Fact and Fiction: The Definitive Guide to Jet Lag

South African Airways

It may be hard for you to believe, but I am not the first person to write about jet lag. No, it’s true. This is a topic that has been covered ad nauseam since man first boarded a jet plane for a faraway adventure. Then why am I writing about it today, you are probably asking yourself. Good question. I broach this important topic not just to offer some advice on how best to avoid the ravages of jet lag, which I will do, but also to cover what jet lag is and isn’t and debunk popular jet lag ‘cures’ that some people advocate

What exactly is jet lag

Jet lag is pretty interesting and is NOT to be confused with general travel fatigue. I hear people all the time complain of jet lag when they’re just tired. That’s fine, they deserve to be tired, but it’s not always fair to blame jet lag. Classically defined, jet lag happens when you travel across several time zones, usually more than three, and when the body clock is no longer synchronized with the local time. This happens because we as humans experience daylight and darkness contrary to what we are used to, upsetting our primal rhythms. This in turn disrupts everything else, from when we are tired, hungry to even the regulation of hormones. When the body can’t quickly readjust to these changes then that, that is when we are truly jet lagged.

Interesting facts about jet lag

In researching this topic I discovered several facts that I thought were interesting enough to share.

  • Jet lag has nothing to do with the length of the trip. Instead, it’s all about how many time zones you traverse. If I flew from Washington, DC to Costa Rica, I would be tired but not jet lagged. Same concept if you fly from Europe to South Africa since they’re both in the same time zone. However, if I were to go from DC to Tel Aviv, then that would be hard.
  • As many of us have long known, traveling east is harder than traveling west. This is because going east the body clock has to be advanced and the necessary exposure to light to realign the body clock does not tie in with the day/night cycle at the destination. Flying west is always easier, but you’ll feel it once you return home.
  • Light is the best way to get your body clock back on schedule and controlling how much and when you expose yourself to bright lights can aid in adjusting to a new time zone.

Brussels Sandwich

My favorite mythical jet lag cures

I’ve heard a lot of bad advice when it comes to beating jet lag, but I have a few favorites:

Don’t eat – This ‘cure’ says to stop eating half a day before your flight and not to resume until the first breakfast in your new destination. The basis of this is that by fasting, you are forcing the body into a state of dormancy, sleep. The problem with this is that while it may help you sleep on the flight over, it will be a major problem once you arrive and have to stay up all day – especially on a west-east flight. Instead, the better advice is to eat healthily and not overdo it, but please don’t skip food altogether. Passing out hours before you need to fall asleep is not a good plan of action.

Take sleeping pills – No, no, no, no and no. Sleeping pills will make you sleep, that’s about it. As the fun facts referenced above show, jet lag is about MUCH more than a lack of sleep. It’s a base level readjustment of one’s circadian rhythms and is based largely on light. Sleeping pills don’t help with that. Also, the same advice goes for those who say drinking to excess is a good way to prevent jet lag. Au contraire, it only makes it worse.

Fly in business or first class – Like most jet lag cures, the premise of this fake cure is the promise of a good night’s sleep on the flight over to your destination. Since business and first class customers have better seats and many times beds, they are therefore given a leg up on enjoying a peaceful night’s rest. As I’ve shared already in this post, jet lag is about much more than sleep. Will flying in a higher class of service help limit travel fatigue? Usually, yes; but jet lag? No, not so much.

Lufthansa A380 Cabin

The only way to really beat jet lag

So if all of these cures are just a waste of time, then what really is the best way to deal with jet lag? Even here there isn’t a straight answer unfortunately, as it really depends as to what level of commitment you are willing to make. Some people, before an ultra-long haul flight, will actually try and adopt the new time zone before even leaving home. I’ve never done that but I’m curious how effective this actually is. The body is a primal entity; we respond strongly to light and the machinations of the day’s cycle. To forcibly try to impose a new body rhythm before completely abandoning the old way is difficult and probably not entirely effective, as some research has shown.

No, instead start your preparations while onboard the aircraft. Take care of your health during this time by drinking lots of water, eating normally and avoid drinking too much alcohol, if you must drink any at all. Flying is an intensely dehydrating experience and alcohol only intensifies this. If you overdo it on the plane, you will feel the effects on the ground and it will make the jet lag that much worse.

In my personal opinion, it’s always a good idea to sleep on a trip if the opportunity presents itself. So do try to catch some winks on the plane. Depending on where you’re going, it really shouldn’t play that much of a factor in jet lag recovery and may even help.

