3 Hacks To Beat Jet Lag Every Time You Fly

jet lag

You know the feeling. You’re tired, nauseous, and having difficulty concentrating. Yup, that’s jet lag – and it’s not just in your imagination.

If you’re a frequent traveller you’ll know all too well that the symptoms of jet lag are very real. So real in fact, that scientists have estimated that it usually takes one full day to recover for every hour of time difference. So, if you travel from London to New York the consensus is that it will be around a week until you feel yourself again.

If you were to fly the opposite direction, however, the severity of your symptoms may get even worse. Traveling east is more difficult on the body than traveling west.  It seems to be easier for our bodies to delay our internal clocks than to speed them up.

And yes, jet lag affects even the most experienced travellers.

In 1994 a New Zealand-based survey of flight attendants found that while they were used to long-haul travel:

  • 94% experienced a lack of energy and motivation
  • 93% reported broken sleep
  • 90% suffered from tiredness over the first five days of arrival
  • 70% had ear, nose or throat problems

It might not be possible to completely avoid the symptoms of jet lag, but luckily, taking a few simple precautions before, during and after your flight can make an enormous difference and help you recover much more quickly.

What Causes Jet Lag?

Answer: a mismatch between our internal and external clocks. Our internal clock, known as the circadian rhythm, is a biological cycle of various processes that take place over a time span of about 24 hours.

jet lag

The times in the figure above are not supposed to be exact – they’re there to show the general pattern of the circadian rhythm. The exact timings of your personal circadian rhythm will vary depending on your exposure to daylight, your habits, and other factors.

The three factors which have the biggest impact on your circadian rhythm are:

  • Light. Exposure to daylight has the most significant impact on the circadian rhythm. The rising of the sun and light hitting your eyes triggers the transition to a new cycle. Staring into a bright light for 30 minutes or so can often reset your circadian rhythm regardless of what time of day it is.
  • Time. The time of day, your daily schedule, and the order in which you perform tasks can all impact your sleep-wake cycle.
  • Melatonin. This is the hormone that causes drowsiness and controls body temperature. Melatonin is produced in a predictable daily rhythm, increasing after dark and decreasing before dawn. Researchers believe that the melatonin production cycle help keep the sleep-wake cycle on track.

Jet lag originates in the nerve cells of the hypothalamus, the region of our brain that regulates temperature, sleep, appetite, hunger, and other processes in your circadian rhythm. This part of the brain evolved long before air travel and it responds slowly to changes in external time and light levels.

What’s The Secret To Beating Jet Lag?

To beat jet lag we have to synchronize our circadian rhythm with our destination’s timezone as quickly as possible.

Of course, knowing that and making it happen are too very different matters. The three hacks listed below are going to help you do it in the healthiest way possible.

Hack #1: Carefully Time Your Food Intake

Intermittent fasting is something that I haven’t really talked about on the blog yet (I hope to get an article up soon – Eat Stop Eat is a great starting point if you want to learn more), but in addition to it’s many health benefits it can also drastically reduce the symptoms of jet lag.

In 2002, researchers put fasting to the test with 186 National Guard personnel deployed across nine time zones. 95 participants used the protocol in preparation for their deployment, and 39 used it in preparation for their return. The rest just followed their regular routine.

Incredibly, those who followed the fasting protocol were 7.5 times less likely to experience jet lag upon arrival.  Of the 39 who followed the protocol upon their return, they were 16.2 times less likely to experience symptoms of jet lag!

The protocol used in the study was a little extreme, especially for beginners, but the doctor behind it created a simplified version, which looks like this:

  • On your day of travel, eat a normal breakfast and normal lunch.
  • Avoid food altogether (or calories of any other sort) immediately before and especially during the flight, while drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated.
  • The fast should last at least 14 hours but can last as long as 24 hours.
  • Upon arrival, eat soon after landing, as close to local meal time as possible.
  • Initiate a normal meal schedule based on local time.

Now, given that I haven’t covered fasting in detail I feel it’s important to mention that this isn’t an excuse to go even further into a calorific deficit if you’re already in one.

One of the main benefits of fasting when you fly is that you are able to avoid crappy airline meals and the junk food you find in airports. That’s why I don’t write much about healthy snacks to take with you when you travel, because I simply don’t eat!

When you land, you should aim to make up for the lost calories with healthy food like vegetables, protein and good fats. Put another way, eat the same amount of calories you usually would in a day, but in a shorter time period.

You should also avoid two of the substances most commonly associated with air travel: caffeine and alcohol. Alcohol makes you dehydrated and caffeine will affect your circadian rhythm.

Hack #2: Exercise At The Same Time

I was recently asked by Men’s Fitness what the best workout to beat jet lag is, and the short version of my answer was, “the one you’re already doing!”

Let me explain.

Along with a carefully timed food intake, exercise can also affect our circadian rhythms. And when used appropriately, exercise can help to alleviate jet lag.

