Travel Tips

The Battle with Jet Lag – How to Fight and Win (sort of)

It has always amazed me that some people suffer jet lag horribly, while others barely feel the effects at all.  Me?  I fall into the first group:  I used to dread every trip because I fall squarely on the top of the “Suffers Horribly” column.

Before I go any further, let’s dispel a myth:  You don’t get used to it.  At least I didn’t.  No matter how many times I cross that ocean, and no matter how often I do it, jet lag has always been up there with getting a bad flu for me.  But over time, I have learned how to minimize it.

Suffering Jet Lag in EuropeWhat Is It?

Without getting into scientific mumbo jumbo, it is mostly about your body’s internal clock.  We all have it.  We all get hungry at dinnertime, right?  That is one part empty stomach, and one part our silent brain alarm going off saying ‘time to eat’.  We have silent alarms for going to bed, waking up, etc.  Some of us have more of a precision timepiece in our noggins. Are you the person that sets the alarm clock, and usually wakes up just before it goes off in the morning?  If so, welcome to my world!  We have a finely tuned internal clock, and jet lag gives US a serious run for our money!

In a nutshell, your internal clock runs at rhythm day by day, then suddenly you speed over to Europe at 500mph, and your clock is out of whack!  West Coasters suddenly feel hungry for dinner, but it is 4:00 AM.  East Coasters suddenly wake up feeling as though they had slept all night, but it is only 1:00 AM.   You feel awake when it is time to sleep.  You want to sleep when it is time to eat.  You are dead tired when it is time to be awake.  Arrghh!!   You are miserable, and cannot enjoy your vacation.

Step Right Up!  Cure Jet Lag with this Magic Pill!

Over the years, I have seen jet lag cures come and go more times than I can count.  As chronic dieters jump on very miracle diet, I have jumped on every miracle jet lag cure, thinking THIS MAY BE THE ONE.  I’ve tried the pills, the homeopathic remedies, the melatonin cure, etc.  I even tried the “Jet Lag Diet”, in which I had to go on an insanely controlled diet for a week before flying.  The only thing these helped with was the excess weight in my wallet.

I’ve tried all the behavior changes that people would write about over the years ad nauseum.  Don’t sleep on the plane, sleep on the plane, switch to the new time zone a few days in advance, sleep when you get there, don’t sleep when you get there, etc.  Whatever I did, jet lag always kicked my derrier.

Suffering Time Zones and Jet LagThen Suddenly I Found My Cure!

No, I didn’t.  I just kinda wish I had, so I had to write that.  Seriously, though, over time I did develop a routine that helps minimize it.  It is a formula of behavior and diet (with a little pharmacy action) that is taken a little here and a little there from everything I have done over the years.  Is it perfect?  No.  But I no longer dread it.  Read on and take my advice.

Planning Your Flight

Fighting Jet Lag starts with minimizing stress (all kinds!). When I plan my flights, cost is always an issue, but I always balance it out with flight time and connections.  The more stressful the flight is, the worse my jet lag will be.  Longer flights bring more stress.  More connections equal more stress.

If you are coming from the west coast and have the luxury of being able to stop over for a day or two on the east coast, it will help tremendously.

If you can get an upgrade to Business or First Class, go for it!

If you are in coach, I strongly suggest an aisle seat as close to the front of the plane as possible.  The aisle will allow you to get up and move more easily (explained later), and the forward of the plane is not as noisy as the rear, which will reduce stress.

Order a special meal if you can.  All airlines offer special meals for people with allergies or restricted diets.  Many of them will offer you a vegetarian meal that is usually fresh fruit and veggies.  If you can, get this.  Trust me, the food you are missing out on is not only awful, but will mess with your system.  I’ll explain more later.

A Few Days Before You Leave

As I said, a big part of jet lag is stress.  The more rested you are on your arrival, the less you will suffer.    The more rested you are ON YOUR FLIGHT, the less you will suffer.  Start a few days before you leave.  Calm your life down.  Be sure to pack early.  Don’t get yourself in a last minute rush of packing.  Have your bags ready to go, by the door or in the car the day before you leave.

Eat light and eat smart.  Avoid anything heavy that will require too much energy to digest.  Think of the last few days as a couple days to purge your system.  Go high fiber, lots of liquids, etc.    This will take stress off your body during the trip.

Go to bed early and wake up early, but be sure to get lots of sleep.  If you can get yourself to bed just two hours earlier than normal and wake up just two hours earlier than normal, you will have gotten your internal clock 33% closer to Italian time if you are on the east coast, and   22% closer if you are on the west coast.  Many say it takes one full day to fully recover for every hour of time difference, so those two hours can be significant, right? DO NOT make this change at the expense of sleep.  Don’t go to bed normally, but wake up early.  You need solid sleep before you leave.

