and alternates between feasting and fasting days: 

  • Day 1: Breakfast high in protein and dinner high in carbs (eat these at your home schedule). Caffeine or alcohol only late in the afternoon.
  • Day 2: Fasting and only light meals like fruits, veggies, salads, and soups
  • Repeat for a week before you leave

Protein makes you awake in the morning. Carbs make you sleepy at night. All the while, you are supposed to be working to move meals closer by increments to your destination meal times. The day before you leave should be a fasting day. Departure day, eat breakfast high in protein at the destination breakfast time. You can read more about the jet lag diet at tripstodiscover.com.

The 16-hour fast

Jordan Bishop, founder of How I Travel, suggests fasting to help beat jet lag. "At its core," explains Bishop, "the 16-Hour Fast means that when you're flying overseas, you don't eat for a period of at least 16 hours, with your first meal always being breakfast in the timezone of your destination. It comes in response to modern research showing that rather than adjusting our internal clocks to circadian cycles (patterns of light and dark), we're much more closely attuned to eating cycles. In other words, when we eat, we're signaling to our body that we should be awake; when we don't, we're signaling that we should be asleep. So what's the best way to tell the body that now is the time to wake up? Don't eat for a long period (16+ hours) and then....eat!"

My Flight Pack

An interesting product specially made to help fight both jet lag and travel fatigue is called My Flight Pack. It was created by Hannah Grant, a chef working with Tour de France athletes and performance cooking and Dr. Stacy Sims Ph.D., a performance nutrition scientist who worked for Standford and USA Cycling. Their research went into jet lag's impact on athletes who have to travel long distances to compete. They saw how dehydration affects the body when flying and subsequently collaborated on a couple of books. 

My Flight Pack contains three packets meant to be mixed with water: Prep, Rest, and Wake. The package even includes a soft flask to use. You take them in a different order, based on whether you arrive at your destination at nighttime or daytime. 

Arriving in London (destination) at daytime: 

  1. Mix the PREP packet and drink it just before take-off, either at the airport or when you are already aboard. 
  2. After your first meal is served or you are ready to nap, take RELAX.
  3. When you land, drink the third WAKE packet.

Arriving in Lonon (destination) at nighttime: 

  1. PREP
  2. Wake (mid-flight of after you take a nap)
  3. REST (before bed at your destination)

Timeshifter App

"As a travel writer and TV Host, I travel approximately 75 percent of the time," explains Collette Stohler, creative director and author of Passport To Fitness. "Sleep is as important to wellness as a healthy meal or workout, but it's often something we neglect. If you're traveling to a new time zone, try using the Timeshifter App. This App will help by providing hour by hour recommendations to help ease you into your new time zone. These recommendations will include exposure to light, caffeine (or limiting caffeine), and melatonin." It was even tested by NASA. Check out Elaine Glusac's recent New York Times article where she used the app on a trip from Chicago to Singapore. 

3. When you get there

Get active

"As a frequent flyer/travel blogger/tour operator, my sleep hack is to not sleep when you land (unless you arrive late at night)," shares Laurel Robbins, Founder, Monkeys and Mountains Adventure Travel. "If you find it difficult to stay awake, I recommend doing 5–10 minutes of heart-pumping exercise. I frequently do HIIT workouts that I find on YouTube. Not only does it help you stay awake but it always helps beat jet lag. If later on you are really tired, take a 20-minute nap and then go for a walk, or do some gentle stretching. It makes a huge difference."

Stick to your bedtime beauty routine

"I always find it easier to sleep while traveling when I feel clean and refreshed, since that mimics how I go to sleep at home," shares Alison Mooradian, Director of Marketing, at Busy Beauty. Its always nice to be able to bring your favorite beauty products in a carryon for easy travel. "Busy Beauty's Lavender Body Wipes, Cucumber Mint Face Wipes, and Ginger Grapefruit Deodorant Wipes are individually wrapped, TSA approved, and really effective at making me feel clean and ready to go to sleep — no matter where I am!" says Mooradian.

