Jet Lag: Preventing It & Recovering From It

Learn how to sleep better away from home and keep your sleep cycles in sync

By Andrea Pisani Babich

Apr 19th, 2022

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Anyone who has ever traveled to a far-flung destination knows the stress that comes with long-distance travel. Before you leave, there are clothes to wash and pack, mail and newspaper deliveries to take care of, security systems to arm, accommodations to secure for pets, and neighbors to be alerted. And that’s all after you’ve booked flights and hotels.

Then, once you arrive at your destination, those pre-trip stressors plus the trials of traveling make it impossible to sleep according to the local schedule.

Yep, you’ve got jet lag.

If you’ve crossed more than two time zones, you’ll likely experience a disruption in your circadian rhythms that regulate everything from your digestion to your wake and sleep patterns. Jet lag can turn your much-anticipated and richly deserved vacation into a haunting nightmare, or leave you feeling drained and fatigued on a business trip. Instead of fun-filled, productive days and relaxing, rejuvenating nights, you’re hit with:

  • Sleepless nights
  • Exhaustion during the day
  • Headaches
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Difficulty concentrating and functioning

What causes jet lag?

It’s not just passing through multiple time zones that can mess with your circadian rhythms. Two more sleep disruptors can rob you of that critical first night of sleep in your new location.

  1. First-Night Effect can keep you awake during your first night in a new location because, according to a study conducted by Yuka Sasaki of Brown University, part of your brain stays on high-alert for potential dangers.
  2. “On-Call Effect” can make it difficult for you to relax and fall asleep because of a nagging worry that something might wake you, like a phone call, noise in your lodging, or unfamiliar traffic noise.

According to a Mattress Advisor survey, traveling by plane is more likely to cause sleep disruptions than other modes of travel because of the speed with which you arrive in a new time zone and the poor sleeping conditions on most flights. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that pressurized cabins lower oxygen in the blood and lead to dehydration both of which will make it harder for your rhythms to synchronize with local time. And if you’re over 60, you are more likely to experience more severe jet lag.

Jet lag is not all in your head

Jet lag is a real physiological disorder caused by a disruption in your circadian rhythms. Your circadian rhythms take their cues from exposure to the sun, regular mealtimes, and other routine activities. Traveling to a different time zone can wreak havoc in your normal 24-hour routine by events such as:

  • Exposure to the sun when you are normally asleep
  • Eating breakfast when your body thinks it’s bedtime
  • Trying to sleep during what is usually your most productive time of day back at home

Your circadian rhythms are confused by these and other abrupt changes, leading to sleep disruptions and problems with digestion and energy regulation. Your internal clock will try to keep you on your normal schedule even though it doesn’t sync with your surroundings until you adjust to the local time. So, you might feel an irresistible urge to sleep when it’s only the middle of the afternoon. While the locals are sleeping, you may feel wide awake.

Because you will lose hours from your 24-hour cycle by flying east, trips from west to east confuse your body’s internal clock more than flying from east to west. Experienced travelers know the saying: “west is best; east is a beast.”

The end result? It may take you several days of your well-planned vacation to finally acclimate to your new time zone and surroundings and finally get the rest you need. Sleep experts say it can take as long as one day per time zone crossed to fully adjust to the local time. If you travel far from home, that adjustment time can really eat into your trip.

Usually, the symptoms of jet lag are relatively mild, limited to daytime sleepiness, listlessness, headaches, disorientation, mild confusion and generally feeling “out of sorts”. But it can manifest in more classic sleep deprivation symptoms like fatigue, poor performance and alertness, memory lapses, indigestion and gastrointestinal problems, mood swings, etc. Jet lag disorder is sometimes recognized as a full-blown sleep disorder (despite the fact that it is usually self-inflicted), although is almost always quite short-term, generally resolving itself within a week or so. Interestingly, studies of international marathon runners have shown that habitual or repetitive motor tasks not requiring much deep thought (e.g. running), are relatively unaffected by jet lag or poor sleep, while tasks requiring the analysis of complex problems are much more affected.

So what is a world traveler to do? Check out our tips for curing jet lag below.

11 ways to cure and prevent jet lag

We’ve consulted with sleep specialists and experienced travelers to find the most effective ways to combat the effects of long-haul flights. Here’s what we found. 

Before you leave

  1. Simulate your new schedule a few days before your trip. If you are traveling east, shift your bedtime 15 minutes earlier each night for a few days to advance your body clock. Shift to a later schedule if you are traveling west. Try to adjust your mealtimes as well for another cue to your circadian rhythm.
  2. Make arrangements ahead of time. Scrambling to get ready to leave for a trip the night before a trip will increase your chances of suffering from jet lag. Getting a good night’s sleep and feeling relaxed before you leave will help ease you into your new schedule.
  3. Arrive earlier than necessary. If you are making a business trip, arriving a day or two earlier will give your body a chance to adapt to your new time zone and be more “business-like” when you need to be. Vacations to far-flung locations will be more enjoyable if you plan a stop-over mid-way. A gradual adjustment to local time is better than a complete reversal of your circadian rhythms.
  4. Choose your aircraft wisely. Savvy flyers know that A350s and A380s are equipped to reduce the effects of jet lag. Hi-tech humidification systems reduce the usual dehydration from flying and LED lighting simulates the natural phases of daylight. Air purification systems renew the air every two minutes keeping air fresh, clean, and restorative. Choose these airliners for long-haul flights whenever possible.

During your flight

  1. Adjust your schedule while in flight. Allison Siebern, Ph.D. of the Stanford University Sleep Medicine Center recommends trying to sleep on the plane if it is night time at your destination or stay awake if it is daytime. And don’t forget to set your watch or smartphone to the local time of your destination as soon as you begin your trip.
  2. Control your light exposure. Exposure to daylight once you arrive is the best way to reset your clock. If it is nighttime at your destination during your flight, use sunglasses to simulate local conditions. Bright light therapy (timed light and dark exposure) is recommended by some scientists as a treatment for jet lag, and a whole science is beginning to grow up around this premise.
  3. Stay hydrated. That means forgoing the in-flight cocktails which will dehydrate you and further disrupt your sleep schedule. Drink water instead, and plenty of it.
  4. Keep your muscles moving. Stretching during your flight and getting up to walk around will help to prevent circulation problems and stiffness. Staying active will help you to sleep when you want to.

Once you arrive

  1. Skip the alcohol and coffee. You may be tempted to have a nightcap to help you unwind and get to sleep while you’re away from home. Don’t do it. According to The Sleep Doctor, Michael Breus, this strategy is deceptive. While alcohol may help you to feel drowsy and drift into sleep, in the second half of the night, it will prevent you from entering the REM phase of sleep, thought to be the more mentally restorative. And, of course, caffeine after lunch will make falling asleep at night more difficult, no matter what time zone you’re in.
  2. Plan a relaxing prelude to sleep. Avoid heavy exercise before bedtime and stick to your normal bedtime routine. Take a warm bath or shower, read, do light yoga, meditate, or pray to calm your body and mind.
  3. Avoid distractions while trying to sleep. Wear earplugs and eyeshades to block out unfamiliar noises and light.

These steps can help make your business travel more productive and your leisure travel more enjoyable. Bon voyage!

Do you have a favorite cure for jet lag? Let us know how you deal with jet lag in the comments below. We’d love to hear from you!