Traveling is exhausting enough on its own, but traveling across time zones is a whole other level of exhaustion.
If you've ever flown internationally or even across the country you know the feeling: the extreme urge to take an afternoon nap, lack of hunger at typical mealtimes (but sometimes waking up hungry in the night) or an overall depressed appetite, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, irritability, headaches, and of course - daytime exhaustion.
Jet lag comes from your body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, being in sync with your original time zone. Our ancestors didn't have airplanes, so it's a relatively new phenomenon due to the "unnatural" state of your body traveling faster than your body's rhythm can adjust.
There's good news: it's temporary, but more than that, it's preventable! Follow this guide to get ahead of jet lag before it even starts.
The Health Costs of Jet Lag
Before we get started, let's talk about why you'd want to avoid jet lag (besides the obvious fact that it's an unpleasant way to start a trip).
A trip to Europe every now and then won't likely do much harm, but scientists have studied shift workers and frequent travelers (like pilots and flight attendants) to understand the long-term consequences of frequently disrupting the circadian rhythm. The results aren't pretty.
Shift workers and travelers (who are subject to essentially the same stressors) have higher risks of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, some cancers, and depression. (1)
Chronic jet lag also produces cognitive decline, such as memory loss. (2) Those who fly often have higher levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) than those who do not.
If you fly regularly, it's a good idea to do everything you can to soften the blow to your body.
Melatonin for Jet Lag
Melatonin, the hormone your body produces naturally when it's time to go to sleep, can be taken as a supplement. When taken at the right time, it can trick your body into thinking it's your usual sleep time.
It's meant for short-term use only and not to be used in place of sleep aids for serious conditions, but for the purpose of beating jet lag, it can be an important piece of the puzzle. It should be used only for eastward travel (we'll cover what to do for westward travel later), and is especially effective in improving recovery for more than 5 time zones.
The recommended dose of melatonin is 0.5 mg, although taking 5 mg can help one fall asleep faster and sleep more deeply. You should avoid using more than 5 mg. (3)
We recommend using melatonin strategically for a short period of time (a few days), both in preparation for your new time zone and when you arrive.
Best Jet Lag Remedy
At Why Not Natural, we have a tried, tested, and true process for avoiding jet lag before it starts. The process below assumes you're traveling eastward, but we discuss westward travel further in this article.
Before your trip, start moving your bedtime earlier
Your body can realistically adjust up to one hour per day (this also means if you travel 7 time zones away, it will take a full week to adjust!). With that in mind, start moving your bedtime earlier at least the same amount of days as you the difference in time zones (for example, 5 hours=5 days).
A more gradual transition would be 15 minutes per day, if you're willing to commit to your schedule change that far in advance! Using this method, you'd need to begin 20 days before your trip for a 5-hour difference, and 28 days for a 7-hour difference (number of days=4 x the difference in time zones).
Make sure you're also adjusting your wake-up times accordingly. It may not be realistic to fully transition your bedtime (a 3 PM bedtime isn't compatible with every schedule!) but do the best you can - every hour you can go to bed and wake up earlier is one less day of jet lag.
Move your mealtimes
One of the worst parts about jet-lag: waking up hungry in the middle of the night. Don't forget to shift when you eat, too!
Try to eat a protein-rich breakfast as soon as you wake up - so, progressively earlier as your sleep and wake times shift. Eat a heavier lunch and a light dinner as early as you can manage, and try to stop eating a few hours before you go to bed.
When you arrive in your new destination, if you mealtimes aren't fully shifted in advance, try to eat as early as possible with plenty of protein included! Sunlight is the biggest signal to your body that it's in a new time zone, but food is very important, too.
Use hormone hacks to your advantage
Here are a few of the methods you can use to trick our body into thinking it's in a new time zone before departure:
- Strategic melatonin use. As your bedtime gets earlier, you may struggle to fall asleep. If one night finds you tossing and turning, try taking a small dose of melatonin the next night, around 30 minutes before going to bed to fool your body into thinking it's sundown.
- Blue light blocking glasses. You should start wearing them 2 hours before bedtime - tinted orange glasses are far more effective than transparent (even the best transparent blue light blocking glasses block less than 50% of blue light, compared with tinted which are capable of blocking 100%). Bonus points if you can avoid screens during this period, too.
- Eye mask. It's important that, considering the sun will likely be up when you're going to bed, you quickly wear an eye mask to block out any light and encourage melatonin production.
- Supplements early in the morning. We recommend in particular that you take vitamin D3-K2 and a B complex at your new wakeup time, to help your hormones shift to the new schedule.
- Blue light early in the morning and sun first thing. While screens aren't usually a good idea to wake up to, it might be a good idea to get some artificial light in this case if you're waking up before sunrise. As soon as the sun's up, try to get outside!
- Avoid caffeine. Calculate 3:00 PM in your soon-to-be-new timezone, and make that your new caffeine cutoff to make the earlier bedtimes easier. (Don't worry- you'll be up early enough to get an extra cup of coffee or tea in!).
Using these hacks, you should be able to easily prevent jet lag. Don't worry if you can't sleep on the plane (it's common)! Try wearing your blue light blocking glasses so you don't undo your hard work, stay hydrated, and relax.
Beating Jet Lag When You Arrive
When you arrive, you'll probably want a nap. Make sure you wake up no later than 3:00 PM in your new time zone, and plan on an early bedtime.
If you arrive before 5:00 AM in your city of departure, you'll need those blue light blockers until that time! Your body will register the sunshine as a late sunset rather than an earlier sunrise. Try to stay indoors as much as possible until it's 5:00 AM back home (this is a great time to get that nap in!).
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! You'll be dehydrated from the travel, and staying hydrated helps the body adjust.
And of course, immediately adjust to the new mealtimes. Try to phase out naps as much as possible.
Have a great trip!
It's a lot easier traveling westward than eastward.
Many people don't even experience jet lag traveling in this direction, but the best idea is just to do the advice above in reverse - move your bedtimes and mealtimes incrementally later.
Try to stay awake on the plane when traveling to the west and just think of it as a really long day!