If you have an Ipod, load it up with very relaxing music to bring on the trip with you.  The kind of music you can sleep with in the background.  While you are at it, pack saline nasal spray, a travel tube of toothpaste, a toothbrush, and eye drops in your carry-on baggage.

The Day You leave

All of the above rules apply, but be sure to take it VERY EASY.  Everything should be ready.  If you can avoid going to work, that would be great.  Relax today.  Watch a movie.   Nap if you can.

Pack light, healthy snacks in your carry-on baggage.  Pretend that there will be no food served on the plane, so you will need to keep from being hungry.   This is very important.  Be sure you are aware of carry-on regulations when you choose what to pack.

Dress VERY comfortably.  Everything should be loose-fitting.  Bring a sweater, heavy socks,  and something to cover your legs, as it will be cold at times on the flight, but never sacrifice comfort.  Be sure your shoes are very comfortable walking shoes.

Before you board your flight, have a healthy meal that is easy to digest.  Don’t get a double-bacon-chili-cheeseburger, but make sure whatever you get is filling.

On Your Flight

First things first: Set your watch to the destination time zone and set your mind to it.  The moment your plane leaves, you are living your destination.

If it is night-time at the destination, set your mind to that time.  You may feel like you cannot sleep, but at least fake it.  Take the shoes off, get out that Ipod and put the relaxing music on.  Get comfortable.  Close your eyes, and meditate.  Do everything you would do if it were sleep time, even if the lights are still on.

DRINK! DRINK! DRINK!  (but not alcohol, coffee, or tea).  Keep yourself very hydrated at all times.  I always drink ginger ale if they offer it, since it is settling.  Stay away from caffeine, citrus, and acidity  that can keep you awake or upset your stomach.

REFUSE THE FOOD.  (Unless you were able to get a vegetarian meal) Let’s be honest.  Does it get any worse than airplane food?  Seriously, nothing good can come of it.  More importantly, however, airplane food is extremely high in sodium and can be unsettling for your stomach.  Keep in mind that the ‘unsettled stomach’ issue is a very big deal that can be magnified tenfold by the effects of flying.  If you don’t watch it, you will feel ‘gunky’ during the flight, and this will stress your body, making you feel significantly worse when you arrive.  I always take the tray, get the bread off of it, then give it back while asking for a little more bread.  If I got the vegetarian meal, I will take the fruit and the bread, while giving everything else back.

GET UP AND MOVE.  Besides the serious health issues that you risk by sitting in the seat too much (I won’t get into that here), it is very important that you keep your blood flowing and stretch every part of your body regularly.  I have a routine.  I get up once an hour and walk the plane for about 10 minutes.  When I get to the back of the plane, I stretch out all of my joints and muscles as best I can.  Yes, some people look at me as though I am from mars, but they don’t know what I know.

USE THE EYE DROPS AND NASAL SPRAY REGULARLY.  It is very dry in the plane, and that stresses your body.  Packing these things will be a godsend, especially later in the flight.

When it is daytime at your destination, be in day mode.  Watch a movie, take a walk, read.  If you are traveling with a partner, play some cards, and if you are feeling fatigue, give each other a little backrub.  Do everything you can to minimize the stress.  But still don’t accept the food!  If you are feeling tired, take little catnaps, but don’t allow yourself to fully sleep.

On The Layover

If you are making a connection before your final destination, what you do depends on how long your layover is.  If you have a tight connection, just get to your flight, of course.  But if you have a long layover, take advantage of the time.  Many airports have places that will give you a massage.  Do it.  If you can gain access to an airport lounge, go.  Some airports even have mini-hotels that you can use for longer layovers.  I once had a 7-hour layover in London.  They have a place called Yotel that offers little sleeping pods by the hour.  I got a solid four-hour sleep, and the most amazing shower I have ever had there.  If you have time, it will be the best layover you have ever had.

Finally, if you have time to eat during your layover, try to find light and healthy food if it is eating time at your destination.

Before You Land

Before you land at your final destination, you will want to freshen up.  Wash up as best you can.  You’re not going to feel great, but you will feel much better than you would have if you had not followed the advice listed above, and your jet lag will be somewhat mitigated, so let’s go!

When You Arrive

Get into the rhythm immediately.  If it is daytime, you may feel the urge to sleep, especially once you see a bed.  Don’t do it!  If you sleep now, you will have undone all of your preparation.  The best thing you can do is get out and experience Europe!  Sunshine and light are Anti-Jet-Lag Agents.   Walking minimizes the effects, too.  While you may find yourself in a hotel room suffering, you will feel much better once you get out.

