Whether you’re traveling east or west, for business or pleasure, jet lag can be a challenge. Changing time zones can throw your body’s natural rhythms off track, leaving you groggy, moody, restless or fatigued. It can cause gastric upset, too.
These symptoms can make the trip of a lifetime a lot less comfortable. UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD, offers these tips to minimize the impact of jet lag.
What to Do Before You Travel
If you will be in a different time zone for more than a few days, start to gradually adjust your schedule about three days before the trip to get your body used to the change, Dr. Ruff says.
Try to go to bed and wake up 30 minutes earlier each day if you’re traveling east, or 30 minutes later if you’re heading west, she says.
Controlling when you are exposed to light will also help you acclimate more easily. That’s because light has a major impact on the body’s circadian rhythms—the 24-hour cycles that serve as our internal clocks, regulating biological processes including the sleep-wake cycle.
“If you are getting up hours earlier than usual, you may not have natural light, but try to imitate the level of sunlight in the place you are traveling to,” Dr. Ruff says.
Aim to get the most and brightest light during the time that will be midmorning to early afternoon at your destination, she says.
Remember, early morning light is not as intense as midday light, and the intensity also wanes as evening approaches. Dr. Ruff recommends using sunglasses to adjust your light exposure.
Also be sure to avoid electronics in the evenings, she says. “That’s a big source of light that can delay when you fall asleep.”
There are plenty of apps available to help take the guesswork out of your time zone calculations. The apps can account for your destination, flight particulars and sleep patterns, then recommend a plan to follow for light exposure, sleep and even caffeine intake.
What to Do on Your Flight
As soon as you can—maybe in the airport—change your watch or phone to your destination time zone, Dr. Ruff says.
“If it’s bedtime where you’re going, try to get your body to think it’s nighttime,” she says.
Even if you can’t sleep on the plane, try to relax and rest. But skip the sleep medications.
“It’s really hard to get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep on a plane,” Dr. Ruff says. “Other passengers are getting up to go to the bathroom or stretch their legs. If you take medicine (such as a sedative like Ambien) on the plane and then don’t rest well, you’ll be really groggy when you get to your destination.”
Over-the-counter melatonin supplements, which aim to mimic the body’s naturally occurring sleep hormone, don’t work well during air travel either, because of the noise and movement on a plane. However, melatonin may be helpful when you reach your destination, especially if you are traveling east.
Also try to drink plenty of water, she says, to help prevent constipation, fatigue and other symptoms of jet lag.
What to Do When You Arrive
Once you land, try to get into the rhythm of your destination as soon as possible, Dr. Ruff says.
“If it’s bedtime at home but morning or midday where you are, then try to stay up and be more active,” she says.
If you feel like you need to nap, limit it to 45 minutes, she says. You can drink caffeine to help you stay awake—but not too close to your new bedtime.
Try eating smaller meals until your body adjusts, since large meals can also disrupt sleep.
Frustratingly, even if you go to bed at the appropriate time for your new time zone, you still may wake up early. “Try to relax and stay still until it’s time to get up,” Dr. Ruff says. “Don’t use electronics. The light will make your body think it’s later than it is.”
All of this is to say: If you can, arrive in your new time zone at least two days before any important events to give yourself time to adjust.
What to Do When You Return Home
The same tips for travel also work for the trip home, Dr. Ruff says, but they may be harder to do.
“Sometimes it’s easier to get ready for traveling than to follow the same steps when you get home,” she says. “When you come home, you get back into your regular life and routine, and you may not be as intentional.”
However, staying hydrated may help your body readjust faster. So will trying to get back to your regular schedule for waking and sleeping.
Being aware of the challenges of travel and doing a little preparation can make your trip—there and back—more enjoyable, Dr. Ruff says.
“‘Zeitgeber’ is a German word that literally means ‘time giver,’” she says. “It describes things that help train your internal clock. The most important thing is bright light at the right time. But other things, like when you get exercise, eat meals or socialize with others, can be important, too. Just be aware and be prepared.”
If you’re planning to travel, check with your doctor for advice on any medications to bring and any vaccinations you may need. Need a doctor? Find one near you.