Jet lag is the biggest curse in travel. In fact, jet lag was born on May 20, 1927—when pilot Charles Lindbergh flew the world’s first trans-atlantic flight from New York to Paris—and 93 years later, we still don’t have a cure. Furthermore, jet lag is worse when you return home from vacation. We all want to know how to beat jet lag.
If you’re like me and millions of Americans who fly transatlantic and transpacific routes, you’ll endure jet lag—but again it will be worse when you return home, especially if you’re flying east. In fact, Americans are affected by jet lag the most when they’re flying east to the U.S from countries like Asia, Middle East, India, Hawaii and Maldives. Why? Flying east across time zones shortens the day, while flying west lengthens them. This means your internal body clock, or circadian rhythm, needs more time to catch up and adjust with the hours you lost.
Similarly, jet lag can be brutal flying to Europe from the U.S., especially for those on the west coast, but I find it just as hard when you’re coming back home (and I’ll go into more detail with my theory below). You’ll think you’ve acclimated, but two days later, you’ll wake up suddenly at 2 am, wondering what the hell went wrong. It’s not your fault. Jet lag is sneaky. Your circadian rhythm is simply “off” and needs time to adjust.
What exactly is circadian rhythm and why does it matter?
Circadian rhythm is how your body responds to light, temperature, physical activities and sleep in a 24-hour cycle, and it’s given a proper beating when you travel long distances across time zones. If circadian rhythm was a superhero, its biggest adversary would be desynchronosis (the medical term for jet lag), which only occurs when your circadian rhythm is disrupted. I’ve noticed that more experts are discussing circadian rhythm now more than ever before (I’ve been traveling for some 20 years), because newer studies are being published.
Simply put, to recover from jet lag, we need to help our bodies adjust to new timezones.
Jet lag is a lot easier to handle if you’re flying west (e.g: from California or Chicago to Hawaii or Asia). If you’re not so sure about the best ways to prevent jet lag, here are some tips.
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How to beat jet lag — and cope with it
Whenever I travel to Asia or Europe, I will only take overnight flights, and you should, too. You want your body to be in sync with the new time zones, and if you take an overnight flight, and after you sleep on the plane, you’ll likely land in the early morning in Asia and early afternoon in Europe (this varies depending on the destination). At this point, jet lag won’t even kick in until early evening, so you won’t too much of a fight and can sync your circadian rhythm better.
2. Drink plenty of water.
With jet lag, you’ll feel super sluggish and sleepy. Water is obviously hydrating, and one of the reasons you may feel sluggish and sleepy is because you’re dehydrated from your long flight. I’ve mentioned in the past, water with electrolytes is something I always pack in my luggage, because it offers faster hydration. Caffeine will also help you stay up throughout the day, but don’t mess with it at night.
3. Seek sun.
Our brains register sunlight to help anchor our body’s circadian rhythm (and overall health). Seek sunlight so your brain knows there is light and it is day time. After sunset, your body then knows it’s time to sleep. Basically, when you arrive at your hotel, don’t just stay indoors and do work. Make sure you get sunlight.
4. Take a pill.
Sometimes supplements can help you sleep well. Melatonin works for many people. It’s a natural hormone that tells your brain it’s time to go to sleep.
Ambien does the same (Well, to a degree. Ambien shuts down your central nervous system, so your brain is like “you better go to sleep now“). I will always take Ambien on a flight or when I return home. It’s extremely safe if you go to bed rather than continue to work until Ambien kicks in (the reason why you see a lot of people, like Elon Musk, apologize for “Ambien tweeting.” I, too, am guilty!).
For jet lag, there are other small hacks, like timing your meals on airplanes, hitting the gym, using facial spray, etc, but they’re not as effective as the four mentioned.
