How to Prevent Jet Lag

Jet lag and travel often go hand in hand, but you can take steps to lessen that jet-lagged feeling. Here’s how.

Most people who travel long distances across time zones experience jet lag, a temporary sleep disorder that occurs when your body’s “biological clock” gets out of whack.

Randall Foster, president and CEO of Vumii, a global security and surveillance company based in Atlanta, knows firsthand what it’s like to be jet-lagged. His work has him crossing multiple time zones on a regular basis. “I suddenly get an overwhelming feeling of being tired,” says Foster, describing what jet lag feels like to him. “I find I want to sleep when I can’t and I am awake when I should be sleeping.”

Fatigue coupled with difficulty sleeping are the hallmark symptoms of being jet lagged. Other symptoms of jet lag may include:

  • Impaired mental and physical functioning
  • Headache and digestive problems
  • Low tolerance to alcohol

If you are going to be away for two days or less, do not try to adjust to the new time zone. Instead, try to maintain your home sleep schedule. However, if you will be away for several days, it is best to adapt to the local schedule as soon as possible.

Jet Lag Prevention

Here are some tips to help minimize jet lag.

Before you leave:
  • Depart well-rested. Get plenty of sleep before your trip so that your body is better able to cope with the time change.
  • Modify your sleep schedule. If you are traveling east, go to bed earlier for a couple of nights before you leave. If you are traveling west, go to bed a little later. “If I am going farther than six or seven hours [of time difference], I will try to wake up earlier in the States before I leave,” says Fosters. “I may wake up at 4 a.m. for a few days.
  • Try melatonin. Melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone produced by the body to regulate your internal clock. When taken properly, it may reduce jet lag. “Most sleep specialists agree that melatonin is a good therapy for jet lag,” says David Schulman, MD, MPH, chief of pulmonary and critical care medicine at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Dr. Schulman recommends travelers start taking melatonin three days prior to their trip and stay on it until their body adjusts to the new time zone.
  • Practice light therapy. A few days before your trip, start exposing your body to light at times you will be awake at your destination and minimize light exposure during the times you will need to sleep while away.
On your way to your destination:
  • Adjust your watch. Set your watch to the time zone of your destination as soon as you begin your trip and don’t think about what time it is at home.
  • Monitor your sleep. Sleep on the plane only if it will be morning when you arrive at your destination. If it will be late afternoon or early evening when you land, try to not sleep so that you will be able to go to sleep at the appropriate time.
  • Get comfortable. Wear comfortable clothes and get up and move around as much as possible.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink water during the trip to ward off the dehydrating effect of air travel, and avoid alcohol and caffeine, which can make dehydration worse and interfere with sleep.
At your destination:
  • Stay awake. If you arrive in the morning and you must sleep, nap for only a few hours in the morning or early afternoon.
  • Get outside. Sunlight will help your body adjust to the new time zone.
  • Limit alcohol. Jet lag can impair your mental functioning. Add alcohol to the mix and the likelihood of making bad decisions increases, says Foster.
  • Continue to take melatonin. Schulman recommends staying on melatonin until your body adjusts to the new time zone, but no longer than four or five days after arrival. And stop taking melatonin two or three days before you return home, he says.
  • Exercise. Maintain your regular exercise routine, but don’t exercise close to bedtime.
  • Listen to your body. Jet lag can cause exhaustion. “If your body starts to shut down because of exhaustion, sleep so you don’t endanger yourself,” says Foster. “It’s okay to fight jet lag, but not exhaustion.”

Jet lag does not have to hold you back if you take steps to minimize its effect before and during your trip. “Be conscious of it while you are traveling, but keep in mind that it is going to pass,” says Foster. “After a couple of days, your body is going to adjust.”

By Hedy Marks, MPH