How to beat jet lag

Are your overseas adventures being hindered by insomnia, upset stomachs or daytime fatigue? There isn’t one way to beat jet lag, but there are plenty of steps you can take to lessen its impact – and focus on making the most of your trip.

What exactly is jet lag?

Jet lag is confusion between the local time and your internal body clock, and it occurs when you travel quickly across more than two time zones.

Flying from west to east creates worse jet lag than going east to west. "West is best, while east is a beast" is a common old adage for weary flyers. Why is it hard to beat jet lag when going east? Because our circadian rhythms (our biological clock which tells us when to go to sleep and when to wake up) tend to extend a little longer than 24 hours. This means that if you fly west and land somewhere like London then you may have to extend how long you are awake to wait for 9pm to roll on in. When you head back east, however, you may have to go to bed early, and your inner body clock struggles with this shift. This is why it can seem so much harder to beat jet lag after a holiday if that holiday was heading to Europe from Australia or New Zealand. 

Want to know how long it could take you to get over your jet lag? It generally takes a day for your body clock to adjust to each hour of a new time zone, so just do the maths and buckle in. 

Woman packing her bag pre-flight
Being well rested before your flight will go a long way to beating jet lag

Before your flight

One of the best ways to beat jet lag is to stop it from ever happening.  Try to synchronise your body clock to your intended destination as close to your flight as possible. 

Learn to ‘hack’ your sleep cycle

If you often travel across time zones, you can move your body clock closer to where it should be at your destination.

In the week before you fly, schedule the timing of:

  • Sleep and light – alter your sleeping times as the week progresses to be nearer to your expected sleep times at your destination
  • Food – slowly transition your eating times to be closer to those at your end point.

You’re aiming to reduce the time difference between your current time zone and the one you’re arriving in. If you’re flying east, go to bed slightly earlier each night. If you’re going west, begin waking and going to bed later.

Choose smart flight times

Depending on your circumstances, choose flight times that work best for you.

If you’re on business travel, fly by day and sleep on arrival. If you have very young kids, fly overnight and let them sleep. If you have older kids that can enjoy the entertainment on the plane, perhaps fly by day and they’ll be exhausted when you arrive after dark.

If you’re a solo traveller, consider booking a flight that lands in the daytime as getting out into sunlight helps to reset your body clock.

Think about a stopover if you’re in for two long haul flights. Spend one or two nights in a stopover destination and you will stop jet lag from being so inhibiting later on.  Shorter stopovers can give you time to adjust to the new time zone. For stopovers with hours spent in transit, see if you can:

  • Take a shower and refresh
  • Wander around the airport to stretch your legs

Stay healthy to beat jet lag's worst effects

Healthy bodies cope better with the stress of jet lag than those in poor health, so try to eat well, sleep and exercise before your trip.

A couple walking through airport security
Transiting is a great opportunity to stretch your legs and lessen the effects of jet lag

During your flight

If you associate flying with a free feed, movie madness and drinks on tap, it might be time for a rethink.

Switch to your destination’s time

As soon as you step on the plane, set your watch or phone to the local time at your destination. You can then begin to sync sleeping and eating patterns with the time at your journey’s end.

Eat and drink like your body is a temple

There are certain foods that are well known to help you sleep better – such as kiwis and bananas. Besides adding a few of those to your flight diet, try to:

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. They can disrupt your sleep
  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration will worsen the effects of jet lag so drinking lots of water before, during and after your flight is a smart move.

Get some quality sleep

Top up your sleep on the plane, even if it’s only a few hours here and there. It’ll make a difference when you arrive by helping you stay awake until evening.

Maximise your inflight comfort and sleep easier with a travel neck pillow, ear plugs and an eye mask. Also wear comfy, loose-fitting clothing to help you relax and drift off.

Avoid taking sleeping pills as these won’t help you adjust to new time zones and may wipe you out for hours – inhibiting your ability to get up and move around, which combats deep-vein thrombosis (DVT).

When all's said and done, if your flight arrives in the early hours of the morning, you’ll want to have slept. For instance, if you wake up on arrival at 7am, you’re telling your body what time zone you’re now in.

Block out light and noise

Packing a sleeping mask and ear plugs are essential for helping you to tune out the cabin atmosphere. When your brain senses darkness, it begins to produce melatonin which is the chemical that initiates sleep.

Harness whatever tools you have to make your flight comfortable and silent. Dark sunglasses and noise-cancelling headphones can also help set the stage for a siesta.

Frequently walk around the cabin

On long distance flights particularly, try to get up and around the cabin as regularly as you can. Keeping your blood circulation flowing during the flight will reduce the risk of headaches, especially those brought on by dehydration, which can make it that much harder to beat jet lag in those initial hours of landing. 

Stretching is also an important activity on flights to help reduce idleness and the risk of developing DVT.

A couple at their destination, walking around a city street
Walking around in the sunlight at your destination is a winning formula

After your flight

Your arrival routine is just as critical as your pre-flight and flight routines for minimising jet lag. Once you land, it’s essential you stay awake until an early local bedtime.

Take a daytime walk

Your body's circadian rhythm is largely governed by the sun's light. To help stay awake, try:

  • Walking around outside in the fresh air
  • Exposing yourself to sunlight
  • Stimulating your mind by doing some casual sightseeing

Manage your post-flight sleep

If you’re having trouble getting to sleep, take a hot bath, put some drops of lavender oil on your pillow and block out any street lights to help your body relax and set its internal clock for sleep mode.

Resist the urge to sleep in on the morning after you arrive. Your goal should be to get off your regular circadian rhythm and become in sync with the local rhythm as soon as possible. Waking up early will also help you to fall asleep on local time the following night.

Avoid white and blue light before bed

The backlight displays on our mobiles, laptops and tablets prevent the production of natural melatonin – a hormone that regulates sleep. Take a break from these devices in the evening.

Talking about melatonin: you can get melatonin supplements to help you beat jet lag, but there are foods that are high in melatonin that will help you as well. These include nuts like almonds and walnuts and fruits like pineapple, bananas and oranges. 

Completely preventing jet lag is an impossible task but by following some of these tips, you’ll keep its effects to a minimum.

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