Eat at regular times for your new location, and still keep it light and healthy for today.  You can go to bed at a decent time.  There is no need to try and stay up unreasonably late.

When you do go to sleep, you may wake up extremely early… wake-up time back home.  It is normal, but the worst thing you can do is to get up now.  Go grab that IPod, put some music on, close your eyes and meditate until the sun comes up.  You may not fully sleep, but you will most likely catnap without even realizing it.

The Silver Bullet

I’ve saved one little piece of my arsenal for last, because it may be controversial, and everyone reacts differently to various medications… Sleep Aids.  Over the years, I have tried many in by battle against jet lag.  Normal sleeping pills have never really worked for me, but they do for others.  I’ve tried Ambien, Sonata, and several others.  I would get to sleep, but would wake up in the middle of the night nonetheless.   But for many people, they completely do the trick.

One day I was telling someone what it felt like for me.  When I wake up at 2:00 AM in Europe, it isn’t that I am not tired or sleepy.  I am.  It is that my brain is running at a million miles an hour.  The brain is awake, but the body is exhausted.  I explained that it was a feeling of intense anxiety, but with nothing to be anxious about.  She asked me if I had ever tried Xanax. Before I continue, understand that I am the kind of person that really shies away from all kinds of drugs and meds, so the idea of Xanax was waaaaay outside of my box.  Still, she gave me some before a trip, and I tried it.  I ended up taking ½ of the smallest dose available, and my first night there, I slept all night.  The next morning I woke up feeling perfect.

Since then, I have gotten a prescription from my doctor, and continued to use it only for jet lag.  I’ll take that half-dose the first night.  The second night I take half that, and the third night I take half the previous night’s dose.  The fourth night I will take nothing, no matter what.  I am always worried about developing a dependency, so this is my rule.  It works for me, and I feel almost no jet lag at all every time I cross now.

Wrapping It All Up

All in all, as I said, eliminating jet lag just doesn’t happen (unless you are one of the lucky ones), but all of this will minimize it quite a bit.  Try to follow as many of the suggestions I made here, and you will easily cut your jet lag by a significant amount.  If you are one of those people that naturally doesn’t suffer jet lag, just know that the rest of us have a series of rather brutal personal insults for you 😉

Seeya on the other side of the ocean!

Slow down and let your vacation happen
In Search of the Perfect Espresso
How to Survive a Long Flight : Health
  • Thanks for the tipszzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz…..

  • I find napping a little on the flight and staying away from the alcohol is key for me.
    .-= Francesca@ Pompeii Tours´s last blog ..Pompeii Travel Tips =-.

  • I will have to try your suggestions. My last flight was absolutely awful, and for an entire month (the duration of my last trip) I just could not shack the jet lag. I have even considered taking Dramamine, as I have now discovered that I get sick from the movement of the plane when it is landing. Thankfully it’s only nausea and nothing else.

  • Toughen up, Princess Michael. Speak to me when you live down under. 🙂
    No, seriously, it was very sound advice. My biggest additional tip is to get into the rhythm of the destination time zone the minute you board the plane – not when you arrive. Change your watch, tell yourself it’s X o’clock and live by it. I also think it’s slightly easier if you arrive at night or late afternoon. On my latest trip, I was lucky enough to arrive in London in the late afternoon – made a huge difference because I slept the exhausted sleep of the traveller at pretty much the same time as the Londoners. Unfortunately, when I arrived back in Oz, it was 4:40am – so I tried (unsuccessfully) to stay awake all day. It just meant that my naps kept me awake at night, and so the vicious cycle continued for a couple of days.

  • HAHAH… You Aussies have us all beat! Actually, Los Angeles and Italy are 9 hours apart, and it takes about 17 hours to get here airpot to airport, so it wasn’t all that different than it is for you (we had a slightly shorter flight, but an extra hour of time zone change to deal with).

  • What I’m doing is to set my biological clock one week before traveling. It works on me as I never experience jetlag since then.

  • Dear Michael
    Loved the advice. We also look very carefully at the airline schedule and when thet arrive in Rome. From Oz(tralia) we love Korean or Japan air lines as they leave Brisbane at about 8.00am and arrive in Seoul or Narita at about 5.30 in th eafternoon. As htere are no flights out till the next day they give you a room included in the price and then you continue the next day leaving Asia at about 11.00am You arrive in Rome at 7.00 or 8.00 pm and by the time we get to Soriano it is near midnight and we go streaight to bed and awake ready to start enjoying yourself.

    • Oh yeah, that DOES sound nice. I used to try doing that from los Angeles (with a stop on the east coast for a night) 🙂

  • RobRob

    Author Reply

    Yep, sleeping pills when used correctly can be a life saver, just not everday! Have to admit Michael, great advice, really good plans!