Jet lag is a physical reaction to a rapid change in time zones. It affects most travelers, including seasoned fliers such as flight attendants and pilots. Common symptoms include disorientation, irritability, fatigue, swollen limbs and eyes, headaches, cold-like symptoms and irregular bowels.
Long-haul flying can be debilitating. Dehydration, unfamiliar foods, cramped spaces, recycled air, lack of sleep, uncomfortable clothes, continual low-level noise, connections that disrupt sleep and other factors all add to the misery of jet lag, and can even make you feel jet lagged when you're just a little beat up.
Flying from Florida to Maine won't produce jet lag in the true sense, although the effects of the long flight might feel quite a bit like classic jet lag. In these cases, you're just tired from the flight, and a good night's sleep and perhaps some exercise will set things right.
On long flights — especially red-eye flights — you can lose several hours of sleep time, which can set you back considerably even without the jarring time change. If you live by a regular schedule (up at 7 a.m., in bed by 10 p.m. every night), watch out. Jet lag hits those with rigid body clocks the hardest. For parents, be sure to bring along books and toys your child can play with on his or her own, as kids are nearly immune to jet lag.
A general rule of thumb to keep in mind before any long trip is the 1:1 ratio: allow yourself one day to recover for every hour of time difference that you experience. So for Californians visiting the Big Apple, give yourself at least three days to fully adjust to the new time zone.
Before you go
Treat your body well before you fly. Exercise, sleep well, stay hydrated and stay sober. The worst thing you can do is get on a long-haul flight with a hangover.
Some travelers like to exercise before they go to the airport. (This can actually help you sleep better on the plane.) Once you're at the airport, avoid the escalators and moving sidewalks. Instead, walk and take the stairs on the way to your check-in area and gate connections. You can even get a workout in at some airports; see Pump up your layover for tips.
Adjust your habits before you leave. If you are traveling from the East to the West Coast of the U.S., you're facing a three-hour time change and you should try to adjust your internal clock. Three or four days before you leave, start to stay up a little later than usual, and sleep in a little longer. That way, if you become accustomed to falling asleep at 1 a.m. and waking up at 9 a.m. on the East Coast, it will be the same as falling asleep at 10 p.m. and waking up at 6 a.m. on the West Coast. Traveling west to east, do the opposite: get up and go to bed earlier.
Wearing two watches, one set to the current time, and one to the time at your destination, can help you prepare yourself mentally for the coming time change. Many business travelers also use this tactic to stay in touch with what's happening back at the office.
During the flight
Perhaps the most effective way to combat jet lag while in flight is to treat your body well. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated fluids. Don't be afraid to ask your flight attendant for extra water.
Get up out of your seat at regular intervals to walk and stretch. You can also do exercises like toe raises, isometric exercises, stomach crunches and shoulder shrugs right in your seat. This keeps your blood flowing and prevents it from pooling at your extremities, a common phenomenon in pressurized cabins.
Other tips: Get up to wash your face, brush your teeth or just stand up for several minutes. Wear loose-fitting clothing that breathes. Bring a neck pillow, eye mask, ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones — these can be invaluable on red-eye flights. Also, avoid any snug footwear (high heels or wingtips); it is quite possible that your feet will swell in transit, making your post-flight trek to baggage claim a nightmare.
To help you get more rest in flight, see our tips for sleeping on planes.
Medications and vitamins
Melatonin is a chemical in the body that helps regulate sleep cycles. It can be taken in pill form, and many travelers swear by it for fighting jet lag. However, as popular as melatonin is, it's also controversial. Studies have indicated that incorrect melatonin usage can make you feel even more fatigued, so be sure to read all instructions and consult your physician before taking the product.
One widely available homeopathic remedy is the aptly named No-Jet-Lag. The company claims the chewable tablets address all jet lag symptoms, and offers testimonials from flight attendants and other frequent fliers. A bag of dried cherries is another natural remedy that some travelers use. In 2007, The New York Times reported that dried cherries, which contain melatonin, may help alleviate jet lag. Some travelers use sleeping pills, antihistamines and motion sickness pills to induce sleep on planes, at hotels, in airports and on layovers. While they work for some, others are left feeling miserably groggy. For more information, see Medications for travel, and consult your doctor before taking any medication.
If all else fails, try an alternate therapy. Light therapy has become a popular treatment for jet lag. At its heart, jet lag means you're out of step with the rising and setting of the sun. Unfortunately, the jury's still out on the effectiveness of this. The debate centers on precisely what kind of light is best — natural, artificial, bright or dim. Some researchers and enthusiasts recommend simply spending 15 to 20 minutes in direct sunlight without sunglasses as soon as possible after landing.
An interesting resource for light therapy, BodyClock.com, comes from Outside In, a commercial light therapy outfit. There's also a light therapy app for smartphones, Jet Lag Fighter, which recommends when to seek and avoid light based on your travel dates and destination. If you have success with these methods, let us know on our message boards.
The so-called "jet-lag diet," an alternation of feasting and fasting for three days leading up to a long-haul flight, was very popular a few years back. The military tested the diet and concluded, basically, that it is bunk. Nonetheless, Ronald and Nancy Reagan used it during their White House days, and some travelers still do. If you'd like to try it out for yourself, check out the diet regimen.
Restrict your diet to foods that are easily digested, like those that are relatively high in fiber but not too rich. If you're trying to stay awake in order to get your body in step with the local time zone, caffeine can be useful — but don't go overboard. While it might seem tempting to guzzle several cups of coffee when your eyelids begin to droop, you could end up wide awake at 1 a.m. Be sure to implement all dietary changes in moderation.