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The worse part of travelling long distances for me, by far, is jet lag. Travelling is stressful enough, especially if flights are delayed or cancelled, and bags are lost, but then to add in the stress of trying to adjust your body to a new time zone? No thanks! It’s the worse.
I’m so bad with getting adjusted to my new time zone. I already have difficulty sleeping normally, and throwing in the confusion of trying to train a new sleep pattern makes for a funky sleep pattern with unintentional sleepless nights. Not to mention constantly being completely exhausted (and cranky! Sorry friends).
Right now, as I type this, I’m in the middle of another fight against jet lag after coming home from Budapest. That is a 9-hour difference, almost a complete flip of my schedule. Going to Budapest was terrible. It took me almost a week before I was fully adjusted to my new time zone. I did everything wrong – in particular taking long naps in the middle of the day which was my regular sleep time at home. I didn’t establish a schedule and adjusting to the new time zone was terribly difficult.
But this time around, going home, I didn’t have the flexibility to take naps. I had to go back to work more or less right away. Because of that, and trying to do this properly by following the below tips, I seem to be doing okay. I’m now on day 3 of being back home and last night I almost slept a full night. Me 1 Jet Lag 0.
What exactly is jet lag?
Most people know more or less what it is, but why does it happen? Jet lag happens when you travel quickly across time zones. This rapid travel throws off your circadian rhythm, which helps control when you wake up and go to sleep based on cues in our environment such as daylight, mealtimes and other parts of a regular schedule. The more time zones you cross, the more likely you are to be sleepy and sluggish and the longer and more intense the symptoms are likely to be. They say that for every time zone you cross going east, you need a day to readjust. When going west, it takes about half that time.
While you can’t completely eliminate jet lag, you can drastically reduce its effects by following these tips:
Before You Go
A lot of people recommend adjusting your schedule by an hour or two to get a head start on adjusting your schedule by slowly waking up or going to bed earlier or later. I don’t do that as I don’t think it really helps especially when making such a big change. However, if you’re only travelling two or three time zones, this may help, though. On my visit to New York, I really had no problem changing time zones. I am naturally an early riser in Vancouver, waking up without an alarm clock at 5:30 or 6AM. With the three hour time change that is 8:30 or 9AM in New York – perfectly fine if you’re on vacation.
Think in your new time zone
When you’re in the midst of travelling, it helps to think in your new time zone and adjust your schedule on the plane accordingly. Sleep when you should be sleeping in the new time zone, eat when you’re supposed to. If you have layovers, it helps to use that time zone as well as a middle ground to adjust. For example, on my rerouted flight home, I had a layover in Toronto which is 6 hours behind Budapest, but 3 hours ahead of Vancouver. By thinking about just that 6-hour difference, eating lunch and dinner according to Toronto time, it somehow made the adjustment slightly easier as well.
I can never sleep when I’m on a plane. It’s just too uncomfortable being upright and with my head going every which way. However, I have found that sleeping is important. Part of the overall sluggishness I feel is simply because I don’t sleep enough for a day or two, making jet lag even worse. I had an eye mask available to me on my flight home, which I used and it worked so well. It blocked out the lights from the airplane, surrounding passengers and from the entertainment system. I slept well, even if it was brief and despite being upright. In the future, I’ll definitely be using this again. I also have ear plugs with me, or I “listen” to a podcast to put me to sleep. There is something about the cadence of sleep with the gentle rumblings of a plane that really help me to sleep.
At Your Destination
It helps to get daylight and sunlight as much as possible once you arrive. The exposure to natural light helps you to adjust quickly as it resets your internal clock. So get out of bed, get outside and get moving.
I’m guilty of this one. I never have the willpower to stay awake and suffer through it. I don’t know how others do it. I get so tired that the world becomes dizzy and I get terrible headaches. So I take a nap which is more detrimental than anything when it comes to overcoming jet lag. I made the mistake of taking too long of a nap going east, but on the return trip, I fought really hard to stay awake. I did take a super short nap yesterday after work – 15 minutes – to keep me going until I can go to sleep at a normal hour. If you must nap, take it earlier in the day, set an alarm and don’t sleep for long.
