It’s the scourge of every traveller: jet lag. It might make you spend the first few days of your holiday in a total daze — or it might leave you totally unable to function when you finally get home. So, how do you get over jet lag? We’ve compiled these top tips to help keen travellers. Prepare to reset your sleep cycle and make the most of your getaway!
What exactly is jet lag?
Let’s start with some science, but don’t worry, we’ll keep it simple! Every living creature on the planet follows something called a circadian rhythm. That’s your internal clock, which keeps you ticking away, getting tired when it’s dark and waking up in the morning. Circadian rhythms also affect our appetite, levels of alertness and more. Our ancestors completely relied on their circadian rhythms. Nowadays, with electric lights, alarm clocks and other technology, we tend to forget about them — until jet lag reminds us about them.
Even if you’re not aware of your circadian rhythm, it’s working away behind the scenes. During a 24-hour period, your different hormones rise and fall, making you feel tired, hungry, relaxed or alert — and a lot of this depends on the levels of dark and light outside. When we cross three or more time zones, we send our circadian rhythms abruptly and completely out of whack. Our bodies are pretty awesome, but they still need time to adapt. Suddenly, we’re getting signals to eat when it’s 3 am or go to sleep at 11 am. Our circadian rhythms have gone haywire, and they don’t realise that we’re in a totally different part of the world. That’s jet lag.
How long does it last?
Before we can look at how to beat jet lag, we need to be prepared for its effects. Jet lag is worse when you’re travelling east. You’ll find it harder to fall asleep at night and might find yourself lying awake for hours, totally alert. By day, you’ll feel like a zombie, stumbling groggily around the place — which is really not what you need when you’re jumping off waterfalls in Bali or surfing in Australia!
When you travel east, you can generally expect jet lag to last one day for every time zone you cross. That can be pretty daunting — if you fly from the UK to Bali, for example, you’ll cross eight time zones. That means it can take eight days to totally recover from your jet lag. Don’t even think about how long it will take if you’re flying to Japan!
Travelling west is easier. You’ll wake up far earlier than usual, but the effect soon wears off. In fact, jet lag usually only lasts about two-thirds as long if you travel west. There are eight time zones between the UK and California, but your dream Disneyland holiday doesn’t have to be a jet-lagged disaster — it will take you five to six days to feel completely normal again.
Is it really that bad?
If you don’t have much experience travelling long haul, you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Why do people care so much about how to beat jet lag? Being tired is just a normal part of life, right?
Not really. For one thing, if you’ve never been truly jet-lagged, you might not appreciate just how bad it feels. For another, it can actually be dangerous. Driving while jet-lagged is an accident waiting to happen. It’s extremely hard to pay attention to the road, and your reaction time drops significantly. If you’re already driving on strange roads in an unfamiliar country, the last thing you need is extra stress!
Can I travel with no jet lag?
Here’s the bad news: nope. Experts can offer you tips on how to defeat jet lag, but you can’t eliminate it altogether. Humans just haven’t evolved for the dizzying world of modern travel.
That gives you two options — either you wait a few million years to see if evolution catches up with the miracle of flight, or you look for ways to lessen the symptoms of jet lag. You’ll still feel some of the effects, but if you do things right, they’ll be a lot milder.
How can I prepare for jet lag before I travel?
The old adage is true: prevention is better than cure. Get yourself ready with some jet lag remedies that you can start working on long before your flight takes off. You might want to buy a sun lamp that will give you more light exposure in the morning, helping to reset those all-important circadian rhythms. You can even download sleep control apps to help you adjust to your future time zone. By shifting your bedtime forward or back a little each day, you’ll be able to gradually reset your body clock. Of course, these apps won’t work for everyone. In particular, your boss might not appreciate your change in sleep schedule and alertness! If your circumstances allow it, then one of these apps can be a nifty weapon in your arsenal for fighting jet lag.
Another option is to choose a flight that lands early in the morning. This may mean you’re leaving the house to get to the airport at an odd time, but you’ll arrive at your destination ready for a full day’s activities. If you want to know how to beat jet lag, experts say this is one of the best ways to do it — as long as you can stay awake for the entire day when you land!
How can I prepare for jet lag on the plane?
Nowadays, your phone will probably automatically switch to your new time zone when you land. That’s not good enough! Instead, change the time zone as soon as you step onto the plane. Do the same with your watch and any other devices. You need to mentally prepare yourself for the change in time.
Try to sleep on the plane. This is particularly crucial if you’ve chosen a flight that will land in the morning. Bring a sleep mask and earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones. Forget about the in-flight entertainment — who wants to watch a bunch of old movies, anyway? Put your phone away, as the screen might stop you from getting some shut-eye. Instead, try reading a book until you feel sleepy.
How can you avoid jet lag?
Steer clear of coffee, fizzy drinks and, yes, alcohol too. Caffeinated drinks will keep you awake, while all three of these beverages also have a dehydrating effect. If you’re dehydrated, your jet lag will just get worse. Drink as much water as you can handle without spending the entire flight queuing for the loo.
Avoiding lengthy stopovers is also useful. Depending on your destination, sometimes that might be impossible — but if you can, try to get a direct flight, or at the very least, a short stopover. Spending too much time in multiple time zones is just going to confuse your body clock even more.
How can I get some jet lag relief after I land?
Great news — you’ve reached your final destination, and it’s time for your dream holiday to begin! Now, the question of how to beat jet lag becomes even more urgent. You’ll need to move quickly to adapt to the new time zone as fast as possible.
If you’ve arrived in the morning, you’re probably feeling exhausted. Whatever you do, don’t take a nap. Yes, that hotel bed looks so tempting — but come on, there are things to do and sights to see! If you can force yourself to stay awake in daylight hours, you’ll be a lot closer to resetting your circadian rhythm for the new time zone.
Make sure you’ve got plenty of sunscreen because you’ll want to stay outdoors as much as possible. Exposure to sunlight will help your sluggish body clock figure out what’s going on. You may need to plan the first day of your trip with that in mind — forget about spending the day in museums or art galleries and get some sunshine instead.
Try to eat at normal times, too. Your appetite is likely to be all over the place when you’re severely jet-lagged. Don’t be tempted to use this as a chance for some last-minute holiday dieting. Even if you don’t feel particularly hungry, sit down at lunchtime and eat something. It doesn’t need to be a huge meal — in fact, it’s better to keep things light, or you’ll be tempted to nap — but eating something at mealtimes is the best way of telling your appetite hormones to start behaving themselves in this time zone.
When you know how to beat jet lag, travelling is even more fun! Join us at some of our favourite destinations for trips that are worth all that body clock drama.
Do you enjoy our travel guides filled with helpful tips? Then be sure to check out our guide on solo travel advice!