Back in 1987, University of Toronto researcher Dr. Nicholas Mrosovsky put a group of hamsters through an eight-hour time change, and then made half of them run on an exercise wheel in the new time zone while the others slept. The exercised hamsters adjusted to the new time zone in 1.5 days on average, while the sleepers took 8.5 days.

Obviously, humans aren’t hamsters, but we know that exercise affects our circadian rhythms too. In a thorough (and science-heavy) look at the effect exercise has on our circadian rhythms, Menno Henselmans from Bayesian Bodybuilding, explains that:

Your body will adapt its circadian rhythm to the […] training stress and reduce the performance decrement at that time

Interestingly, training at the same time every day seems to have little effect on the brain’s biological clock.  The main benefit seems to be that it helps our muscles and peripheral tissues synchronize with the new time zone.

Subsequent studies have looked at when might be the best time to exercise to reduce the effects of jet lag.

It seems that one helpful trick is to train at the same time you’d train at home. In other words, if you normally train at 8am in LA and you have traveled to London, do your best to train at 8am London time.

So far, there’s not much research on the best type of exercise to reduce jet lag. I’d suggest that you avoid high intensity cardio when you’re exhausted and every limb seems to weigh twice as much as it normally does. If that’s the case, try a light bodyweight workout, a walk, or some stretching exercises.

Doing this kind of exercise outdoors during daylight hours will be more beneficial still. Light is the most powerful regulator of our internal biological clocks, so we can use light cues to help synchroize our circadian rhythms with the local timezone. Bright light tells the body it’s time to be awake, especially when combined with movement.

Do what you can, at approximately the same time as your usual routine, and preferably outside.

Hack #3: Use Supplements

jet lag

If you’ve been reading Travel Strong for a while you’ll know that I’m not a huge fan of supplements. Most of their benefits can be obtained naturally – without supplementation – and all too often people turn to them for a quick fix.

That said, there are some that are useful, particularly if you’re exercising consistently and your diet is on point.

So if you’re still struggling after using the first two hacks you might want to consider using these supplements which have been extensively studied for their ability to decrease the symptoms of jet lag.

As with any supplement, you should consult your doctor before trying these.

Melatonin

Melatonin is a hormone secreted in the brain. One of melatonin’s functions is to control the body’s cycle of sleeping and waking.

The brain’s receptors for melatonin are signaled by light that enters through the eyes. When it gets dark at night and we turn out the lights, melatonin is released.

Crossing time zones, we may suddenly find ourselves exposed to excessive light when ordinarily, it would be our bedtime. When this happens, our melatonin cycles become disrupted and we experience jet lag until our circadian rhythms adjust to the new environment.

Supplementing melatonin may help ‘reset’ your sleep and wake cycle.

But dose timing is critical. Research suggests that taking melatonin before leaving for a trip makes jet lag symptoms even worse. So wait until you land in the new time zone to supplement; this will significantly reduce jet lag symptoms, improve sleep quality, and increase alertness and recovery.

That study and others suggest that if you want to supplement with melatonin to combat jet lag:

  • take from 0.5 mg up to 5 mg of melatonin for three nights (or until adjusted);
  • one hour before a normal bedtime; and
  • only after you’ve reached your travel destination.

The long-term side effects of melatonin have not been well studied. If you have epilepsy or are taking blood thinners, it’s extremely important that you talk to your doctor before using melatonin.

Pycnogenol

Pycnogenol – an extract of the bark of French pine trees – is another supplement that has been studied for its ability to decrease jet lag symptoms.

In a small study conducted in Italy, researchers had participants take 50 mg of pycnogenol three times per day for seven days, starting two days prior to travel.

A control group suffered for 39.8 hours, while those who supplemented with pycnogenol endured their symptoms for only 18.2 hours.

Not only that, but those who used pycnogenol had fewer symptoms within that time frame. They had fewer short- term memory problems,  fewer problems with cardiac function and blood pressure, and also reported far less fatigue.

Interestingly, pycnogenol supplementation has also been shown to decrease deep vein thrombosis and superficial vein thrombosis – common side effects of long flights. In fact, in one study of people who were at moderate to high risk for such events, pycnogenol decreased the incidence of thrombosis from 5.15% to 0%.

Consider supplementing with 50 mg of pycnogenol three times a day, starting two days before your trip.

For more information on pycnogenol see this article on Examine.com.

What Are Your Top Tips?

The three hacks above seem to have the biggest overall effect on jet lag, but really it comes down to what works for you as an individual.

Everybody has their own strategies and I’d love to hear about them! Please share them below in the comments below.

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  • Wei

    I am a frequent flyer on long haul flights and when I first started I tried various ways to combat jet lagged: I tried to stay up on flights to adjust to the destination time (drinking coffee, snacking, walking, movies etc), and tried eating according to the local time etc. They were to an extent the wrong approach. My advice below will probably only work for 6-18 hour time differences.