A friend of mine swears by taking melatonin. I’ve never done it as I’m a bit leery of taking things that I don’t need. Melatonin is a hormone that your body naturally creates before you sleep helping to control the time you sleep and wake up. By taking some of it before you want to sleep, it helps to regulate your circadian rhythm and set it to a new time. Be sure to talk to your doctor before you decide to go this route.
Advice from Other Travellers
I also turned to my travel blogging friends and picked their brains on how to get over jet lag. Here is what they had to say:
Angela of Angela Travels
I get over jet lag by getting to the normal sleep schedule of the time zone I am in without taking naps. Water and walking around also help when starting to feel drained.
Sharon of Where’s Sharon?
My biggest tip is to do exactly what all the literature tells you to do which is to adjust straight away. We avoid anything more than a small nap on arrival unless it’s night time, no matter how tired we are. We try to eat to the new timezone as well. So far this has paid off for us, and, despite changing time zones many times in the last year with young kids, they have only handled it badly once.
Phoebe of Short Road to Happy
Sleep (or stay awake) according to the time at your destination, not your current location. I personally could sleep anytime so I do just that- I sleep through my jet-lag…OR just travel by motorcycle instead and avoid jet-lag altogether!
Henry of Fotoeins Fotopress
Once I get onto the plane, I switch my watch/phone to the time-zone at my destination and adapt my routine on the plane to whatever time of day is at the destination. If I’m on a red-eye overnight flight to my destination, I will try to stay awake as long as I can to force myself to see some daylight and force my body to adapt further to the people’s and city’s rhythms at the destination. An approximate rule-of-thumb is one day to adapt for every added hour *east*. For example, with five hours time difference between Toronto and London, England, it might take someone five full days and nights before they feel they’re in the proper rhythm.
Chris of A Brit and A Southerner
I think for most people jet lag is inevitable and you just have to learn to deal with it. However, the more you travel and become accustomed to this feeling, the better you can prepare yourselves for this. Depending on your flight distance, the time that you schedule your flights can have an impact on your jet lag. We travel to England from the USA frequently and even though it’s only a 7-8 hour flight if we fly through the night we generally feel worse because we arrive first thing in the morning, GMT. Our last trip over Christmas 2013 saw us take a day flight from Chicago and arrive at Heathrow at 10:00PM GMT which really helped because we were able to go to bed and wake up the next morning and feel like our body clocks were back to normal.
If you are forced to arriving somewhere in the morning, I would recommend trying to stay awake as long as possible. The easiest way to do this is to grab some caffeine from Starbucks or a local coffee establishment and then get out and start exploring! Your excitement and adrenalin will keep you going. If you can get through to darkness setting, you have won the battle because you can get an early night and ‘hopefully’ be back to normal the next day.
Jet lag is an awful feeling and for some folks can continue for several days. Preparation is paramount in order to alleviate this as much as possible.
Dave of Dave’s Travel Corner
I always try to drink as much water as I can on the plane – that means it is important that I have an aisle seat! When I arrive at my International destination I find that exercise helps keep the sleepiness at bay. Along with that I try to stay up until night time at whatever destination I find myself in. My advice for succumbing to jet lag symptoms (this works well in Thailand) is to get a massage in the evening – that will put you right to sleep and certainly helps relax and relieve the stress of long flights.
Beth of Besudesu Abroad
The week leading up to my flight, I start to alter my sleeping times, slowing adjusting to the correct time zone. This usually means I go to sleep maybe 30 minutes to an hour earlier each day. Most of my long-haul flights are scheduled for early in the morning (anywhere from 4-8am), so I force myself to stay awake that night in order to sleep as soon as I get on the plane. Having adjusted to the time zone before arriving, so far has been the best way to fight off jet lag!
How do you get over jet lag? Do you have any particularly good or bad experiences?