Jet lag occurs when one’s internal biological clock doesn’t match the local clock. In other words, my body thinks it’s time to get up or have dinner or go to sleep for the night, and while I can feel that sensation, it’s another time of day locally, and I’m supposed to be doing something else. Of course, the airplane is the culprit because it picked me up in one time zone and dropped me in another, and my body didn’t have sufficient time to adjust.
Basically, beating jet lag comes down to establishing new sleeping and eating patterns. Yes, we can talk about biorhythms or other more technical medical considerations, but in the end, my body needs to adapt, and there are things I can do to help with that. Below are my approaches.
Be Well Rested Before Trip: Like pulling an all-nighter in college, if I start relaxed and well slept during the prior couple/several nights, or better yet, the prior week or two, then I’m likely to get through it more easily. Of course, being young would also help a lot, but even today, if I’ve had a smooth, restful period before I leave, the jet lag disappears much more quickly. So, without making a huge deal out of it, I try to think about and prepare for the upcoming trip early and not grind myself too much right before I leave (which usually means working to finish my packing and pre-trip “to do” list early and certainly means skipping any wild, night-before send-off parties).
Set Watch to Destination: As I board the plane, I set my watch and cell phone to the current time of my destination, and while flying, I try to eat and sleep as if I’ve already arrived on that time zone. This helps me to start changing my body clock, including re-setting my mind, which is the key to combating jet lag. Of course, depending on when the plane leaves and arrives, and the number of time zones I cross, this may not work perfectly, but being conscious of and starting the change sooner is almost certainly the right choice.
Drink Lots of Water and Avoid/Limit Stimulants: Most people know that the pressurized air inside an airplane’s cabin causes dehydration and that stimulants, such as alcohol, caffeine, nicotine, and even excess sugar, make dehydration worse. Similarly, many people know that stimulants cause a body to consume energy (which is why people can lose weight by smoking or taking caffeine diet pills). In the jet lag world, stated in a simple, non-medical way, dehydration and stimulants run the body down, prolong the time for the body clock to adjust, and thus aggravate the jet lag. If this explanation isn’t convincing by itself, then take it from someone with extensive personal experience – every time I’ve tried to ignore, dodge, or deny this reality, it’s always been to my detriment. So now, with my hard-earned wisdom, I might have a drink or two (at most), and I always ask the steward(ess) for a large bottle of water to keep by my seat and sip frequently (no matter what).
Stretch and Move Around in Flight: From time to time, I get up and walk around the plane or stretch myself out in the seat.
Get Sleep on Plane: If I’m changing more than two or three time zones, then I will need some rest, and that’s regardless of whether I’m going East or West. Why? Because in one direction my day will be longer, meaning I need to rest up for that extra few hours, and in the other direction, my day will be shorter, meaning tomorrow will come too quickly and I will have needed my beauty rest. All of this is not to mention the energy draining effect of being on an airplane for a prolonged period of time. So, in short, I always get some rest on the plane.
Use Arrivals Lounge: Many airlines now offer arrival lounges for first and business class passengers on international flights. If I’m so lucky, I use it. After a long trip, there’s nothing like a shower, change of clothes (or at least socks and underwear from my carry-on, see [insert cross-reference to bag; use same style as other places]), a hot cup of coffee (with a bunch more water on the side), and a light bite to eat. It’s a fast way to re-energize my jet lag fight.
Don’t Sleep on Arrival: Some people think an hour or two nap after arrival is helpful when dealing with jet lag (and I’ve even heard tell of four-hour recommendations). I am not of that school. Each time I’ve tried it, I’ve found it very difficult to get out of bed; when I’ve gotten up, I’ve felt groggy and lethargic as I slump around for the rest of the day; or I’ve slept through the day and woken up in the middle of the local night (meaning I’m still on my departure time zone, and I’ve accomplished nothing except to prolong the jet lag). Much better for me has been to avoid sleep on arrival no matter how tired I might be, dive into the day, and stay up as long as possible before calling it a night. Of course, I set my alarm for a normal local wake-up the next day, hoping either I’ve gone local already or expecting to repeat the entire process and succeed the second night (which is more likely). In any case, I resist giving in and force my body to transition to local time.
Get Sunlight and Oxygen: Apparently, our internal clocks are strongly influenced by light. This makes sense because I find going outdoors in the daylight for a little walk after arrival to be very helpful. I check out the town, walk around outside the office building before a business meeting, get the lay of the land around my hotel, or find a park to see what the locals are up to. Similarly, fresh air helps rejuvenate me if I’m tired, whether it’s outside during my walk or by taking a few deep breaths to get through a moment (usually preceded by some yawning, one of the body’s tricks to get a quick oxygen fix). Sunlight and oxygen are great remedies for jet lag.