Jet lag is a very real condition (whoever told you “it isn’t a thing” must not believe in body clocks) and it can hamper all the wild travel experiences you have planned — either by stopping you from sleeping when you should or by making you fall asleep in the middle of the day. The good news is: Jet lag is also easily manageable. The problem is that there’s so much static out there, from snake oil salesmen hawking remedies to plainly bad information, that knowing what to do to cure jet lag gets lost in the shuffle.
First and foremost, it’s best to think of jet lag as something you manage not cure. There’s no simple fix — but it is easily manageable with a few easy steps (which NASA has been nice enough to figure out for us). These steps aren’t universal and depend entirely on the direction you’re flying — as in, dealing with jet lag when flying from L.A. to London is almost completely different than dealing with it when flying from London to L.A. But still… it’s not terribly complicated.
Below are the scientifically tested and approved tactics for managing jet lag without overtaxing your body.
1. ESSENTIALS WHILE IN THE AIR
We all have a set of items we pack for the plane. Some of us bring on water bottles we can fill up, others will insist on those u-shaped neck pillows. Snacks, tablets, books are also popular choices. And all of that is okay. But the most essential carry on for any traveler is a blackout eye mask that’s also very comfortable.
There’s a very good reason that an eye mask is among the few items that flight crews hand out for free on long-haul flights — even in coach. You are going to need to sleep on that flight no matter which direction you’re flying. While the eye masks that are often free on the flight work (in theory): They’re often thin and ill-fitting. You need to sleep and getting a cozy eye mask that blocks out all light will assist in that process. Something like 1 Voice’s sleep headphones eye mask does the trick with both comfort and light blocking. Plus you can put on some soothing music to lull you to sleep (though that’s not the highlight here).
Second to the flight mask: You need to drink and we don’t mean alcohol. Maybe have a wine or a beer to take the edge off, but really you want to be throwing down as much water as possible. Staying hydrated will help your body to stay balanced and not lead to exhaustion. As with exercise: Water is your friend.
2. FLYING WEST TO EAST
Okay, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of jet lag. If you’re flying from the western reaches of the planet to the eastern reaches, you’ll need to think about resetting your circadian rhythm with sunglasses and blocking out light at certain times.
Let’s say you’re flying from Los Angeles to Moscow. Basically, you’ll be losing 10 hours on arrival — or nearly half a day. That means when you take off from L.A. at, say, 4 PM, you’re heading to a place that’s already at 2 AM the next day or basically the middle of when you’d usually be fast asleep. The flight is 12 hours long, so with the time zones, that puts you in Moscow around 2 PM the following day. So, 12 hours from 4 PM your local time is 4 AM to your body, but in your destination it’s already late afternoon with the sun racing towards the horizon. If you’ve slept for at least six or so hours on the flight, you should be okay to take on the day and go to bed around 10 PM that night, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up the next morning good to go… right?
Eh. Theoretically, this sounds like it should work. It won’t. The reason it won’t is that your circadian rhythm is not set to that time zone. Essentially, going to sleep at 10 PM in Moscow is the same as taking a nap at noon in L.A. and your body will act accordingly. You’ll need to help your brain reset. Sunglasses are your best friend. When traveling west-to-east you need to block out light from your eyes (and brain) to reset your day/night vibe. NASA figured out that if you wear your glasses for an hour or two when you land — to ease you into the day — and then for about four hours as the local day ends and turns to night, you’ll be resetting your circadian clock.
By blocking light, you’re telling your brain and body what’s up. This means you’ll be wearing sunglasses indoors and outdoors for those hours. Remember, this is about blocking light and that means artificial light too. So, yes, you’ll be the cool kid rocking sunglasses at night.
The second problem is staying asleep once you hit the sheets. Let’s say you finally pass out at midnight Moscow Time (2 PM L.A. time). If your body and brain aren’t tricked into thinking it’s the middle of the night, you’ll have a hard time staying asleep. This doesn’t mean you should sleep in your sunglasses — no matter how cool it makes you look. No, just get out that trusty blackout eyemask from your carry on and sleep in that.