I mentioned a couple of paragraphs up that the body is a primal beast and indeed it is. Thanks to thousands of years of civilization, it yearns to work during the day and sleep at night. Attempts to cheat it of this most basic rhythm never end well for the human involved. Is it possible? Sure, of course it is. People work night shifts and regions of the far north experience months when the sun never sets. But for the majority of us, the sooner we can restore balance to our circadian rhythms and adapt to the new time zone, the better we will be. This almost always though means at least one day of total and utter exhaustion.

It is indeed rare for me to be able to sleep comfortably on a plane, so whenever I arrive at my destination I am exhausted and usually have a full day of sightseeing ahead of me. During this first day, it is essential to stay awake as long as possible. It’s not easy, I know that, but plan a full and active day as soon as you land and try to stay awake until bedtime. Also, make sure to spend time in the sun if possible, because as was discussed earlier light is key in jet lag recovery.

It’s deceptively easy really, when you think about it. The trick to beating jet lag is as simple as staying healthy and adopting the new time zone right away. While it’s an easy concept intellectually, it’s much harder to put into practice, which is how the quackery arose in the first place. Man is always looking for an easier solution, a quicker way out even if one doesn’t exist. Avoid that trap though and you should feel normal within just a couple of days after arriving in your destination.

What have you done to help ease jet lag in the past?

By: Matt Long

Matt has a true passion for travel. As someone who has a bad case of the travel bug, Matt travels the world in order to share tips on where to go, what to see and how to experience the best the world has to offer.

15 thoughts on “Fact and Fiction: The Definitive Guide to Jet Lag”

  1. What I’m curious about is why kids seem better at adjusting to new time zones than adults. Growing up as expats from the US to Singapore, we’d return to the US for a few weeks every summer and Christmas. My younger sister and I bounced back within a day or two of arrival in the US and the same on our return to Singapore, while my parents complained of jet lag for almost a week. Is this another time where kid’s bodies are just more resilient than adults?

  2. I have the luxury of working night shift, so my body clock is already adjusted to European time zones of 8-10 hours ahead of PST. So, if I am traveling to Europe, I just stay up the night before I leave, then make sure I sleep as soon as I get on the plane in the morning. If it’s a late night flight, I stay up at least the first five or six hours.

    When I arrive at my destination, I always try to take a day to adjust, usually forcing myself to go to sleep and get up the first day or so. It works rather well for me. That’s my strategy. :)

  3. The best way for me to beat jet lag is to deal with travel exhaustion, first, which means sleeping pills for long flights (provided I arrive at my destination during the day). But then you just have to let your body do its thing, like you said!

    And drinking alcohol is always my brother’s technique… it never made sense to me or seemed to work well for him. Glad I have more reason not to try it hahaha.

  4. I (inadvertently) figured out that a great way to beat jetlag is to arrive somewhere completely exhausted right at 10pm or so, then just fall asleep as soon as you get there. Sadly I tried this strategy in a city where I hadn’t booked a room ahead of time (because the last time the flight was delayed and I missed my booking anyway) so I ended up wandering the streets around midnight for a bit. But it still worked!

  5. We once read an interview with a hot shot designer who travels constantly about his jet lag routine: work out and stay up until 10 PM, no matter what. And you know, it actually works pretty well. Also, being able to sleep on planes helps. That’s where the upgrade is always nice :)

  6. Traveling east is harder than traveling west…now I know the reason why I always have to deal with Jet lag when I fly to Asia.

    I would absolutely love to be fit when I land in another country but the problem is that I simply can not sleep in airplanes. Even if this is the case I don’t take sleeping peels.

    Even if you maybe don’t want to hear this but honestly:
    My good everybody tries to figure out how they can avoid Jet-lag. They take pills, don’t eat and even pay enormous amounts of money to fly business class just because they are afraid to face Jet Lag.

    Grow some balls and face it. One day of feeling dizzy is not the end of the world. I never heard that somebody died because of Jet lag.

  7. I think leisure travel makes it easier to beat jet lag. When I determine my own schedule, I hit the ground and just go go go. That helps me adjust to the local time – even when I arrive in Australia at 7 a.m. When I travel for business, it’s kind of tough to adjust, even when it’s a fairly short trip: I go from being in the airplane to being stuck in a room with other people (yay, more artificial lighting!).

  8. I think you nailed it. I try to always be outdoors and plan to have a busy schedule that prevents me from sleeping until at least 8pm local time.

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