If you’ve ever smelled like stale plane air while feeling physically and mentally exhausted, listen up. You may have suffered from jet lag. This is a common but miserable phenomenon that occurs when your body’s clock, or circadian rhythm, gets screwed up due to your traverse across various time zones. One thing to note is that jet lag is a different monster than something called “travel fatigue,” according to Dr. Rajkumar (Raj) Dasgupta, MD, an American Academy of Sleep Medicine spokesperson and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s medical school.
Jet lag is an actual disorder that happens when your circadian rhythm — which signals you to go to bed or wake up — is still synced up to a time zone you’re no longer in. You must cross multiple time zones over a short period of time to have it. Jet lag can leave you feeling fried in the mornings, and wired at night when you’re trying to fall asleep in a new part of the world (or when you back home from a trip). Symptoms include exhaustion, headaches, nausea, and changes in bowel movements. The more times zones you cross, the worse off you’ll be, although Dr. Dasgupta says it feels easier when you’re traveling East to West. Meanwhile, travel fatigue can happen to you even if you’re not changing time zones. Traveling is exhausting, and you might be losing extra sleep going to the airport, or indulging in the nightlife of a new city. Exploring will tucker you out — but it might not actually be disrupting your body’s clock.
Jet lag in general is a relatively new phenomenon — only as old as planes have been up in the sky. “I’m pretty sure Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone didn’t have jet lag,” Dr. Dasgupta jokes. Here’s how to avoid jet lag and make your transition to a new time zone a little less painful.
Staying hydrated is key for energy and and clarity, but travel tends to dry us out. This is bad news, especially when jet lag is also doing a number on your ability to function, says Jenny Beth Kroplin, RDN, LDN, and founder of Jenny Beth RD Nutritious Love. “Drink plenty of water before and after travel, as well as in the air,” Kroplin says. “The air within the plane can be dehydrating for the body, so it’s important to stay on top of hydration to help temper jet lag’s symptoms.” Kroplin recommends bringing a 24- or 32-ounce water bottle on the plane, and refilling it at least twice during your flight.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine
Kroplin says that both of these fun-but-not-so-healthy drinks are stimulants that can make it even harder for your body’s clock to figure out what time it is. On top of being dehydrating, they can be disruptive to your sleep patterns. “A little caffeine in the early part of the day, if you’re struggling, is fine,” Kroplin says. “But if it’s later in the day, you’d want to avoid it and try to get your body on an appropriate schedule as quickly as you can.”
In the days before you travel, you can adjust your schedule and habits to accommodate the new time zone you’ll soon be in. Try gradually bumping up your eating and bedtime routines by a few hours to ease yourself into the shift.
Soak up the sun
Dasgupta says that our circadian rhythm is influenced by the sun. “When we’re exposed to bright light, it suppresses the release of melatonin in our bodies,” he says. “As it gets dark, melatonin starts getting released, which trains our circadian rhythm.”
Although it might sound delightful to eat a huge meal on the plane, down a glass of pinot noir, and pass out, it might not help you in the long run. “It’s taxing on your body to break down a big meal, and it’s going to throw your body off going into the new time zone,” Kroplin says. “Your focus should be on getting your body to its pre-plane state, so it’s not such a shock.’
Take a melatonin supplement
If you’re really having issues falling asleep in your new city, Dasgupta says it’s okay to take a melatonin dietary supplement two hours before bedtime in your new destination to help you drift into a peaceful slumber in what is hopefully a super comfy hotel bed.
Drink some cherry juice
Nutritionist Anita Bean told The Express that drinking cherry juice or eating cherries at the right time can help your body clock adjust because cherries have some natural melatonin in them.
“Research has found that drinking tart cherry juice twice a day raises the body’s level of sleep-inducing melatonin and can increase sleep time by more than 80 minutes a night,” Bean said. “The extra melatonin may help your body fight jet lag and regulate its natural sleep cycle when you arrive in your new time zone.”
Some research shows that CBD (cannabidiol) can help with anxiety and sleep.
“If someone feels like CBD helps them stay calm and focused, it’s a homeopathic possibility someone could try to combat jet lag,” Kroplin says. “Talk to a physician to make sure there’s no interaction with medications you might be on.”
Try Barley Sugar
The Queen of England has said that barley sugar was a go-to jet lag remedy for her back when she was trotting around the globe for, um, business? She would eat it in the form of candy, which is a traditional “Victorian Christmas goodie,” according to the Smithsonian Magazine.
Kroplin says that this remedy is only a temporary fix. You might get an initial surge of energy from the carbohydrates in the sugar, but you might crash and end up “feeling sluggish and yucky on the back end.” Use this hack from the queen with caution.
Know when to see a sleep specialist
Jet lag is temporary, so most people won’t need to go to a doctor for it. But if you’re a frequent flier, and you feel like jet lag is consistently ruining your sleep schedule (and life), you might consider seeing a specialist for coping strategies.