Getting a great first night’s sleep is crucial to kicking jet lag. If you screw up this first night, it’ll be twice as hard the next night and even harder the night after that. While many of us use sleep aids like melatonin or weed or ambien, we really recommend trying light blocking and circadian resetting first. Wear those sunglasses, take a cold shower to lower your body temp and prepare it for sleep, and get that eye mask on. Oh, and put down the phone, tablet, or TV. The last thing you want is a massive light box blaring into your eyes and brain when the only thing it needs is pure darkness.
Repeat this process on your second day and you should be set. It will work but you gotta stick to it.
3. FLYING EAST TO WEST
So, basically take everything we said above and reverse it. Well, not everything, but a lot of it. Instead of blocking light, you need to embrace the light.
First, let’s look at your time zones. Let’s say you’re flying from Paris to Seattle. This is a whole different kettle of fish since you’ll be flying in the morning and landing a couple hours later during the same morning. It’s a ten hour flight through nine time zones. So, usually, you’ll leave around 10 AM Paris time and arrive at 11 AM Seattle time. When you take off from CDG at 10 AM local time, it’s only 1 AM in Seattle. So, in theory, you should be sleeping the whole flight as if it were a regular night and then wake up to a regular day when you arrive. Again, that’s very hard to accomplish. Mostly because you’ll have literally just woken up to get on the flight you’d theoretically need to be sleeping through.
Another big ripple in flying in this direction is that your body clock will be set nine hours ahead. So as you arrive in Seattle and get curbside by, say, noon, your body will feel like it’s 9 PM because that’s what time it will be in Paris. So, you’ll be spiraling towards bedtime. That’s what you’re fighting with this direction of travel and, in this case, sunglasses are your enemy.
So, let’s say you got a good six hours of sleep in on the flight. You’re still going to need to reset your circadian rhythm when you arrive in Seattle, otherwise, you’ll be passing out at four or five in the afternoon and waking up at two in the morning. Sunlight is your best friend here. If it’s a sunny day, get out in that light and soak in as much as you can. We can hear your protests already: Seattle, rain, cloudy skies make for getting some rays absurdly difficult. And, you’re right. The point is, you need to get UV rays onto your body and into your eyes to tell your brain that, “Hey! It’s still daytime!”
To really seal the deal with this type of jet lag, you need to set an alarm for the local sunrise and blast yourself with more of those sweet, sweet UV rays to tell your body “morning’s here, deal with it.” Because, remember, if you wake up at 6 AM in Seattle, that’s already 3 PM in Paris. And if your internal clock isn’t reset, you’ll have a long day ahead.
Overall, traveling from east to west is a little easier to deal with since you’ll be arriving around the same time that you left and you can adjust more to block out light to keep you asleep until your alarm goes off. Then it’s light city, baby.
4. FLYING NORTH TO SOUTH AND VICE VERSA
The great thing about flying in this direction is no time zone hassle. Think of flying like this more like a road trip. You’re going to be tired from the travel, but, essentially, you’re just tired from a regular day of moving. There really is no jet lag from traveling within the same one to three time zones. You may get tired from being cramped on a plane for hours and the physical movement plus all the airport walking, waiting, lugging big bags, and so forth.
So with this one, just get some good rest on the plane, relax, stay hydrated, and plan your day the same as any other day. You’ll be fine.
5. ESSENTIALS WHEN YOU’RE ON LAND
Reset your clock before you land and don’t look at the time at your departure city again. We can’t stress this enough. Conquering jet lag is about convincing your brain that the local time is where your body is. And while it might seem minor, if you’re constantly looking at the time in Paris when you’re already in Seattle, you’re making it that much harder for your brain to accept that you’re in Seattle and the sun’s up. Go all in on your time zone and shun whatever time it is wherever you were. Your brain will thank you.
Drink water. Getting drunk the first night in-country may seem like a great way to pass out to assure sleep, but you’ll pay for it. Getting woozy by jet lag screwing your body’s circadian rhythm is bad enough, adding a hangover into the mix is the least optimal way to address jet lag. So go easy until you feel like you’ve had a great night’s sleep.
Of course, this is all made inherently easier if you’re in the better cabins. Getting sleep on the plane is a lot easier with actual beds and so forth. Still, it doesn’t matter which cabin your body is in — everyone’s circadian rhythm will need to be reset. Our advice: Get it done ASAP — there’s too much living to do for you to let jet lag slow you down.