I believe jet lag hits you harder after you return home (versus when you fly to a new country) because your body experiences massive amounts of adrenaline and excitement when you go to a new country, whether for work or leisure. Adrenaline is a natural hormone that increases blood circulation, metabolism, strength, performance and heightened awareness. It basically gives you that “rush.” We all have adrenaline when we travel to a new place, so it’s easier to fend jet lag.
When we return home, however, we don’t experience that adrenaline that gives us that “rush,” and we’re bummed about having to go back to work, ending our vacation and getting on with our lives. Adrenaline is sort of like a natural caffeine, and without that natural caffeine on our return home, we’re extra helpless fighting jet lag.
So when science says jet lag affects you more flying east across time zones, I personally believe there’s a double whammy here with the adrenaline, which is why flying home from Hawaii, Tahiti, Asia and even LA if you live in New England feels a lot harder than returning home from Europe.
Best ways to cope with jet lag after you come back home.
Here are the ways to beat jet lag after you return home. Notice how I say “beat” rather than “avoid” because everyone suffers jet lag. Unless you’re a vampire, you will have trouble sleeping and waking up at odd hours to some degree for a few days. In fact, jet lag can last 2-3 days, and for some people I know, up to a week.
1. Try an app.
There’s a couple of apps designed specifically for jet lag, like Timeshifter, which is tailored specifically to the user. It’s cool because it shows you the best times to avoid/seek daylight, take in caffeine, nap and sleep in other time zones and when you return. Timeshifter was developed by a scientist from Harvard and NASA’s medical director, so you know you’re in good hands.
2. Don’t fight it.
Listen. If you go to bed at 10 pm, and you wake up at 4 am due to jet lag, don’t fight it. This is your circadian rhythm getting back in sync. Your body clock takes time to acclimate, and this can take a few days. It’s not fun at all but I’ve learned the best way to deal with it is to ride it out.
When I come home from a trip in Asia, I will most certainly wake up at odd hours a day or two after the trip. I’d say 4 and 5 am are common. So I’ll lay in bed a little while, then get up and start my day. I actually love being up on the street in NYC when everyone else is still sleeping. I’ll do my work, drink tons of green tea, do some light workout like yoga, do more work, then start getting really sleep around 3 pm. This is when you have to distract yourself for the rest of the day. I’ll do more work until my brain is like “see ya.” So I’ll binge watch TV, I’ll cook something light and easy, and I’ll pass out around 9 pm or 10 pm to get back into my normal schedule. For me, it works better than taking light naps throughout the day. Everyone is different, of course, so if taking a tiny nap during the day helps you, by all means. Go nuts.
Just give yourself time to adjust.
3. Don’t do anything weird your body won’t recognize.
You want your circadian rhythm to know you’re back home and getting into your normal schedule, so don’t send it the wrong signal. For instance, on normal days, I work, go to the gym, walk my dog, eat healthy. So the last thing I want to do when I get home is to not-work, not work out, not walk my dog and eat poorly. My body may still think I’m on vacation.
Honestly, this is so important for jet lag in general. After a long flight, where cabin air has very little oxygen, your body will thank you for replenishing it with water. You have to hydrate. You will feel weird and achy if you don’t. Dehydration is brutal, and the symptoms are not fun. If you’re not a fan of water, try coconut water or gatorade for the electrolytes.
5. Light therapy.
As I mentioned earlier, natural light is important for circadian rhythm. So, even if there is little sunlight in cold winter days here in NYC, I will always make a point to stare directly at the sun behind all those clouds. This is to signal to my circadian rhythm.
Also, you can now buy lamps that mimic the sun. I wrote about the Ottlight Command LED Desk Lamp in my story on the best tech products under $100. It has five brightness settings and three color temperature modes using ClearSun LED illumination, which reduces eyestrain up to 51%, according to the company, and the light is designed to be made “close to the spectral output of the sun.” It’s like having natural light inside your apartment or house.
For more information on how to beat jet lag, Tuck has a great, comprehensive list of things to do.
Do you have any great jet lag tips? Feel free to leave them in the comments below.
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