Consider supplements for sleep and alertness: 

Melatonin supplements

"Another great way to beat jet lag" says Jordan Bishop, "is using melatonin. Five mg of melatonin is a natural, healthy way to encourage the body to slow down and sleep, and it can be a lifesaver on those international flights." 

Melatonin can even help once you get back home from London. Dr. Lee-Chiong explains, "For many, falling asleep is a problem, but for some jet lag manifests by waking in the night ready to start their day If you still end up with some symptoms of jet lag after traveling, consider taking a dose of melatonin. This will help your body jump start the natural production of this hormone, and your sleep and wake cycles will quickly shift back to normal." This natural supplement can be bought at most American stores and is even available specifically dosed for kids. Many swear by it. However, others warn against taking it. 

Melatonin supplements aren't a cure-all, and they aren't always the best option for everyone. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health describes side effects, risks, and drug interactions. When it comes to safety, this is what the NCCIH says:

"For melatonin supplements, particularly at doses higher than what the body normally produces, there’s not enough information yet about possible side effects to have a clear picture of overall safety. Short-term use of melatonin supplements appears to be safe for most people, but information on the long-term safety of supplementing with melatonin is lacking."

It's best to talk to your doctor before taking any supplements, even over-the-counter supplements like these.  

Over-the-counter options

If you get to London and you have trouble going to bed when your host does, the Mayo Clinic suggests that "over-the-counter sleep aids such as Tylenol PM or Advil PM may help. Taking a relatively low dose of melatonin (0.5 milligrams) — one of the strengths available over the counter — also has been shown to be effective. Prescription sleep medications (Ambien, Lunesta, others) can be helpful as well, but because they can lead to drowsiness the next day, these should be taken only as a last resort."

Jet lag recovery supplements

If you need help getting over your jet lag, GlowJetter Jet-lag recovery supplements could be a good option. These supplements are packed with potent ingredients like adaptogens, ancient herbal remedies, essential vitamins and minerals that support the body through the rigors of international travel. 

Airplane passengers

Frequent travelers and wellness experts share their hacks for fighting Jet Lag 

John Breese is the founder of Happysleepyhead, a resource that helps people improve their sleep quality by offering the latest sleep-related scientific data, as well as honest reviews of mattresses, pillows, and other bedding accessories. He regularly travels for both business and pleasure. 

"Plan beforehand. If you have four to six days before your trip, gradually shift the bedtime towards the time timezone you’re heading to. If you’re going west, go to sleep an hour or two later. Fo eastern countries, do the opposite. In this case, your body will adapt and prepare for the new time, thus reducing jet lag symptoms upon arrival.

Tie your activities to the local time. If you arrive in the morning or noon, don’t head straight to the hotel to catch some zzz’s. Instead, explore your neighborhood, try some local food, or start sightseeing. Thus, you can kill some time and load yourself with positive impressions, which may help you fall asleep more easily as the bedtime approaches.

Eat after arrival. If you arrive in the evening hours, having a light dinner may help you fall asleep. Food is one of the major regulators of our circadian clock, along with the sunlight. So, by reducing your food intake on board and giving yourself a good meal upon arrival, you can sync your inner clock with the new time zone. Be sure to choose melatonin-rich foods — such as dairy, almonds, bananas, or cherries — for more pronounced sleep-inducing effects."

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Robert S. Herbst is an attorney, wellness expert, and champion powerlifter. He is a motivational speaker, humanitarian, and he even supervised drug testing at the Rio Olympics

"As someone who travels internationally frequently, my best tip to fight jet lag is to sleep whenever you can, on the plane, in the cab, etc. It never hurts to be rested and most people are sleep deprived in the first place. 

Once you reach your destination, set your watch and go to sleep at the local bedtime. Also, stay hydrated and stay away from alcohol and caffeine on the flight. Also, do not take melatonin supplements as it just messes with your normal hormonal balances."

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Chef Tariq Nasir is an American-Palestinian food and travel blogger, living in Jordan. Nasir has traveled all over the world and aims to bring people together through food. He even hosts a Facebook group to discuss Middle Eastern recipes

"Interestingly, I have found that the more you travel the more your body learns to adapt to jet lag, but I do think that it all comes down to resting your body. 

A rested body can endure so much more than a body running on no sleep. 