    The way to go is to SLEEP! I cannot stress how important it is. The flights which causes jet lag are the ones where there are major time differences, so leaving at night and arriving at night or leaving in the morning and arriving in the morning. I would recommend taking night flights when possible, this is because it’s the time we can sleep naturally, and when you arrive at your destination you will still feel a tad bit tired but not drained, and you’ll still be able to sleep at night. For those who find it difficult to sleep on planes, try your best to find ways where you can catch at least 5 hours of sleep. So maybe pillows, essential oils, reading, eye masks, or even melatonin if necessary, or valerian.

    Avoid taking morning flights, this is because if you arrive at your destination in the morning, you will feel sooo tired. This is because you cannot sleep on the flight in the morning, and when you arrive and if do sleep, you’ll not get rid of your jet lag. You’re following your old pattern rather than trying to adjust to your destination. Plus if you try to stay up for the entire day, you’ll feel exhausted way before bed time. It’s like pulling an all nighter but worse.

    Therefore just sleep. Try your best to sleep and when you want to sleep on a flight, don’t fight it.

    • AWESOME advice Wei! Thanks so much for sharing your tips 🙂

  • Rachel LeGrand

    Hi will! Love your blog.. I’m a personal trainer turned corporate travel employee and love these tips.. These are a few of my favorite: if you get nauseous easily and don’t want to fast, you can always request a vegetarian meal when you check in and ask the flight attendants to bring it early on in the fight so you can sleep the rest of the time. They are usually less hardy than the beef ravioli and dry chicken! Second favorite tip: in-flight exercises to keep that blood flowing! That might make for a great future article

    • Thanks Rachel. These are some really good tips and I think you’re right – that could be a great article!

  • Brett Boerema

    When traveling abroad, I always set my watch immediately to the destination timezone, take a melatonin @ 9 pm destination time, avoid alcohol and caffeine.

  • Melissa

    I love this blog! Thank you very much for these tips. This article is very timely for me, as I had a quick trip from the US to the middle east last week, and I am still struggling to get back on my sleep schedule.

    I usually try to fast on flights but only because the food tends to be gross and eating too much while flying makes my stomach feel uncomfortable, but I never thought of how it might impact jet lag. Some trips are just too long, and I don’t have the willpower (yet). Any tips on how to handle 24 hour+ trips (i.e. three legs of the trip, US to Asia)? I also have the bad habit of drinking a glass of wine to fall asleep and coffee to wake up! Anyway, I will definitely be trying these tips on my next trip in a couple of weeks.

    Side note: my resistance bands got taken away in airport security last week! :/ Not appropriate for carry on in certain areas, apparently.

  • Lap

    I frequently travel a total of 24 hours with a 14 hour time difference. It is hard for me to not eat that long, and usually when I get to my destination it’s not easy to get food. I definitely agree with exercise. The few times I had a regular daily yoga routine in place, my jet lag was lessened. Also, walking and taking in the sites and surroundings of your destination help. I also agree with sleeping any time you can get a few z’s, do it! On the plane, bring a neck pillow, ear plugs, eye mask, and anything else that may help you sleep. Also, take short naps (2-3 hours at a time) when you get to your destination if you can. When I first started traveling different time zones, I arrived in the morning and tried to stay up all day. One of the best things I did on my third trip was take a 3 hour nap during the day, then still go to sleep at night. I also love taking a shower at my destination. It uses my sense of touch and makes me feel like I wash off my old destination and makes me feel ready for the new one!

    • Paul Banerjee

      Nice tips. I love the idea about taking a shower when you reach, especially the reason for it. Although I am not in the jet lag category, I also do love to take a warm shower when exhausted, especially when I am about to go to bed at night or have a nap. It really gives me a relaxed sleep.

  • As soon as I get on a plane I set my watch to the local time of my destination and try to eat and sleep according it so that I have the entire flight to get my body clock in that rhythm. That plus exercise and staying hydrated. I avoid alcohol altogether during flights. And I agree with WEI about catching the night flight and SLEEPING through it.

  • I’ve gotten great results by manipulating light cues using the Phillips Go-Lite, amber-tinted goggles, F.luxx for my laptop, and a sleep mask. Melatonin works great too, but the ideal dose is lower than most people realize- about .3 to .5 mg. Higher doses actually cause you to wake up sooner and throw off your natural hormone production. The stuff about meal and workout timing is new to me though- I’m going to use that.

  • Travel Fitness Hub

    Great post.

    As a regular long haul traveler, jet lag is a big part of my life. Too big.

    As with altitude sickness, you don’t know if you will be hit by it and how long it will last. It changes from trip to trip.

    My tips are:

    1. Change your watch to the arrival time zone. This tricks you into believing you are there and starts to make your body adjust even before you have arrived.
    2. Melatonin. Be aware it expires quickly so check the use-by date.
    3. Vegetables. Eat lots of them before and during your flight and avoid starchy and heavy foods.
    4. Coffee, stay away from it on the flight. It messes with your body clock and you risk being even more tired when you arrive.
    5. Alcohol, limit (or remove) it on the flight. It makes you hungover, on top of being tired, confused and dazed.

    Keep up the good work sharing tips, ideas and advice!

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