Overcome Jet Lag
During the three years that Ryan and I worked as engineers in China, we got used to our constant companion “JL.” Nope, not Jenny from the Block, but JET LAG. Avoiding and overcoming jet lag was necessary for our job security.
After a refreshing 12-hour time difference, we were often expected to roll off a flight and straight into work. Outside of feeling sleepy in a business meeting, throwing off our body’s time zone can mess with our circadian rhythm.
Recent research shows that our circadian rhythm is more than just an internal biological clock. It is linked to both weight gain and increased cancer risk. While jet lag is often a necessary evil of travel, steps can be taken to overcome the effects of jet lag based on science.
My coworkers were always amazed because I rarely, if ever, felt any effects of jet lag. Here are our best tips to overcome jet lag.
overcome jet lag
Here are our five most tried and true, research-backed tips to overcome jet lag, or avoid jet lag altogether.
1. Keep Hydrated
Staying well hydrated seems to be a cure-all from altitude sickness to jet lag. To avoid jet lag, stay hydrated well before and during your flight. To overcome jet lag, keep drinking. Flying inevitably leads to mild dehydration because the climate-controlled cabin is 10-15% humidity. That’s 2X drier than the Sahara desert!
In an average 10-hour flight, men can lose up to 2 liters of water while women up to 1.6 liters. This amount is approximately 4% of your bodily fluids. Even a 1% decrease in hydration can affect critical thinking, attention, and irritability.
To stay well hydrated, always pack a refillable water bottle (here is my classic go-to bottle) and fill it up at the airport before departure. Throughout long haul flights, flight attendants typically keep out large bottles of water in the galleys. If not, ask. Be selfish and take as much as possible. On the long flights, you might need two bottles.
Pro Tip: Avoid anything that dehydrates you, especially alcohol. On international flights, beer and wine are often free. Avoid the temptation, because alcohol further disrupts sleep while simultaneously dehydrating you. Drinking will make jet lag unavoidable. To overcome jet lag once you’ve arrived at your destination or home, the Mayo Clinic recommends caffeinated beverages to keep you fueled throughout the day.
2. Don’t Skip Your Workout
Nope, jet lag is not an excuse to sleep in for two reasons.
Firstly, not only do airplanes limit humidity, your oxygen saturation levels are reduced. Cabin pressure on a flight simulates an environment below sea level, which means your body absorbs less oxygen.
This lack of oxygen makes you feel foggy and lethargic. Therefore, it’s necessary to get your blood flowing and lungs pumping with a workout. At the very least, work at a standing desk.
Secondly, the University of Toronto performed a study on hamsters and the effects of an 8-hour jet lag. The control group of hamsters was allowed to sleep while the other group was put into an exercise wheel. The results? The exercised hamsters overcame jet lag in 1.6 days while the sleepers took 5.4 days!
No, we’re not hamsters, but research further connects exercise and circadian rhythm. Stick to a routine and work out at the same time as you would at home. When we exercise both before the flight and after arriving, we seldom feel the effects of jet lag. Our workouts are critical to overcome jet lags on trips east, to Europe and Africa, as well as trips west, to Asia and Hawaii.
3. What You Eat Matters
New research brings to light how different types of food can affect your sleep. If you experience insomnia along with jet lag, focus on this. Eating a diet high in vegetables, especially dark leafy greens, and low in simple (low fiber) carbohydrates promote longer time in slow-wave sleep. They also promote digestion, which is something often not agreeable with flying.
I’ve opted for vegetarian meals for years and avoided carbohydrates which made me feel crummy. Just note that, with some airlines, choosing a special-order meal such as gluten-free, vegetarian, kosher, etc. may make you ineligible for upgrades.
Despite what airlines claim, a colleague of mine found this out the hard way. His gluten-free meal, already allocated for him on the plane, was not allowed to enter the first-class cabin. He was tipped off at check-in and removed his special-order meal to receive the upgrade (and just brought his food onto the plane!)
4. Stay in Your New Time Zone
To avoid jet lag, start sleeping on your new time zone one or two nights before your flight. Then, as soon as you step foot onto the plane, get in the mindset to overcome jet lag, and set your watch to the new time zone. Do your best to stick to it.
Staying in your new time zone is a lot harder than it sounds. I’ll keep my overhead light on and struggle to get through a movie even when the rest of the plane is sleeping. Yes, I’ve had seat-mates complain (and try to turn off my light!) but I stay strong.
Staying in your new time zone is most important after arrival. Get outside in natural light as much as possible to set your circadian rhythm. Do your best to avoid naps unless you’re hurting!
Pro Tip: Staying in your time zone on the airplane is sometimes only possible with earplugs (or listening to a sleep sound app with headphones) and a face mask. I had a former colleague who would bring small LEGO boxes to quiet nearby children on the plane.
5. Melatonin is Your Friend
Melatonin is the hormone secreted to tell your body when to go to bed and when to wake up. We don’t normally supplement, but when in need, we take a natural melatonin vitamin (5 mg) around 30-minutes before bed. Studies confirm that melatonin up to 5 mg minimizes the effects of jet lag.
We use melatonin to help us stay in our new time zone. It is recommended to avoid alcohol if taking melatonin.
Do you have a tried and true tip for overcoming jet lag? Or, for avoiding jet lag altogether when traveling to Asia or Europe? Please share them with us in the comments below.