My method of going a long way is to choose a flight that goes at night so that I can sleep on the plane. Even if this is intermittent sleep, some is better than none. I may take a nap the afternoon before I go. 

I try to adapt my time to where I am, so if it's night on the plane I try to sleep; if it's day, I will stay up but maybe take short naps. 

Upon reaching my destination I go by local time, and take out of my mind any thoughts about the time in my departure city. I sleep when I'm tired and what I mean by that is that if I'm tired during the day I will take a nap but for no more than 20 minutes at a time. 

Exposing your eyes to morning sunlight works to get my body acclimated so I try to take a walk or sit in a bright area. Exercise can help as well. If awake at night, I stay in bed with my eyes closed for as long as possible dozing in and out of sleep."

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Marjorie Nass is a lifestyle and wellness coach specializing in establishing daily rhythms, including good sleep. For nearly 20 years, she has helped thousands of students get better sleep, relieve pain, and feel more energized. She has reached the highest level of certification, E-RYT 500, from the Yoga Alliance and offers personalized wellness programs and international retreats.

"Start by defining the time difference and time zone to which you’ll be traveling. Several days before leaving, start going to sleep and waking up closer to that new time zone.

When you get on the plane switch the time zone to your new destination. Adjust your sleep and meal times accordingly. 

Hydrate with room temperature water, which is easier on the digestive system that cold or iced. Aim to drink 1/2 your body weight in ounces per day, plus an extra cups for every two hours of flying. Juice or coffee do not count towards this amount. Sip hot water every 10 minutes to hydrate more deeply. You may make extra trips to the bathroom, but that gives you the advantage of moving your body, helpful in managing jet lag.

When arriving at your destination, get outside into daylight as soon as possible, preferably for a walk. The light, even if it’s cloudy, will help reset your circadian rhythms and adjust to the new time. Avoid napping and try to stay awake until the evening of the new time zone."

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Roger Southam is an independent business consultant and performance coach, who travels regularly for business and speaking engagements. 

"I can find myself traveling between Europe, Asia, and the USA and needing to be fresh almost instantly. My secrets to avoiding jet lag in whatever direction you travel is to set your clocks and watches to whatever time zone you are traveling to, the moment you step on the plane, including laptops. If it is daytime stay awake and if it is night time doze (it is impossible to get sound sleep on the plane). As the flight progresses, doze if the feeling hits but generally try to stay awake during the daytime of where you are going. 

Avoid alcohol and drink plenty of water. I will consume as much as three liters while flying. 

Eat lightly and do not be tempted to snack or overeat while flying. 

When you land, adopt the time zone you have arrived at and stay up until normal bedtime and try to get your body into a normal routine straight away, treating the new time zone as the natural clock for your body.

If you suffer jet lag, don’t fight it just let your body tell you what it needs. As long as you are not eating a bowl of soup when sleep hits you can generally be fine. Certainly, take an easy day the day you land so your body can adjust and relax into the new zone."

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Taylor Strickland, is a Legacy 600 Lead Cabin Flight Attendant at Alerion Aviation, an aircraft-management and charter company, based in Long Beach, California. She has worked for both commercial and private aviation companies and has been a flight attendant for seven years. 

"I always try to start adjusting my body to whatever time zone I’ll be traveling to a couple of days before the trip. I don’t fully transition, because normally I still have things to do prior to leaving for a trip. The small adjustment does help though!

Being the only flight attendant on the aircraft, staying awake during the flight is important. Passengers can wake up during a flight and want something or, in the rare circumstances, there is an emergency, so it’s important to get proper rest prior to the flight to ensure you are awake and alert throughout the flight. Once I’ve reached my destination I may take a small hour or so nap, but then I find it best to immediately throw myself into that time zone.

The best way to handle jet lag, for me, is to prepare as much as you can. Get rest prior, and try to keep a healthy lifestyle before, after, and during. Travel is stressful on the body to begin with, and more stress is added when you start changing time zones. The components of a healthy lifestyle—a balanced diet, consistent exercise, and a strong immune system—will help you overcome jet lag."

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Phew, you're home. Now its time to fight the effects of family jet lag. . .

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