Jet-lag tips and tricks

1:41 pm work

During my recent adventures in San Francisco, I told a number of people about my jet-lag “cure”, and they found it sufficiently interesting I thought I would share.

On trans-Atlantic flights, you typically take off late morning and arrive early afternoon  when traveling East to West, or you take off in the afternoon & land in the early morning when traveling West to East. There are two steps to dealing with major (>= 6 hours time-zone difference) jet-lag: what you do in the plane, and what you do when you arrive.

For me, when I’m traveling East to West, I don’t sleep much on the plane. I watch movies, get up & walk around, chat to the other people hanging around outside the toilets, read – whatever helps pass the time. This means that when I arrive at my destination, I’m tired – my body thinks that it’s late night and I’ve been awake all day. But in reality, it’s 2pm.

By the time you get out of the airport, get to your hotel and check in, it’s probably between 2pm and 4pm. If you go to sleep now, the chances are that you will sleep for several hours, then go out to eat a late dinner, and have difficulty getting to sleep for the night, resulting in tiredness early the following day. This is the vicious circle of jet-lag.

To break the cycle, here’s where my cure kicks in: get out of your hotel. Your body uses sunlight to set its biological clock, so by getting out in the daylight, you are helping your body to adjust to the new day and night pattern. Getting outside during the day suppresses the natural production of melatonin, which helps put you to sleep. It also stimulates the production of vitamin D, helping combat illness (another consequence of jet-lag).

The absolute best way to get out and get over jet-lag is to get some exercise. Go on a cycling tour of the city, or go running. Exercise stimulates the production of endorphines, making you feel good, and more importantly, after exercise you typically do not want to go to sleep. And a few hours later, when you do go to sleep, you sleep more soundly.

If you do an hour or two of outdoor exercise after arriving at your destination, then go back to your hotel and shower/bathe, go out for a bite around 7pm, and then get to bed at an early but reasonable 10pm, you should be able to have a good night’s sleep, and function all day the day after. I typically wake up very early the first couple of mornings when I travel to the States – which gives me an opportunity to (you guessed it) go for an early morning jog before getting ready to go where I have to be.

When traveling from West to East, the problem is similar, but the lag is in the other direction – you may have a hard time waking your brain in the morning when you travel 6 or more hours back in time.

The same trick works. Avoid excessive sleep in the plane – a couple of hours nap is about all I ever manage overnight on these flights. When you arrive, get outside and moving about for the afternoon. I love to go with the kids to the park when I come back from trips and run them (and myself) ragged with a football, or go for a walk with the family – anything to get us out of the house. To help me get to sleep, as well as skipping most of the previous night in the plane, I take a melatonin pill (purchased in Safeways while in the US, not on sale in Europe for some reason) to help me to get to sleep at the right time. And the following morning, when I have the most difficulty waking up my brain, I force myself with difficulty to put on a pair of trainers and go for a 45 minute jog.

And that’s all there is to it! Typically, the day I arrive I suffer, the day after I can function, but am not 100%, and the the day after that, I am fully adjusted to my new time zone.

Does anyone have any other hints & tips to overcome jet-lag? Comments open!

10 Responses

  1. Pedro Says:

    Do you usually go running on the morning? I dont usually fly but I’m planning to jog right after waking up when in summer.. so if you have a similar experience I would like to know, especially how many hours do you sleep and how difficult is for you to wake up and go running..

    Anyhow good tips for when I’ll fly..

  2. Anonymous Says:

    My advice work for both way trips:

    At the airport, before departure, drink 3 or 4 beers, enough to start feeling a bit drunk. The last beer should be drunk just before boarding.

    Inside the plane, when you sit down, you start to feel a bit drunk and you can sleep easily for 4-5 hours.

    When you arrive at your destination you have rested enough to directly adjust to the destination “normal” schedule.

  3. Olivier Says:

    I totally agree on the tricks for the westwards journey. That said, when I go eastwards, I try to sleep as much as I can on the plane. So when I arrive in Europe, I wake up and its the morning and my body thinks its the morning. And the jet lag is dead already (or almost).

  4. Dave Neary Says:

    I don’t like anonymous comments, but this one was too good to delete.


  5. Dave Neary Says:

    I run in the morning on the weekend, usually. During the week, we have kids to get ready for school who are up already by 7am, so not so much – but I have gone running at 6am during the week previously, and it’s set me up for the day. I make an exception when flying east, even if it’s a weekday I’ll try to get out for a short run.


  6. Michael Says:

    I do not often move outside Europe, but the few time I did, what helped me was coffee. I usually keep my cafeine consumption quite low, in order to have it being fully effective when I take it. So I try to recalibrate myself forcefully by taking some drink 10 to 6h before the time I plan to go to bed ( mostly in the plane ). And I force myself to wake up early and eat regularly, and move, as you do.

  7. philn Says:

    ahaha good idea the drunk-lag :)

    I agree with your tips Dave.

  8. Thomas Says:

    Eating at correct times usually helps me adjust. And drinking a pint before takeoff also proved efficient a few times.

    One thing that for me proved *bad* for adjusting was taking a nap in late afternoon. By contrast, timed short nap after lunch was fine, and helped compensate lack of sleep.

  9. Andrew Flegg Says:

    The best I’ve found for travelling back east (also from San Francisco) is to move my watch forward 2 hours, every 2 hours.

    That means when I’m trying to get as much sleep as possible, I’ll look at my watch when half-asleep and be convinced it’s getting progressively later.

    The only thing which really breaks it is if your watch (and your mind) thinks it’s 2am and when going to the toilet you catch some bright sunshine through a crack in a window.

  10. Claudio Says:

    I guess that the experience is way different when crossing the atlantic to end up in South America. Not sleeping would be terrible for 21 hours on the move.

    I usually try to flight in the evening, no matter the direction and try to get a normal sleep on the plane. That works fine for me and don’t really know of jetlags.